Friday, 28 May 2010

Book Review: What Went Wrong? by Bernard Lewis (2002)


It is always dangerous to transform a series of academic lectures into a book. Any personal charisma that a lecturer brings to his sessions is easily lost on the printed page. And so this Bernard Lewis attempt to delve into the reasons for the decline of the Islamic world in general, and the Middle East in particular, is a witless, soulless exercise in boredom.

What Went Wrong? cobbles together lectures first delivered in 1980 with lectures as recent as 1998, and all the creaks and strains that betray the artificial compilation of material from decades apart is on full display.

It doesn't help that most of the text is a series of arcane research findings uncovered by delving into the archives of the Ottoman Empire, and presented in a stultifying sequence with hardly an attempt to tease out and highlight the important trends. Instead, Lewis is too easily distracted by dry and useless details, including the names of various emissaries who may have written one letter of interest back to Istanbul after spending a couple of months overseas. Thank you, but surely, we look for historians like Lewis to illuminate the big picture, at least in their books?

To make matters even worse, Lewis finds no use for sub-headings, his paragraphs are unnecessarily long and meandering, and he is continuously fascinated by the irrelevant. A perfect example of a writer who cannot control his urge to delve into the meaningless is a 17 page introduction that sinks under the weight of its own details -- when the entire book is less than 160 pages.

An endless number of wars, treaties and leaders are trotted out in sentence after sentence, each undoubtedly relevant to someone, somewhere. But as a display of strategic thinking, and as an attempt at understanding and explaining grand historical events, What Went Wrong? is inept.

And so we conclude, arduously, that the Islamic Empire wilted under the strain of poor leadership, poor governance, failure to appreciate and learn from the emerging power of a revitalized Christian Europe after the Middle Ages, failed nation-building, poor experiments with socialism, a poor choice of allies in the USSR, and victimization first by the British and French, then by the United States, and finally by Israel. It is highly doubtful that a single reader who picked up this book did not already know all of this.

There is a fascinating, even enthralling, historical book to be written about why the world of Islam slipped so terribly; What Went Wrong? most definitely isn't that book.

Subtitled "Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response".
159 pages, plus Notes and Index.
Published in hardcover by Oxford University Press.





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