Book Reviews

Schol­ar­ship or Sophistry ? Bernard Lewis and the New Orientalism

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M. Shahid Alam

What Went Wrong

It would appear from the ful­some praise heaped by main­stream review­ers on Bernard Lewis’s most recent and well-timed book, What Went Wrong ? West­ern Impact and Mid­dle East­ern Response (Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2002), that the demand for Ori­en­tal­ism has reached a new peak. Amer­i­ca’s search for new ene­mies that began soon after the end of the Cold War very quick­ly res­ur­rect­ed the ghost of an old, though now decrepit, ene­my, Islam. Slow­ly but sure­ly, this revived the sag­ging for­tunes of Ori­en­tal­ism, so that it speaks again with the tre­ble voice of authority.

The main­stream review­ers describe Bernard Lewis as the doyen of Mid­dle East­ern stud­ies,” the father” of Islam­ic stud­ies, “[a]rguably the West­’s most dis­tin­guished schol­ar on the Mid­dle East,” and “[a] Sage for the Age.” It would appear that Lewis is still the reign­ing monarch of Ori­en­tal­ism, as he was some twen­ty-five years back when Edward Said, in his Ori­en­tal­ism, dis­sect­ed and exposed the inten­tions, modal­i­ties, decep­tions, and impe­ri­al­ist con­nec­tions of this ide­o­log­i­cal enter­prise. This Ori­en­tal­ist tiger has not changed his stripes over the fifty-odd years that he has been hon­ing his skills. Now at the end of his long career — only coin­ci­den­tal­ly, also the peak — he presents the sum­ma­tion, the quin­tes­sence of his schol­ar­ship and wis­dom on Islam and the Mid­dle East, gath­ered, com­pressed in the pages of this slim book that sets out to explain what went wrong with Islam­ic his­to­ry, and that has so mes­mer­ized review­ers on the right.

Who Is Bernard Lewis ? 

We will return to the book in a moment, but before that, we need to step back some twen­ty-five years and exam­ine how Edward Said, in Ori­en­tal­ism, has described this Ori­en­tal­ist tiger’s stripes and his cun­ning ploys at con­ceal­ment. Edward Said gets to the nub of Lewis’s Ori­en­tal­ist project when he writes that his work pur­ports to be lib­er­al objec­tive schol­ar­ship but is in real­i­ty very close to being pro­pa­gan­da against his sub­ject mate­r­i­al.” Lewis’s work is aggres­sive­ly ide­o­log­i­cal.” He has ded­i­cat­ed his entire career, span­ning more than five decades, to a project to debunk, to whit­tle down, and to dis­cred­it the Arabs and Islam.” Said writes :

The core of Lewis’s ide­ol­o­gy about Islam is that it nev­er changes, and his whole mis­sion is to inform con­ser­v­a­tive seg­ments of the Jew­ish read­ing pub­lic, and any­one else who cares to lis­ten, that any polit­i­cal, his­tor­i­cal, and schol­ar­ly account of Mus­lims must begin and end with the fact that Mus­lims are Muslims.

Although Lewis’s objec­tives are omi­nous, his meth­ods are quite sub­tle ; he prefers to work by sug­ges­tion and insin­u­a­tion.” In order to dis­arm his read­ers and win their trust and admi­ra­tion, he deliv­ers fre­quent ser­mons on the objec­tiv­i­ty, the fair­ness, the impar­tial­i­ty of a real his­to­ri­an.” This is only a cov­er, a cam­ou­flage, for his polit­i­cal pro­pa­gan­da. Once he is seat­ed on his high Ori­en­tal­ist perch, he goes about clev­er­ly insin­u­at­ing how Islam is defi­cient in and opposed to uni­ver­sal val­ues, which, of course, always orig­i­nate in the West. It is because of this defi­cien­cy in val­ues that Arabs have trou­ble accept­ing a demo­c­ra­t­ic Israel — it is always demo­c­ra­t­ic” Israel. Lewis can write objec­tive­ly” about the Arab’s ingrained” oppo­si­tion to Israel with­out ever telling his read­ers that Israel is an impe­ri­al­ist cre­ation, and an expan­sion­ist, colo­nial-set­tler state that was found­ed on ter­ror, wars, and eth­nic cleans­ing. Lewis’s work on Islam rep­re­sents the cul­mi­na­tion of Ori­en­tal­ism as a dog­ma that not only degrades its sub­ject mat­ter but also blinds its practitioners.”

Lewis’s schol­ar­ly mask slips off rather abrupt­ly when he appears on tele­vi­sion, a feat that he accom­plish­es with pre­dictable reg­u­lar­i­ty. Once he is on the air, his polem­i­cal self, the Ori­en­tal­ist crouch­ing tiger, takes over, all his ser­mons about objec­tiv­i­ty for­got­ten, and then he does not shrink from dis­play­ing his sneer­ing con­tempt for the Arabs and Mus­lims more gen­er­al­ly, his blind par­ti­san­ship for Israel, or his bristling hos­til­i­ty toward Iran. One recent exam­ple will suf­fice here. In a PBS inter­view broad­cast on 16 April 2002, host­ed by Char­lie Rose, he offered this gem : Ask­ing Arafat to give up ter­ror­ism would be like ask­ing Tiger to give up golf.” That is a state­ment whose mali­cious intent and vin­dic­tive mean­ness might have been excus­able if it came from an offi­cial Israeli spokesman.

After this back­ground check, do we real­ly want to hear from this sage” about what went wrong” with Islam­ic soci­eties ; why, after near­ly a thou­sand years of expan­sive pow­er and world lead­er­ship in many branch­es of the arts and sci­ences, they began to lose their ?lan, their mil­i­tary advan­tage, and their cre­ativ­i­ty and, start­ing in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, capit­u­lat­ed to their his­tor­i­cal adver­sary, the West ? And, though Islam­ic soci­eties have regained their polit­i­cal inde­pen­dence, why has their eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al decline proved so dif­fi­cult to reverse ? Yet, although our stom­achs turn at the prospect, we must sam­ple the gru­el Lewis offers, taste it, and ana­lyze it, if only to iden­ti­fy the tox­ins that it con­tains and that have poi­soned far too many West­ern minds for more than fifty years.

Where is the Context ?

What went wrong with the Islam­ic soci­eties ? When this ques­tion is asked by our doyen of Mid­dle East­ern stud­ies,” espe­cial­ly when it is asked right after the attacks of 11 Sep­tem­ber, it is hard not to notice that this man­ner of fram­ing the prob­lem of the eclipse of Islam­ic soci­eties by the West is loaded with bias­es, val­ue judg­ments, and pre­con­cep­tions, and even con­tains its own answer. There are two sets of wrongs” in What Went Wrong ? The first con­sists of wrongs,” devi­a­tions from what is just and good, that we con­front in con­tem­po­rary Islam­ic soci­eties. Lewis undoubt­ed­ly has in mind a whole slew of prob­lems, includ­ing the polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, and cul­tur­al fail­ings of the Islam­ic world. In addi­tion, this ques­tion seeks to dis­cov­er deep­er wrongs,” devi­a­tions from what is just and good that are pri­or to and at the root of the present wrongs.” Lewis is con­cerned pri­mar­i­ly with this sec­ond set of wrongs.”

The first prob­lem one encoun­ters in Lewis’s nar­ra­tive of Mid­dle East­ern decline is the absence of any con­text. He seeks to cre­ate the impres­sion that the fail­ure of Islam to catch up with the accel­er­at­ing pace of changes in West­ern Europe is a prob­lem spe­cif­ic to this region ; there is no attempt to locate this prob­lem in a glob­al con­text. This exclu­sive Mid­dle East­ern focus reveals to all but the blink­ered the mala fides of What Went Wrong ? Lewis can­not hide behind pious claims that a his­to­ri­an’s loy­al­ties may well influ­ence his choice of sub­ject of research ; they should not influ­ence his treat­ment of it.” His exclu­sive focus on the decline of the Mid­dle East is not legit­i­mate pre­cise­ly because it is designed to — and it unavoid­ably must — influ­ence his treat­ment of it.”

Once West­ern Europe began to make the tran­si­tion from a feu­dal-agrar­i­an to a cap­i­tal­ist-indus­tri­al soci­ety, start­ing in the six­teenth cen­tu­ry, the mil­len­ni­al bal­ance of pow­er among the world’s major civ­i­liza­tions shift­ed inex­orably in favor of West­ern Europe. A soci­ety that was shift­ing to a cap­i­tal­ist-indus­tri­al base, capa­ble of cumu­la­tive growth, com­mand­ed greater social pow­er than slow-grow­ing soci­eties still oper­at­ing on feu­dal-agrar­i­an foun­da­tions. Under the cir­cum­stances, it was unlike­ly that non-West­ern soci­eties could simul­ta­ne­ous­ly alter the foun­da­tions of their soci­eties while also fend­ing off attacks from West­ern states whose social pow­er was expand­ing at an ever-increas­ing rate. Even as these feu­dal-agrar­i­an soci­eties sought to reor­ga­nize their economies and insti­tu­tions, West­ern onslaughts against them deep­ened, and this made their reor­ga­ni­za­tion increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult. It is scarce­ly sur­pris­ing that the grow­ing asym­me­try between the two sides even­tu­al­ly led to the eclipse, decline, or sub­ju­ga­tion of near­ly all non-West­ern societies.

While Lewis stu­dious­ly avoids any ref­er­ence to this dis­e­qual­iz­ing dynam­ic, anoth­er West­ern his­to­ri­an of Islam not dri­ven by a com­pul­sion to debunk, to whit­tle down, and to dis­cred­it the Arabs and Islam” under­stood this ten­den­cy quite well. I am refer­ring here to Mar­shall Hodg­son, whose The Ven­ture of Islam shows a deep and, for its time, rare under­stand­ing of the inter­con­nect­ed­ness, across space and time, amongst all soci­eties in the East­ern hemi­sphere. He under­stood very clear­ly that the epochal changes under way in parts of West­ern Europe between 1600 and 1800 were cre­at­ing an alto­geth­er new order based on mar­kets, cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion, and tech­no­log­i­cal changes, which act­ed upon each oth­er to pro­duce cumu­la­tive growth. More­over, this endowed the most pow­er­ful West­ern states with a degree of social pow­er that no one could resist. In his Ven­ture of Islam, Mar­shall Hodg­son writes,

Hence, the West­ern Trans­mu­ta­tion, once it got well under way, could nei­ther be par­al­leled inde­pen­dent­ly nor be bor­rowed whole­sale. Yet it could not, in most cas­es, be escaped. The mil­len­ni­al par­i­ty of social pow­er broke down, with results that were dis­as­trous everywhere.

Clear­ly, Lewis’s pre­sen­ta­tion of his nar­ra­tive of Mid­dle East­ern decline with­out any con­text is a ploy. His objec­tive is to whit­tle down world his­to­ry, to reduce it to a pri­mor­dial con­test between two his­tor­i­cal adver­saries, the West and Islam. This is his­to­ri­og­ra­phy in the cru­sad­ing mode, one that pur­ports to resume the Cru­sades — inter­rupt­ed in the thir­teenth cen­tu­ry — and car­ry them to their unfin­ished con­clu­sion, the tri­umph of the West or, con­verse­ly, the humil­i­a­tion and defeat of Mid­dle East­ern Islam. Once this frame­work has been estab­lished, with its exclu­sive focus on a fail­ing Islam­ic civ­i­liza­tion, it is quite easy to cast the nar­ra­tive of this decay as a unique­ly Islam­ic phe­nom­e­non, which must then be explained in terms of specif­i­cal­ly Islam­ic fail­ures. Thus Lewis’s agen­da in What Went Wrong ? is to dis­cov­er all that was and is wrong” with Islam­ic soci­eties and to explain their decline and present trou­bles in terms of these wrongs.”

If Lewis had an inter­est in explor­ing the decline of the Mid­dle East, he would be ask­ing why the new, more dynam­ic his­tor­i­cal sys­tem that lay behind the rise of the West had not emerged in the Mid­dle East, India, Chi­na, Italy, or Africa. If he had asked this ques­tion, it may have direct­ed him to the source and ori­gins of West­ern hege­mo­ny. But Lewis ducks this issue alto­geth­er. Instead, he takes the grow­ing pow­er of the West — its advances in sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy — as the start­ing point of his nar­ra­tive and con­cen­trates on demon­strat­ing why the efforts of Islam­ic soci­eties to catch up with the West were both too lit­tle and too late. In oth­er words, he seeks to explain a gener­ic phe­nom­e­non — the over­throw of agrar­i­an soci­eties before the rise of a new his­tor­i­cal sys­tem, based on cap­i­tal, mar­kets, and tech­no­log­i­cal change — as one that is spe­cif­ic to Islam and is due to specif­i­cal­ly Islam­ic wrongs.”

If one focus­es only on the Mid­dle East­ern response to the West­ern chal­lenge, it does appear to be too lit­tle and too late. The Ottoman Empire, once the most pow­er­ful in the Islam­ic world, had lost near­ly all its Euro­pean ter­ri­to­ries by the end of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, and the rem­nants of its Arab ter­ri­to­ries were lost after its defeat in the First World War. At this point, the Ottoman Empire had been reduced to a rump state in north­ern Ana­to­lia, with the British and French occu­py­ing Istan­bul, the Greeks push­ing to occu­py cen­tral Ana­to­lia, the Arme­ni­ans extend­ing their bound­aries in east­ern Ana­to­lia, and the French push­ing north in Sile­sia. Yet, after defeat­ing the Greeks, the French, and the Arme­ni­ans, the vic­to­ri­ous Turks man­aged to estab­lish in 1922 a new and mod­ern Turk­ish nation-state over Istan­bul, Thrace, and all of Ana­to­lia. The Ira­ni­ans were more suc­cess­ful in pre­serv­ing their ter­ri­to­ries, though, like the Ottomans, they too had lost con­trol over their eco­nom­ic poli­cies in the first decades of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. How­ev­er, if one com­pares these out­comes with the fate suf­fered by oth­er regions-bar­ring Japan, Chi­na, and Thai­land, near­ly all of Asia and Africa was direct­ly col­o­nized by the Euro­peans — one has to con­clude that the results for the Mid­dle East could have been worse.

Uncu­ri­ous Ottomans 

There is even less sub­stance to Lewis’s claims about Mid­dle East­ern iner­tia in the face of West­ern threats, espe­cial­ly when we com­pare their respons­es to these threats with the record of East Asian societies.

First, con­sid­er Lewis’s charge that the Mus­lims showed lit­tle curios­i­ty about the West. He attrib­ut­es this fail­ing to Mus­lim big­otry that frowned upon con­tacts with the infi­dels. This is a curi­ous charge against a world civ­i­liza­tion” that Lewis admits was poly­eth­nic, mul­tira­cial, inter­na­tion­al, one might even say inter­con­ti­nen­tal.” It also seems strange that the Ottomans, and oth­er Mid­dle East­ern states before them, were quite hap­py to employ their Chris­t­ian and Jew­ish sub­jects — as high offi­cials, diplo­mats, physi­cians, and bankers — trad­ed with the Euro­peans them­selves, bought arms and bor­rowed mon­ey from them, and yet, some­how, loathed learn­ing any­thing from the same infi­dels. In addi­tion, Mus­lim philoso­phers, his­to­ri­ans and trav­el­ers have left sev­er­al very valu­able accounts of non-Islam­ic soci­eties. One of these, Al-Biruni’s mon­u­men­tal study of India, still remains with­out a rival for its ency­clo­pe­dic cov­er­age, objec­tiv­i­ty, and sym­pa­thy for its sub­ject. Clear­ly, Lewis has fall­en prey to the Ori­en­tal­ist temp­ta­tion : when some­thing demands a care­ful­ly researched expla­na­tion, an under­stand­ing of mate­r­i­al and social con­di­tions, bet­ter pin it on some cul­tur­al propensity.

Lewis is lit­tle aware how his book is lit­tered with con­tra­dic­tions. If the Mus­lims were not a lit­tle curi­ous about devel­op­ments in the West, it is odd that the old­est map of the Amer­i­c­as — which dates from 1513 and is the most accu­rate map from the six­teenth cen­tu­ry — was pre­pared by Piri Reis, a Turk­ish admi­ral and car­tog­ra­ph­er. It would also appear that the num­ber of Mus­lims who had left accounts of their obser­va­tions on Europe were not such a rar­i­ty either. Lewis him­self men­tions no few­er than ten names, near­ly all of them Ottomans, span­ning the peri­od from 1665 to 1840 ; and this is far an from exhaus­tive list. One of them, Rat­ib Effen­di, who was in Vien­na from 1791 to 1792, left a report that ran to 245 man­u­script folios, ten times or more than ten times those of his pre­de­ces­sors, and it goes into immense detail, pri­mar­i­ly on mil­i­tary mat­ters, but also, to quite a con­sid­er­able extent, on civ­il affairs.” Diplo­mat­ic con­tacts pro­vide anoth­er indi­ca­tor of the ear­ly growth of Ottoman inter­est and involve­ment in the affairs of Euro­pean states. Between 1703 and 1774, the Ottomans signed six­ty-eight treaties or agree­ments with sov­er­eign, most­ly Euro­pean states. Since each treaty must have involved at least one diplo­mat­ic exchange, the Ottomans could hard­ly be accused of neglect­ing diplo­mat­ic con­tacts with Europe.

Accord­ing to Lewis, the Ottoman deci­sion not to chal­lenge the Por­tuguese hege­mo­ny in the Indi­an Ocean in the six­teenth cen­tu­ry was a fail­ure of vision. Despite some ear­ly warn­ings from elder states­men, the Ottomans did not antic­i­pate that the Por­tuguese incur­sion would trans­late some 250 years lat­er into a broad­er and more seri­ous Euro­pean chal­lenge to their pow­er. As a result, they chose to con­cen­trate their war efforts on acquir­ing ter­ri­to­ry in Europe, which, Lewis claims, they saw as the prin­ci­pal bat­tle­ground between Islam and Europe, the rival faiths com­pet­ing for enlight­en­ment — and mas­tery — of the world.” It is of no inter­est to Lewis that the Ottomans, depart­ing from their own tra­di­tion of land war­fare, had built a pow­er­ful navy start­ing in the fif­teenth cen­tu­ry and cre­at­ed a seaborne empire in the east­ern Mediter­ranean, the Black Sea, and the Red Sea. If the Ottomans chose to con­cen­trate their resources on land wars in Cen­tral Europe rather than chal­lenge Por­tuguese hege­mo­ny in the Indi­an Ocean, this was not the result of reli­gious zealotry. It reflect­ed the bal­ance of class inter­ests in the Ottoman polit­i­cal struc­ture. In an empire that had tra­di­tion­al­ly been land-based, the inter­ests of the landown­ing class­es pre­vailed against com­mer­cial inter­ests that looked to the Indi­an Ocean for their liveli­hood. Although the deci­sion not to con­test the Por­tuguese pres­ence in the Indi­an Ocean in the six­teenth cen­tu­ry was fate­ful, that pol­i­cy was ratio­nal for the Ottomans.

A Mil­i­tary Decline ? 

Sev­er­al Ori­en­tal­ists — Lewis amongst them — have argued that the mil­i­tary decline of the Ottoman Empire became irre­versible after its sec­ond failed siege of Vien­na in 1683, or per­haps ear­li­er, after its naval defeat at Lep­an­to in 1571. In an ear­li­er work, The Mus­lim Dis­cov­ery of Europe, Lewis declared that “[t]he Ottomans found it more and more dif­fi­cult to keep up with the rapid­ly advanc­ing West­ern tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tions, and in the course of the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry the Ottoman Empire, itself far ahead of the Islam­ic world, fell deci­sive­ly behind Europe in vir­tu­al­ly all arts of war.”

This the­sis of an ear­ly and inex­orable decline has now been con­vinc­ing­ly ques­tioned. Jonathan Grant has shown that the Ottomans occu­pied the third tier in the hier­ar­chy of mil­i­tary tech­nol­o­gy, behind inno­va­tors and exporters, at the begin­ning of the fif­teenth cen­tu­ry ; they could repro­duce the lat­est mil­i­tary tech­nol­o­gy with the help of for­eign exper­tise but they nev­er grad­u­at­ed into export or intro­duced any sig­nif­i­cant inno­va­tions. The Ottomans suc­ceed­ed in main­tain­ing this rel­a­tive posi­tion, through two waves of tech­nol­o­gy dif­fu­sion, until the ear­ly nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. How­ev­er, they failed to keep up with the third wave of tech­nol­o­gy dif­fu­sion, based upon the tech­nol­o­gy of the indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion, that began in the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. The Ottomans fell below their third-tier sta­tus only toward the end of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, when they became total­ly depen­dent on import­ed weaponry.

If we put togeth­er the evi­dence made avail­able by Lewis, it becomes clear that the Ottomans were not slow in rec­og­niz­ing the insti­tu­tion­al supe­ri­or­i­ty enjoyed by Europe’s mil­i­tary. A debate about the caus­es of Ottoman weak­ness began after the Treaty of Car­lowitz in 1699, grow­ing more intense over time. A doc­u­ment from the ear­ly sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry rec­og­nized that it was no longer suf­fi­cient, as in the past, to adopt West­ern weapons. It was also nec­es­sary to adopt West­ern train­ing, struc­tures, and tac­tics for their effec­tive use.” The Ottomans began to dis­patch spe­cial envoys to Euro­pean cap­i­tals with instruc­tions to observe and to learn and, more par­tic­u­lar­ly, to report on any­thing that might be use­ful to the Mus­lim state in cop­ing with its dif­fi­cul­ties and con­fronting its ene­mies.” Sev­er­al of these envoys wrote reports, occa­sion­al­ly quite exten­sive and detailed, on their Euro­pean vis­its, and these reports had an impor­tant impact on think­ing in Ottoman cir­cles. The first math­e­mat­i­cal school for the mil­i­tary was found­ed in 1734, and a sec­ond one fol­lowed in the 1770s.

While Ottoman mil­i­tary tech­nol­o­gy gen­er­al­ly kept pace with the advances in Europe, at least into the first decades of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, it took the Ottomans longer to intro­duce orga­ni­za­tion­al changes in the mil­i­tary since they ran into pow­er­ful social obsta­cles. As a result, the first seri­ous attempts at mod­ern­iz­ing the army did not begin until the late eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, dur­ing the reign of Selim III, who sought to bypass the prob­lems of reform­ing the exist­ing mil­i­tary corps by recruit­ing and train­ing a new Euro­pean-style army. Although, by 1806, he had raised a mod­ern army of near­ly twen­ty-five thou­sand, he had to aban­don his efforts in the face of resis­tance from the ula­ma and a Janis­sary rebel­lion. The task of mod­ern­iz­ing the Ottoman army was tak­en up again in 1826 after the Janis­sary corps was dis­band­ed, and in two years, the new Ottoman army includ­ed sev­en­ty-five thou­sand reg­u­lar troops. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, the Ottomans intro­duced reforms in the bureau­cra­cy and also reformed land-tenure poli­cies with the objec­tive of rais­ing revenues.

And yet these efforts at mod­ern­iz­ing the Ottoman mil­i­tary — quite ear­ly by most stan­dards — failed to avert the pro­gres­sive frag­men­ta­tion and even­tu­al demise of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. One might join Hodg­son in think­ing that this was inevitable, that agrar­i­an soci­eties in Asia and Africa could not mod­ern­ize fast enough in the face of the ever increas­ing eco­nom­ic and mil­i­tary pow­er of the mod­ern West­ern nation-states. But, per­haps, this assess­ment is too fatal­is­tic ; and it is con­tra­dict­ed by the case of — among oth­ers — Rus­sia, which was spared col­o­niza­tion or sub­jec­tion to open-door treaties. A com­par­i­son of the two quick­ly reveals that the Ottomans’ efforts at mod­ern­iza­tion were under­mined by sev­er­al extra­ne­ous fac­tors. The Ottoman Empire, which strad­dled three con­ti­nents, lacked the com­pact­ness that might have made its ter­ri­to­ries more defen­si­ble. What proved more fatal to the Ottoman Empire was the fact that the Ottoman Turks, though they con­sti­tut­ed its eth­nic core, made up less than a third of its pop­u­la­tion and occu­pied an even small­er part of its ter­ri­to­ries. Once nation­al­ism reared its head in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, the frag­men­ta­tion of the Ottoman Empire was well-nigh unavoid­able. The Ottomans faced one insur­rec­tion after anoth­er in the Balka­ns, each backed by some Euro­pean pow­er, until the last of these ter­ri­to­ries had bro­ken free in the ear­ly decades of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Not only did these insur­rec­tions reduce the rev­enues of the empire, but by divert­ing its atten­tion and resources to war, they delayed the mod­ern­iza­tion of the mil­i­tary and econ­o­my. Even­tu­al­ly, dur­ing World War I, the Arab ter­ri­to­ries of the empire were wrest­ed away by the British and French, with sup­port from Arab nationalists.

The Egypt­ian pro­gram to mod­ern­ize its mil­i­tary, start­ed in 1815 under the lead­er­ship of Muham­mad Ali, was more ambi­tious and more suc­cess­ful. It was part of an inte­grat­ed pro­gram of mod­ern­iza­tion and indus­tri­al devel­op­ment financed through state own­er­ship of lands, devel­op­ment of new export crops, and state-owned monop­o­lies over the mar­ket­ing of the major agri­cul­tur­al prod­ucts. In 1831, Egyp­t’s Euro­peanized army con­sist­ed of one hun­dred thou­sand offi­cers and men, and in 1833, hav­ing con­quered Syr­ia, it was pen­e­trat­ing deep into Ana­to­lia when its march was halt­ed by Russ­ian naval inter­ven­tion. When the Ottomans resumed the Syr­i­an war in 1839, the Egyp­tians rout­ed the Ottoman forces and were rapid­ly march­ing west­ward, poised to cap­ture Istan­bul for Muham­mad Ali. At this point, all the great Euro­pean pow­ers, except France, inter­vened, forc­ing the Egyp­tians to with­draw, give up their acqui­si­tions in Syr­ia and Ara­bia, reduce their mil­i­tary force to eigh­teen thou­sand, and enforce the Anglo-Ottoman Com­mer­cial Con­ven­tion, which required the low­er­ing of tar­iffs to 3 per­cent and the dis­man­tling of all state monop­o­lies. By depriv­ing Egypt of its rev­enues and dra­mat­i­cal­ly reduc­ing the mil­i­tary’s demand for its man­u­fac­tures, these mea­sures abrupt­ly ter­mi­nat­ed the career of the ear­li­est and most ambi­tious pro­gram to build a mod­ern, indus­tri­al soci­ety in the Periphery.

Lewis faults the Ottomans and Egyp­tians of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry for seek­ing to build an effec­tive mil­i­tary response on the foun­da­tions of a mod­ern indus­tri­al econ­o­my. He thinks it odd that these coun­tries tried to catch up with Europe by build­ing fac­to­ries, prin­ci­pal­ly to equip and clothe their armies.” Appar­ent­ly, Lewis is unaware that the Ottomans — and espe­cial­ly Egypt — were break­ing new ground in their efforts to mod­ern­ize their man­u­fac­tures, a road that would soon be tak­en by most Euro­pean coun­tries. Near­ly every coun­try that lagged behind in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry and was forced to catch up with Britain, built its strat­e­gy around indus­tri­al­iza­tion, and the mil­i­tary in many of these coun­tries formed an impor­tant ini­tial mar­ket for their nascent indus­tries. Of course, Lewis had no choice but to demean the mil­i­tary and indus­tri­al respons­es to the West­ern threat. As we will see, he believes that the Ottomans should have been work­ing hard­er to rem­e­dy their cul­tur­al defi­cien­cies, such as their less-than-enthu­si­as­tic appre­ci­a­tion for Euro­pean harmonies.

Indus­tri­al Fail­ure — But Why ? 

Lewis declares that the indus­tri­al­iza­tion pro­grams launched by the Ottomans and Egypt failed, and most of the ear­ly fac­to­ries became derelict.” These pro­grams were doomed from the out­set because their pro­mot­ers lacked a prop­er regard for time, mea­sure­ment, har­monies, sec­u­lar­ism, and wom­en’s rights-val­ues upon which West­ern indus­tri­al suc­cess was founded.

We must cor­rect these jaun­diced obser­va­tions. Far from being a fail­ure, the Egypt­ian pro­gram of indus­tri­al­iza­tion and mil­i­tary expan­sion,” accord­ing to Immanuel Waller­stein (Unthink­ing Social Sci­ence), seri­ous­ly under­mined the Ottoman Empire and almost estab­lished a pow­er­ful state in the Mid­dle East capa­ble even­tu­al­ly of play­ing a major role in the inter­state sys­tem.” Muham­mad Ali’s fis­cal and eco­nom­ic reforms, between 1805 and 1847, brought about a more than nine­fold increase in gov­ern­ment rev­enues. At their height in the 1830s, Egyp­t’s state monop­o­lies had made invest­ments worth $12 mil­lion and employed thir­ty thou­sand work­ers in a broad range of indus­tries that includ­ed foundries, tex­tiles, paper, chem­i­cals, ship­yards, glass­ware, and arse­nals. By the ear­ly 1830s, Egypt­ian arse­nals and naval yards had acquired the abil­i­ty to pro­duce appre­cia­ble amounts of war­ships, guns and muni­tions,” ele­vat­ing Egypt to a major region­al pow­er”. Nat­u­ral­ly, these devel­op­ments in Egypt were rais­ing con­cerns in British gov­ern­ment cir­cles. A report sub­mit­ted to the British for­eign office in 1837 sound­ed the right note : A man­u­fac­tur­ing coun­try Egypt nev­er can become — or at least for ages.” Three years lat­er, when Istan­bul was with­in the grasp of Muham­mad Ali’s forces, a coali­tion of Euro­pean pow­ers inter­vened to roll back his gains, down­size his mil­i­tary, and dis­man­tle his state monop­o­lies. These mea­sures suc­cess­ful­ly reversed the Periph­ery’s first indus­tri­al revolution.

The Ottomans launched an ambi­tious pro­gram of indus­tri­al­iza­tion in the ear­ly 1840s, but it had lit­tle chance of suc­cess and was aban­doned with­in a few years of its inau­gu­ra­tion. Since the ear­ly nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, the unequal treaties lim­it­ed the Ottomans to import tar­iffs under 3 per­cent, severe­ly lim­it­ing their abil­i­ty to pro­tect their man­u­fac­tures or raise rev­enues for invest­ments in devel­op­ment projects. In 1838, the Anglo-Turk­ish Com­mer­cial Con­ven­tion forced them to dis­man­tle all state monop­o­lies, deal­ing anoth­er blow to their fis­cal auton­o­my. It speaks to the deter­mi­na­tion of the Ottomans that they sought to launch an indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion despite their adverse fis­cal cir­cum­stances. In the decade start­ing in 1841, the Ottomans had set up, to the west of Istan­bul, a com­plex of state-owned indus­tries that includ­ed spin­ning and weav­ing mills, a foundry, steam-oper­at­ed machine works, and a boat­yard for the con­struc­tion of small steamships. In the words of Edward Clark (Inter­na­tion­al Jour­nal of Mid­dle East­ern Stud­ies, 1974):

In vari­ety as well as in num­ber, in plan­ning, in invest­ment, and in atten­tion giv­en to inter­nal sources of raw mate­ri­als these man­u­fac­tur­ing enter­pris­es far sur­passed the scope of all pre­vi­ous efforts and mark this peri­od as unique in Ottoman history.

Sev­er­al for­eign observers saw in the Istan­bul indus­tri­al com­plex the poten­tial to evolve into a Turk­ish Man­ches­ter and Leeds, a Turk­ish Birm­ing­ham and Sheffield,” all wrapped in one. In addi­tion, oth­er mod­ern indus­tri­al, min­ing, and agri­cul­tur­al projects were ini­ti­at­ed dur­ing the same peri­od in sev­er­al oth­er parts of the Ottoman Empire. But these grand projects could not be sus­tained for long. Once the Crimean War start­ed, the Ottomans were forced to bor­row heav­i­ly from for­eign banks, and, strapped for funds, they aban­doned most of these indus­tri­al projects. Thus end­ed anoth­er bold exper­i­ment in indus­tri­al­iza­tion, ear­ly even by Euro­pean stan­dards, but whose fail­ure was linked to the loss of Ottoman fis­cal sovereignty.

It’s in Their Culture 

The real cul­prit behind the polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, and mil­i­tary fail­ures of the Mid­dle East over the past half a mil­len­ni­um was their cul­ture. Lewis iden­ti­fies a whole slew of prob­lem­at­ic cul­tur­al traits, but two are sin­gled out for spe­cial atten­tion : the mix­ing of reli­gion and pol­i­tics and the unequal treat­ment of women, unbe­liev­ers, and slaves. Both, accord­ing to Lewis, are Islam­ic flaws.

Lewis argues that sec­u­lar­ism con­sti­tutes a great divide between Islam and the West : the West always had it and Islam­ic soci­eties nev­er did. Sec­u­lar­ism, as the sep­a­ra­tion of church and state, is, in a pro­found sense, Chris­t­ian.” Its ori­gins go back to Jesus-his injunc­tion to give God and Cae­sar, each, their due-and to the ear­ly his­to­ry of the Chris­tians when, as a minor­i­ty per­se­cut­ed by the Roman state, they devel­oped the insti­tu­tions of the Church with its own laws and courts, its own hier­ar­chy and chain of author­i­ty.” This was quite unique, set­ting Europe apart from any­thing that went before and from its com­peti­tors. In par­tic­u­lar, the Mus­lims nev­er cre­at­ed an insti­tu­tion cor­re­spond­ing to, or even remote­ly resem­bling, the Church in Christendom.”

These claims about a sec­u­lar Chris­ten­dom — an oxy­moron in itself — and a theo­crat­ic Islam are prob­lem­at­ic. Lewis rests his case upon two propo­si­tions. First, he con­trasts the pres­ence of the Church in Chris­ten­dom against its absence in Islam­ic soci­eties. Sec­ond, he works on the pre­sump­tion that the exis­tence of a Church, a hier­ar­chi­cal reli­gious orga­ni­za­tion dif­fer­ent from the state, nec­es­sar­i­ly implies a sep­a­ra­tion between reli­gion and polit­i­cal author­i­ty. For the most part, these claims are contestable.

The exis­tence of a Church in Chris­ten­dom is not in dis­pute, but the con­tention that there exist­ed noth­ing like it in Islam­ic soci­eties is con­tra­dict­ed by his­to­ry. The Prophet and the first four Caliphs com­bined reli­gious and mun­dane author­i­ty in their per­sons. In addi­tion, most Islam­ic thinkers have main­tained that the ide­al Islam­ic state, mod­eled after the state in Med­i­na, must be guid­ed by the Qur’an and the Prophet’s Sun­nah. The Islam­ic prac­tice in the cen­turies fol­low­ing the pious Caliphs, how­ev­er, depart­ed quite sharply from the canon­i­cal mod­el as well as the theory.

In one of his numer­ous attempts at dis­tor­tion, Lewis asserts that the pietists” retreat­ed into rad­i­cal oppo­si­tion or qui­etist with­draw­al” when they failed to impose eccle­si­as­ti­cal con­straints on polit­i­cal and mil­i­tary author­i­ty”. This is only part of the pic­ture. In the big­ger pic­ture, we find that the pietists turned vig­or­ous­ly to schol­ar­ship. Start­ing from a scratch, and inde­pen­dent­ly of state author­i­ty and with­out state fund­ing, the ear­ly pietists devel­oped the Islam­ic sci­ences, which includ­ed the Tra­di­tions of the Prophet, biogra­phies of the Prophet and his com­pan­ions, Ara­bic gram­mar, and the­ol­o­gy. Most sig­nif­i­cant­ly, these pious schol­ars elab­o­rat­ed sev­er­al com­pet­ing sys­tems of Islam­ic laws-reg­u­lat­ing every aspect of indi­vid­ual, social, and busi­ness life-on the premise that leg­isla­tive author­i­ty was vest­ed in the con­sen­sus of the pious schol­ars-or, in the case of Shi’ites, in the rul­ings of the imams. The state had exec­u­tive pow­ers but it pos­sessed no leg­isla­tive author­i­ty. In effect, Islam had evolved not only sep­a­rate polit­i­cal and reli­gious insti­tu­tions, but sep­a­rate exec­u­tive and leg­isla­tive pow­ers as well. It was the pious schol­ars — with their com­pet­ing schools of jurispru­dence — who con­sti­tut­ed the infor­mal leg­is­la­tures of Islam, long before these insti­tu­tions had evolved in Europe.

Lewis’s sec­ond propo­si­tion — that sep­a­ra­tion between reli­gion and polit­i­cal author­i­ty flows from the pres­ence of a Church-is equal­ly dubi­ous. There can be no sep­a­ra­tion between reli­gion and polit­i­cal author­i­ty if reli­gion is orga­nized into a Church with pow­er over the lives of peo­ple. If the Church itself com­mands pow­er, ipso fac­to, it becomes a rival of the state. It fol­lows that the Church can and will exer­cise its pow­er direct­ly to reg­u­late the reli­gious, eco­nom­ic, and social affairs of the com­mu­ni­ty, and indi­rect­ly by using the state for its own ends. Once Chris­tian­i­ty became the offi­cial reli­gion of the Roman state, the Church pro­gres­sive­ly increased its pow­er : it used the pow­er of the state to elim­i­nate or mar­gin­al­ize all com­pet­ing reli­gions ; it gained the exclu­sive right to define all reli­gious dog­ma and rit­u­als ; it acquired prop­er­ties, priv­i­leges, and exclu­sive con­trol over edu­ca­tion ; it expand­ed its leg­isla­tive con­trol over dif­fer­ent spheres of soci­ety. In time, since the Church and state recruit­ed their high­er per­son­nel from the same class­es, they also devel­oped an iden­ti­ty of class inter­ests. In oth­er words, although they remained orga­ni­za­tion­al­ly dis­tinct, the Church and the state mixed reli­gion and politics.

One expects that a sep­a­ra­tion of reli­gion and polit­i­cal author­i­ty would pro­duce a mea­sure of tol­er­ance. Yet, the adop­tion of Chris­tian­i­ty as its offi­cial creed led the Roman state, hith­er­to tol­er­ant of all reli­gious com­mu­ni­ties, to inau­gu­rate a régime of grow­ing intol­er­ance toward oth­er reli­gions, and even toward any dis­sent with­in Chris­tian­i­ty. As Daniel Schowal­ter (Oxford His­to­ry of the Bib­li­cal World) says,

By the end of the fourth cen­tu­ry, both anti-pagan and anti-Jew­ish leg­is­la­tion would serve as licens­es for the increas­ing num­ber of acts of van­dal­ism and vio­lent destruc­tion direct­ed against pagan and Jew­ish places of wor­ship car­ried out by Chris­t­ian mobs, often at the insti­ga­tion of the local clergy.

Although the prac­tice of Judaism was not banned, by the end of the fourth cen­tu­ry C.E., a vari­ety of decrees pro­hib­it­ed con­ver­sion to Judaism, Jew­ish own­er­ship of non-Jew­ish slaves, and mar­riage between Jews and Chris­tians, and Jews were exclud­ed from most impe­r­i­al offices. In dog­ma, the­ol­o­gy, leg­is­la­tion, and prac­tice, the Church and state craft­ed a régime that sup­pressed pagan­ism and mar­gin­al­ized all oth­er non-Chris­t­ian forms of worship.

Accord­ing to Lewis, mod­ern­iza­tion in Islam­ic soci­eties was set back by a sec­ond set of cul­tur­al bar­ri­ers — name­ly, the infe­ri­or sta­tus of unbe­liev­ers, slaves, and, espe­cial­ly, women. It is not that these groups labored under stricter restraints than their coun­ter­parts in Europe, but that their unequal sta­tus was sacro­sanct” in that they were seen as part of the struc­ture of Islam, but­tressed by rev­e­la­tion, by the pre­cept and prac­tice of the Prophet, and by the clas­si­cal and scrip­tur­al his­to­ry of the Islam­ic com­mu­ni­ty.” As a result, these three inequal­i­ties have endured ; they were not chal­lenged even by the rad­i­cal Islam­ic move­ments that arose from time to time to protest social and eco­nom­ic inequalities.

Lewis’s claims are prob­lem­at­ic for sev­er­al rea­sons. The first prob­lem is their lack of his­toric­i­ty. Implic­it­ly, Lewis bases his case on a read­ing of Euro­pean his­to­ry that inverts cau­sa­tion between eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment and social equal­i­ty. He would have us believe that Euro­peans devel­oped because their flex­i­ble legal sys­tems moved faster to cre­ate a more egal­i­tar­i­an soci­ety, a nec­es­sary basis for rapid progress. This shows a curi­ous indif­fer­ence to chronol­o­gy. While Europe was estab­lish­ing its glob­al cap­i­tal­ist empire it was con­duct­ing the Inqui­si­tion, expelling the Moors and Jews from Spain, wag­ing unend­ing reli­gious wars, burn­ing witch­es at the stake, and grant­ed few legal rights to women. In addi­tion, they were cre­at­ing in the Amer­i­c­as eco­nom­ic sys­tems based on slav­ery that would be abol­ished only after the 1860s. In Rus­sia, serf­dom remained the basis of the econ­o­my at least until the 1860s. The equal­i­ty Lewis speaks of began to arrive in slow incre­ments at the begin­ning of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, and it was a byprod­uct of eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment, not its precursor.

Lewis’s claims about inequal­i­ties in Mus­lim soci­eties lack his­toric­i­ty on anoth­er score. It is a bit sur­pris­ing that the doyen of Mid­dle East­ern stud­ies,” who has spent more than fifty years study­ing the his­to­ry of the region, is unaware of at least a few chal­lenges to the alleged infe­ri­or sta­tus of women or unbe­liev­ers. In the ear­ly cen­turies of Islam, there were at least three groups — the Khar­i­jis, the Qar­ma­tians and the Sufis — that did not accept the legal inter­pre­ta­tions of the four tra­di­tion­al schools of Islam­ic law as sacro­sanct. Instead, they looked for inspi­ra­tion to the Qur’an­ic pre­cepts on the moral and spir­i­tu­al equal­i­ty of men and women, claim­ing that the ear­ly appli­ca­tions of these pre­cepts were time-bound. The Khar­i­jis and Qar­ma­tians reject­ed con­cu­bi­nage and child mar­riage, and the Qar­ma­tians went fur­ther in reject­ing polygamy and the veil. In a sim­i­lar spir­it, the Sufis wel­comed women trav­el­ers on the spir­i­tu­al path, per­mit­ting women to give a cen­tral place in their lives to their spir­i­tu­al voca­tion.” In six­teenth-cen­tu­ry India, the Mughal emper­or Akbar abol­ished the jizyah (the poll tax imposed by Islam­ic law on all non-Mus­lims), banned child mar­riage, and repealed a law that forced Islam on pris­on­ers of war.

The most pro­found sin­gle dif­fer­ence” between Islam and the West, how­ev­er, con­cerns the sta­tus of women. In par­tic­u­lar, Lewis argues that Islam per­mits polygamy and con­cu­bi­nage and that the Chris­t­ian Church­es pro­hib­it it. Once again, Lewis is exag­ger­at­ing the dif­fer­ences. In near­ly all soci­eties, not exclud­ing the West­ern, men of wealth and pow­er have always had access to mul­ti­ple sex­u­al part­ners, although with­in dif­fer­ent legal frame­works. Islam gave equal rights to all the free sex­u­al part­ners of men as well as to their chil­dren. The West, dri­ven by a con­cern for pri­mo­gen­i­ture, adopt­ed an oppo­site solu­tion by vest­ing all the rights in a man’s pri­ma­ry sex­u­al part­ner and her off­spring. All the oth­er sex­u­al part­ners — a man’s mis­tress­es — and their chil­dren had no legal rights. Arguably, Europe’s mis­tress­es might think that the Islam­ic prac­tice favored women.

It would appear from Lewis’s empha­sis on polygamy and con­cu­bi­nage that they were very com­mon in Islam­ic soci­eties. In fact, both were quite rare out­side the rul­ing class. Among oth­ers, this is attest­ed by Euro­pean vis­i­tors to eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry Alep­po and nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Cairo. A study of doc­u­ments relat­ing to two thou­sands estates in sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry Turkey could iden­ti­fy only twen­ty cas­es of polygamy. Keep­ing con­cu­bines was most like­ly even rarer.

Lewis quotes from the reports of Mus­lim vis­i­tors who were star­tled to see Euro­pean men curt­sy­ing to women in pub­lic places ; this is sup­posed to val­i­date the strik­ing con­trasts” in wom­en’s sta­tus in Europe and Islam. Once the bow­ing and curt­sy­ing are done, we need to com­pare the prop­er­ty rights enjoyed by women in Europe and Islam, a quite reli­able index of the social pow­er of women inside the house­hold and out­side. In this mat­ter, too, it is the Mus­lim women who had the advan­tage until quite recent­ly. Unlike her Euro­pean coun­ter­part, a mar­ried Mus­lim woman could own prop­er­ty, and she enjoyed exclu­sive rights to income from her prop­er­ty as well as the wages she earned. In Britain, the most advanced coun­try in Europe, mar­ried women did not acquire the right to own prop­er­ty until 1882.

The own­er­ship of prop­er­ty gave Mus­lim women a mea­sure of social pow­er that was not avail­able to women in Europe. A Mus­lim woman of inde­pen­dent means had a stronger hand in mar­riage : she could ini­ti­ate a divorce or craft a mar­riage con­tract that pre­vent­ed her hus­band from tak­ing anoth­er wife. Mus­lim women often engaged in trad­ing activ­i­ties, buy­ing and sell­ing prop­er­ty, lend­ing mon­ey, or rent­ing out stores. They cre­at­ed waqfs, char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tions financed by earn­ings from prop­er­ty, which they also admin­is­tered. A small num­ber of women dis­tin­guished them­selves as schol­ars of the reli­gious sci­ences. Accord­ing to one report from the ear­ly nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, women attend­ed al-Azhar, the lead­ing uni­ver­si­ty in the Islam­ic world. Ahmed con­cludes, on the basis of such evi­dence, that Mus­lim women were not, after all, the pas­sive crea­tures, whol­ly with­out mate­r­i­al resources or legal rights, that the West­ern world once imag­ined them to be.”

What Went Wrong ? 

In an ear­li­er era, before the Zion­ists devel­oped a pro­pri­etary inter­est in Pales­tine, the least big­ot­ed voic­es in the field of Ori­en­tal stud­ies were often those of Euro­pean Jews. Iron­i­cal­ly, Lewis him­self has writ­ten that these pro-Islam­ic Jews were among the first who attempt­ed to present Islam to Euro­pean read­ers as Mus­lims them­selves see it and to stress, to rec­og­nize, and indeed some­times to roman­ti­cize the mer­its and achieve­ments of Mus­lim civ­i­liza­tion in its great days.” At a time when most Ori­en­tal­ists took Muham­mad for a schem­ing imposter, equat­ed Islam with fanati­cism, thought that the Qur’an was a crude and inco­her­ent text, and believed that the Arabs were inca­pable of abstract thought, a grow­ing num­ber of Jew­ish schol­ars often took oppo­site posi­tions. They accept­ed the sin­cer­i­ty of Muham­mad’s mis­sion, described Arabs as Jews on horse­back” and Islam as an evolv­ing faith that was more demo­c­ra­t­ic than oth­er reli­gions, and debunked Ori­en­tal­ist claims about a sta­t­ic Islam and a dynam­ic West. It would appear that these Jews were anti-Ori­en­tal­ists long before Edward Said.

These con­trar­i­an posi­tions had a vari­ety of motives behind them. Even as the Jews began to enter the Euro­pean main­stream, start­ing in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, they were still out­siders, hav­ing only recent­ly emerged from the con­fine­ment of ghet­tos, and it would be scarce­ly sur­pris­ing if they were seek­ing to main­tain their dis­tinc­tive­ness by empha­siz­ing and iden­ti­fy­ing with the achieve­ments of anoth­er Semit­ic peo­ple, the Arabs. In cel­e­brat­ing Arab civ­i­liza­tion, these Jew­ish schol­ars were per­haps send­ing a non-too-sub­tle mes­sage to the Euro­peans that their civ­i­liza­tion was not unique, that Arab achieve­ments often excelled theirs, and that Euro­peans were build­ing upon Islam­ic achieve­ments in sci­ence and phi­los­o­phy. In addi­tion, Jew­ish schol­ars’ dis­cus­sions of reli­gious and racial tol­er­ance in Islam­ic soci­eties, toward Jews in par­tic­u­lar, may have offered hope that such tol­er­ance was attain­able in Europe too. The dis­cus­sions may also have been an invi­ta­tion to Euro­peans to incor­po­rate reli­gious and racial tol­er­ance in their stan­dards of civilization.

Yet the vig­or of this ear­ly anti-Ori­en­tal­ism of Jew­ish schol­ars would not last ; it would not sur­vive the log­ic of the Zion­ist move­ment as it sought to cre­ate a Jew­ish state in Pales­tine. Such a state could only emerge as a child of West­ern impe­ri­al­ist pow­ers, and it could only come into exis­tence by dis­plac­ing the greater part of the Pales­tin­ian pop­u­la­tion, by incor­po­rat­ing them into an apartheid state, or through some com­bi­na­tion of the two. In addi­tion, once cre­at­ed, Israel could only sur­vive as a mil­i­tary, expan­sion­ist, and hege­mon­ic state, con­stant­ly at war with its neigh­bors. In oth­er words, as the Zion­ist project gath­ered momen­tum it was inevitable that the Euro­pean Jews’ attrac­tion for Islam was not going to endure. In fact, it would be replaced by a bit­ter con­test, one in which the Jews, as junior part­ners of the impe­ri­al­ist pow­ers, would seek to deep­en the Ori­en­tal­ist project in the ser­vice of West­ern pow­er. Bernard Lewis played a lead­ing part in this Jew­ish reori­en­ta­tion. In the words of Mar­tin Kramer, Bernard Lewis came to per­son­i­fy the post-war shift from a sym­pa­thet­ic to a crit­i­cal posture.”

Iron­i­cal­ly, this shift occurred when many Ori­en­tal­ists had begun to shed their Chris­t­ian prej­u­dice against Islam, even mak­ing amends for the excess­es of their fore­bears. Anoth­er fac­tor aid­ing this shift toward a less polem­i­cal Ori­en­tal­ism was the entry of a grow­ing num­ber of Arabs, both Mus­lim and Chris­t­ian, into the field of Mid­dle East­ern stud­ies. The most vis­i­ble upshot of these diver­gent trends was a polar­iza­tion of the field of Mid­dle East­ern stud­ies into two oppos­ing camps. One camp, con­sist­ing most­ly of Chris­tians and Mus­lims, has sought to bring greater objec­tiv­i­ty to their study of Islam and Islam­ic soci­eties. They make an effort to locate Islam­ic soci­eties in their his­tor­i­cal con­text, argu­ing that Islam­ic respons­es to West­ern chal­lenges have been diverse and evolv­ing over time, and they do not derive from an innate hos­til­i­ty to the West or some unchang­ing Islam­ic mind­set. The sec­ond camp, now led most­ly by Jews, has revert­ed to Ori­en­tal­is­m’s orig­i­nal mis­sion of sub­or­di­nat­ing knowl­edge to West­ern pow­er, now fil­tered through the prism of Zion­ist inter­ests. This Zion­ist Ori­en­tal­ism has assid­u­ous­ly sought to paint Islam and Islam­ic soci­eties as innate­ly hos­tile to the West, mod­ernism, democ­ra­cy, tol­er­ance, sci­en­tif­ic advance, and wom­en’s rights.

This Zion­ist camp has been led for more than fifty years by Bernard Lewis, who has enjoyed an inti­mate rela­tion­ship with pow­er that would be the envy of the most dis­tin­guished Ori­en­tal­ists of an ear­li­er gen­er­a­tion. He has been strong­ly sup­port­ed by a con­tin­gent of able lieu­tenants, whose ranks have includ­ed the likes of Elie Kedourie, David Pryce-Jones, Raphael Patai, Daniel Pipes, and Mar­tin Kramer. There are many foot sol­diers, too, who have pro­vid­ed dis­tin­guished ser­vice to this new Ori­en­tal­ism. And no com­pendi­um of these foot sol­diers would be com­plete with­out the names of Thomas Fried­man, Mar­tin Peretz, Nor­man Pod­horetz, Charles Krautham­mer, William Kris­tol, and Judith Miller.

In my mind’s eye, I try to visu­al­ize an encounter between this dis­tin­guished crowd and some of their emi­nent pre­de­ces­sors, like Hien­rich Heine, Abra­ham Geiger, Gus­tav Weil, Franz Rosen­thal, and the great Ignaz Goldz­i­her. What would these pro-Islam­ic Jews have to say to their descen­dants, whose schol­ar­ship demeans and den­i­grates the soci­eties they study ? Would Geiger and Goldz­i­her embrace Lewis and Kedourie, or would they be repelled by the lat­ter’s new brand of Zion­ist Orientalism ?

M. Shahid Alam is Pro­fes­sor of Eco­nom­ics at North­east­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. A more com­plete ver­sion of this essay, with foot­notes and ref­er­ences, has appeared in Stud­ies in Con­tem­po­rary Islam 4 (2002), 1:51 – 78. He may be reached at m.​alam@​neu.​eduEndmark

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