NPost: How did the infidels win?
NATIONAL POST, Saturday, June 1, 2002
How did the infidels win?
From the time of Muhammad till the second siege of Vienna in 1683, Islamic
civilization regarded the Christian West as a benighted backwater. Then
things changed. Historian Bernard Lewis asks:
In the enormously rich historical literature developed during 14 centuries
of Islamic history, until very recent times, there were no histories of
countries or nations. Rather, there are histories of Islam and histories of
particular dynasties or states within Islam. We think, for example, of the
long wars involving the Muslims and the Europeans, the Moors in Spain, the
Tartars in Russia or the Turks in Europe. But in the Muslim world, they do
not describe encounters in these terms. They never use the words "Arab" or
"Moors" or "Tartars" or "Turks" in this context. The division is always the
wars between the Muslims and the unbelievers.
In the West, the nation is seen as the natural unit of identify and
allegiance. But until recently, this was not so in the Muslim world. In
modern times, the Arab world has been chopped up into what would apparently
seem to be nation-states. But if you look at them closely, you can see their
artificiality. Look at the borders. Most of North America's borders are
straight lines. That's understandable because they were drawn with pencils
and rulers on maps. The borders of Europe are different. They are not
straight lines. They are the result of a thousand years of struggle. You
would expect the same to be the case in the Middle East, where the entities
are even more ancient than those of Europe. But no, their borders are
straight lines drawn by Europeans. Perhaps even more remarkably, there is no
word in Arabic for Arabia. This is not because Arabic is a poor language. On
the contrary, Arabic is an incredibly rich language. It is because the
Muslims simply did not think in terms of territorial ethnic identity.
I mention this point because I think it's important in understanding Muslim
perceptions of what is going on.
In the Muslim perception, the world took a new turn in the 7th century when
Islam was born and spread rapidly in all directions with enormous success.
This was seen at the time, with some justification, as a challenge to other
faiths. Anyone who has been to Jerusalem will surely have visited the Dome
of the Rock. That magnificent structure is the oldest surviving Muslim
religious building outside Arabia. If you go inside, you will see
inscriptions written on the dome. One says "He is God. He is one. He does
not beget. He is not begotten." This is an explicit rejection of certain
basic Christian dogmas. By building this structure in Jerusalem of all
places, which at that time was not yet regarded as a Muslim Holy City, by
putting up this building with these inscriptions in Jerusalem, the Muslims
were in effect saying to the Christian world -- and, in particular to the
Christian emperor in Constantinople, "Your time has passed. Now we are here.
There has been a lot of talk of late about the clash of civilizations. Most
of the civilizations known to history -- such as those of China, India,
Greece, Rome, Egypt and Babylon -- have been regional. Christianity and
Islam are different. These are the only two civilizations whose underlying
religions claim not only that their truths are universal -- all religions
claim that -- but also that their truths are exclusive. Both believe that
they are the fortunate recipients of God's final revelation to mankind, and
it is therefore their duty to bring it to the rest of the world. It is
inevitable that you will have a clash between two religions that are
geographically adjacent, historical consecutive, theologically akin.
For a long time, Islam got the better of this clash. For a period of
centuries, the civilization of Islam was by far the most advanced and the
most creative in the world. It was enormously successful in every material
sense. Its armies coming out of Arabia conquered everything across the
Middle East and North Africa. They invaded Europe, conquering Spain,
Portugal, Southern Italy and even advancing into France. Eastwards, they
advanced across to Central Asia and India. Muslims also developed a highly
sophisticated economic system of production and exchange with a remarkably
advanced system of banking and credit. As far back as the 10th century, a
Muslim merchant or a non-Muslim merchant living under Muslim rule could draw
a cheque in Southern Iraq and cash it in Morocco.
From the perspective of Muslims, Western Europe was a kind of outer darkness
of barbarism and unbelief, a primitive tribe beyond the border to which they
gave understandably little attention. There was nothing to fear and nothing
to learn. On the contrary, it was the Europeans who went to the great Muslim
universities in Spain, in Sicily and in the East. In those centuries, Europe
-- meaning Christendom as Muslims saw it -- was a poor benighted backwater.
Then things changed. The change was gradual, and took place over a vast area
and a long period. But what brought the change home were rather dramatic
single events. One of those events was the second Turkish siege of Vienna in
It is important to remember that, in the 17th century, Islam was still
threatening Europe, not the other way around. Turkish pashas were still
ruling in Budapest and in Belgrade. Corsairs from North Africa were still
raiding the European coasts, including the coasts of England and Ireland
and, on one occasion, even Iceland -- collecting human booty for sale in the
slave markets of Algiers.
The first Turkish siege of Vienna ended in a sort of draw. But the second
siege, in 1683, was a disaster. A Turkish historian of the time, describing
the episode, said: "This is the most calamitous defeat that we have suffered
since the foundation of our state." One must admire his candour and regret
that similar candour is rarely to be found among present day historians of
The defeat outside Vienna was followed by a headlong retreat through the
Balkans and a peace treaty, the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699, the first ever
imposed on a defeated Ottoman empire by victorious Christian European
The lessons of history are often taught on the battlefield. In this case,
the lesson was clear.
Among Muslims, the debate began at the beginning of the 18th century, and
has been going on ever since. The main question: What went wrong?
There was a growing awareness that Muslims, who had always been victorious,
were now losing on the battlefield, in the marketplace and, in fact, in
every significant field of human endeavor. The debate became increasingly
agonized, and continues to the present day.
When you become aware that things are going wrong, there are two ways you
can approach the problem. First, you can ask "What are they doing right?"
There were many Muslims who followed this line of inquiry, and experimented
with Western forms of warfare and weaponry, Western-style factories,
parliaments and the like.
The second approach is to say "Who did this to us?" This of course leads
into a twilight world of anti-Western conspiracy theories and neurotic
fantasies. Unfortunately, this approach has prevailed in many parts of the
Muslim world to the present day.
In answering the question, "Who did this to us?" Muslims have often blamed
"Imperialists." (Of course, when Muslims were invading Europe, imperialist
expansionism was seen as natural and good because the invaders were bringing
the word of God to the heathens. When the Europeans, after centuries of
Muslim domination, counterattacked on the other hand, this was wicked.) In
this regard, the United States has now inherited the role of its Christian
predecessors. As many Muslims see it, the world continues to be divided
between the Islamic world and its age-old imperialist rival, the Christian
world. This division is at the heart of the writings of Osama Bin Laden and
his complaints about the "crusader" presence in Saudi Arabia and so forth.
- - -
Even after the second siege of Vienna, the Arab world was largely shielded
from reality by Ottoman power, even in the era of Ottoman decline and
retreat. But eventually, that came to an end.
The modern history of the Arab world is generally held to begin at the end
of the 18th century, when the French Republic sent a small expeditionary
force commanded by a young general called Napoleon Bonaparte to Egypt. To
the utter shock and horror of the Egyptians and everyone else in the region,
this small army from France was able to invade, conquer, occupy and govern
Egypt without the slightest difficulty. The fact that an army from the West
managed to penetrate one of the heartlands of the Islamic world -- not just
Vienna or the Balkans -- was a terrible shock.
But if the arrival of the French was a shock, their departure was a second
and perhaps more salutary shock. The eviction of the French was accomplished
not by the Egyptians, nor by the Turks, but by a small squadron of the Royal
Navy commanded by a young Admiral called Horatio Nelson.
The lesson was clear: A European power could come to the region and do what
it pleased, and only another European power could get them out. Thus began
the game, so to speak, of playing European powers off against one another.
For two centuries or more, the scenario remained the same -- though the
players were sometimes different. In the final phase, the players were the
two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States; and Middle Eastern
leaders used the skills they had perfected over two centuries in playing
them off against each other.
Then, suddenly, it came to an end. The phase in history that had been
initiated by Bonaparte and Nelson was terminated by Bush and Gorbachev.
Suddenly, there was no rivalry; there were no rival powers. First one and
then the other seemed disinclined to play the Imperial role -- the Russians
because they couldn't and the Americans because they wouldn't.
Some Muslim leaders are trying to keep playing the old game, and so are
seeking another power to play off against the West, as it is embodied by the
United States. The prime candidate is the European Union, or at least some
parts of the European Union where there is a negative sentiment regarding
America. Unfortunately, for those who pursue this policy, even if the
Europeans have the will to play this role, they lack the ability.
The other, and at first sightly more promising response to the end of the
Cold War, was that of Osama bin Laden. He and his followers make it
perfectly clear in their writings that they regard the defeat of the Soviet
Union as their achievement -- through their long struggle in Afghanistan. I
think you must agree it is not by any means an implausible explanation of
- - -
Where are we now? Within the Islamic world, more particularly the Middle
Eastern world, I think one must divide countries in terms of their attitude
to the West into three zones. One zone comprises those countries that have
governments that we are pleased to regard as pro-Western and pro-American.
These governments are therefore, and I stress the word "therefore,"
cordially detested by their people. They are detested not because they are
pro-West but because they are regarded as Western puppets and therefore the
West is held responsible for the corruption and tyranny of these regimes. It
is no accident that most of the hijackers and terrorists on Sept. 11 came
from countries with Western-friendly governments.
A second group are countries with hostile governments. I am thinking in
particular of Iraq and Iran, perhaps also Syria. These are bitterly
anti-American and anti-Western; and therefore their peoples are very
pro-Western and pro-American. Let me relate an Iranian joke that I heard
only last week from an Iranian, which I think captures the mood. (Jokes are
often the only uncensored form of comment in these countries.) When American
planes began to fly over Afghanistan, many Iranians put out notices over
their houses saying, "This way, please."
In these countries whose governments detest the West, all the indications
are that there is general goodwill toward the West among the people. In
Iran, for example, after 9/11, great numbers of people went out into the
streets and lit candles in sympathy vigils. This did not happen in nominally
U.S.-friendly countries like Saudi Arabia; quite the reverse.
The third group comprises the Middle Eastern countries where both the
government and the people are friendly. There are just two countries in this
categories: Turkey and Israel, which happen to be the only two countries
with functioning democracies.
- - -
Let me end with a discussion about Western influence in the Middle East. We
tend to think of modernization and Westernization as good things. And, in
many ways, they have been good things. But they have also done tremendous
damage to Muslim societies. They have, for example, strengthened
dictatorship to a degree that was never possible previously.
Modernization has strengthened the central power, and given the government
new means of surveillance and repression. This has made possible that
ultimate example of Westernization -- the one-party dictatorship. It
flourishes in Syria and in Iraq at the present time in a way that combines
the Nazi and Soviet models.
Westernization also has the effect of enfeebling or eliminating the limiting
powers within a society. In traditional societies, there were many limiting
powers that acted as constraints on government power. There were the urban
patricians, the country nobility, the religious establishment, the military
establishment and others. All these were enfeebled or abolished and made
subject to the central authority.
There was a time when socialism and nationalism were the two most widely
accepted creeds in the Middle East -- particularly after the end of the
Second World War, when the Soviets had won great victories in Eastern
Europe. The British Labour Party had won a great electoral victory, throwing
out the mighty Winston Churchill. Socialism was seen as the wave of the
future. So they brought in a whole series of socialist governments all over
the Arab world. There was some debate. Some said that we must have Arab
socialism; that is to say socialism, but adjusted to the different Arab
cultural context. Others said, "No, that's nonsense. We must have scientific
socialism," meaning the Moscow Marxists' variety. By now, I think they would
all agree that socialism is neither Arab nor scientific.
The other great slogan of the time was nationalism, which was supposed to
bring freedom, throwing off the foreign yoke. Unfortunately, there was some
confusion between freedom and independence. Indeed, in most of the places
that had previously been under Imperial rule, they had less freedom under
independence than they had under foreign rule. So you had the two ideas
discredited -- socialism discredited by its failure; nationalism discredited
by its success. These were the two great movements that dominated public
discourse and public life in these countries for half a century. Both are
dead. Both are gone. So, where do they turn now?
Basically there are two alternative approaches. One is the approach of those
who ask, "What did we do wrong?" and who feel that the way forward is to
modernize their societies but to do it properly and, most important of all,
with a measure of democratization of their political institutions and
liberalization of their economies.
On the other hand you have those who say: "The source of all our troubles
was the West" -- either what Westerners themselves did or, more frequently
and more importantly, what Westernizing local "puppets" or imitators did.
And the remedy, therefore, is to go back to back in time to the true,
authentic, original Islam. This is the remedy proposed by the Islamic
Republic in Iran and also by the various terrorist movements.
The choice between the two approaches is an awe-inspiring one; and, at this
point, I would not like to predict which way it will go. It is, of course,
going both ways at the present time.
Bernard Lewis is the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies,
Emeritus, at Princeton University. He has written numerous books about
Islam, including, most recently, What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle
Eastern Response. This essay is adapted from a May 30 speech delivered by
Prof. Lewis in Toronto as part of the Donner Canadian Foundation Lecture
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