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A Matter of Conscience

It is impossible to learn overnight what one has spent a lifetime in ignorance of, and so it was perhaps not shocking to see demonstrators at a recent protest against the military action in Afghanistan hoisting placards reading: U.S. OUT OF THE MIDDLE EAST, apparently unaware that Afghanistan is in fact in Central Asia. Not shocking, but dismaying, as it is dismaying to read the innumerable articles and fliers, and listen to the innumerable conversations, that display subtler variations of the same indifference. Reducing an entire region of the world that consists of its own infinity of conflicts, histories, and aspirations to a cipher that tremors only in response to America, a country it antedates in its modern religious, ethnic, and cultural forms by more than a thousand years.

In the last months the question, it seems, has been “Why do they hate us?” Some say the Muslims (or Arabs, these words are used interchangeably) are angry about Israel; some say they are angry about sanctions on Iraq or about the American forces stationed on Saudi soil; some say they are angry about the effect American popular culture has had on their own, and some say they are angry because of their religion. (This religion, vaguely understood, is made much of. It is not, all agree, an intolerant one, or a violent one, and the vision of it that has warped so many souls is, all agree, an aberrant one, unrelated to its core values.) All this is true enough, so far as it goes; what dismays is the presumption that it is all that matters, and that the question to which these are answers is the most important one. To many, it would seem the Muslim is incapable of thought, and is only capable of reaction, and fanaticism. These same people are generally unaware that the part the West plays, and has played, in the East is in many ways less as a group of nations characterized by attitudes and actions than as an idea, one that has a place in a broader context of ideas, all of which are focused upon a fundamental question: In what sort of society to do we wish to live? Trying to understand the clerical fascism of Iran, the secular fascism of Iraq, and all that ranges between them, simply as variations on the same belligerent postures towards America is absurd, yet it is what is done every day in our lecture halls and newspapers. Posing the question simply as: “Why do they hate us?” locks even intelligent, educated people, into an empty rehearsal of rituals that affords no insight.

By trying to understand what Fouad A. Ajami has called the Arab predicament, we understand actions and ideas in the terms of their own context, rooted in the ideals and events that have birthed and nourished them, and we come to much different conclusions than one in which the Muslim world twitches, like tissues responding to electrical shock, to various American policies. We can to learn that, broadly, the debate in Riyadh, in Damascus, in Islamabad and Kabul, is whether to modernize or westernize; that is, whether to continue to merely import the ideas and the products of the West, as has been done for hundreds of years, or to adapt the attitudes towards philosophy and science—towards knowledge—that produced them. It is a debate with a long history, and Bernard Lewis’s new book is an indispensable guide to understanding that history.

Lewis begins in 1699 with the Treaty of Karlowitz. One might begin earlier, in 1492, with the expulsion of the Moors from Spain, but it is the treaty between the Ottoman Empire and Austria that truly marks a significant shift in the relations between Islam and Christdendom. Besieged in the east by Persians, the Ottomans could not fight the Austrians in the west, and so were forced to cede victory—the first time they were to do so to a Christian power. Ninety-nine years later Napoleon made his way deep into the heart of Egypt, and the military history of Islamdom in the interceding century can be read as a series of attempts to come to grips with the threat posed by Western technological advances, particularly by nautical engineering. For the first time Muslims traveled extensively, and scholars were petitioned to find Islamic precedent for using the weapons of the infidels (It was decreed that it was acceptable under Islamic law, so long as the weapons were used against the inventors.)The common assumption, however, was that although the primitive European may have devised useful goods such as the gun, the mechanical clock, and the printing press, this did not make them any less primitive. There was, for one thing, the arrogance of empire. For another there was the belief that Christianity was nothing but an earlier, inchoate, embryonic version of the Islamic civilization. The question among the Ottomans had little to do with the West. It was, as Lewis puts it, a question of “What have we done wrong?” Western advancement was not seen as advancing from the strength of Europe, but from a weakness of the empire. It was not thought that there was anything worth learning from the Europeans; it was assumed that it would be enough to master their new weapons and devices to resume the position of unbridled superiority. This turned out not to be so, and it is not difficult to determine the reasons why.

Lewis, at one point gives a listing of western items in 18th century Ottoman wills. Of five hundred total items, there are 147 clocks and watches, 76 pistols and muskets, and only 5 books. While Europeans were setting up chairs of Arabic in their oldest universities, and establishing permanent diplomatic missions in Islamic land, the Ottomans were making no such inquiries into the nature of Western societies. Even Shakespeare was not translated into Arabic until the mid-19th century. As Lewis puts it, “Knowledge was something acquired and stored, if necessary, rather than grown or developed.” This attitude towards knowledge implies the practicality with which Arab and Muslim scholars studied the West: in Lewis’s telling there was no interest in Western literature, history, or philosophy, simply a desire to know as much as necessary to operate its machines. Here precisely, we see how the history relates to the present: what Lewis describes is just what recurs today, when we see Saudi Arabia importing the technology of Western oil firms to tap its resources without undertaking the development of a sustainable science of its own, or Iran importing prefabricated nuclear reactors from Russia, complete with operating staff. The elites in the Middle East are largely educated abroad and the region’s own universities, despite the money poured into them, do not produce the advances in research similarly endowed Western institutions do because they have reproduced that form, and not the substance, of their models. There is little essential difference between the House of Saud importing engineers from Texas, and the Ottomans employing Greeks as diplomatic translators, relied upon to the point where they actually negotiated with Western nations for their retainers.

The Islamic world failed to see that it was a change in the European mode of apprehension, in their very values, that had produced their technological advances. The Islamic world became, and largely remains, content to merely import the end products of the Western spirit of scientific inquiry, never truly appreciating that its spirit, its attitude towards logic and the value given to knowledge for its own sake, is what drives the ever increasing technological prowess of the west, or that it is more than a method by which to attain tangible ends—it is indeed an entire world view from which no Westerner can escape. Western scholars of Islam have, on the whole, done a questionable job. Too often they present the Arab and Muslim world as a monolith of ignorance and superstition, but it is sobering to think that until fairly recently they had no analogues in the Muslim world. It was not merely that no one cared about the Renaissance; for a long time no one knew it had happened.

Ever since Napoleon the Arab world has essentially been playing catch up with the west; its recent history has been in some ways a series of manglings of western ideas. What Lewis documents in the time between Napoleon and now, and the changing of the question from “What went wrong? to “What was done to us?” are powerful, all encompassing ideologies that have sprung up since the withdrawal of the French and British in the early 20th century. First, pan-Arabism, and now fundamentalist Islam, have seized on the discontents of the people and focused them on corrupt regimes, on secular elites, and on the West. But this is to be understood as rhetoric in many ways. What is at stake is not, ultimately, specific political power so much as it is epistemology. The question of westernization is not a matter of policies, or programs, or cultural agendas. It is a matter of whether the Arab and Islamic worlds will accept or reject the legacy of enlightenment. Just as Europe, in struggling to accept the implications of its ideals, fostered fascism and socialism, giving play to the far ends of its political and moral spectrum, so the Arab and Muslim world is playing out the broadest ends of its politics, in some instances to see where they lead, and in some cases simply as a barbaric reaction to the death of the past.

            This, at least, is the issue as Lewis poses it. The inherent difficulty in responding to his position is that he has become, as Harold Bloom has in his field, a figure so polarizing that one must address not only the facts he presents and the interpretation he offers but also his motivations in so doing, and the rhetorical framework within which they are understood. The most persistent criticism of Lewis addresses not what he does or thinks, but what he is: it is, even when voiced by others, the criticism of Edward Said, which says that Western scholars are inherently incapable of understanding the Middle East and are, by their natures, apologists for colonialism and Zionism. Lewis, many would say, is the last of the Orientalists, and the debate which centers around him is more or less between those who mourn the fact and those who cheer it; between those who would study the Middle East with the classical techniques of Western history and those who would study it from oblique angles; between those who would study history from above and those who would study it from beneath. It is an issue that pits those who believe history is best understood as the interrelation of a series of facts against those who understand it as rhetoric. We should look, then, at criticisms made of Lewis by Said; there have been many, but they are of three basic sorts. The first is well-represented in Orientalism, his 1978 study of Western scholarship on the Middle East, in which Said famously wrote of Lewis that his work “purports to be liberal objective scholarship but is in reality very close to being propaganda against his subject material…[meant] to debunk, to whittle down, and to distract the Arabs and Islam.”

The criticism, insofar as it is not merely specious (if Lewis’s work is not propaganda but merely dangerously close to being so, why bring the point up at all?) reflects Said’s ideological framework more than it does anything else. It has it origins in Nietzsche’s concept of slave morality, and the implications of which led to the series of movements among historians seeking to resurrect the viewpoint of those who had not been properly represented in history. Michel Foucault, a self avowed exegete of Nietzsche, reasoned that if official history was written by the victors, an unofficial history could not go by the facts as commonly understood, and had instead to go by the facts that had gone previously unexamined: medical archives, diaries of the insane, newspaper clippings, anything the historian could lay his hands on. With this technique the historian becomes an artist and a rhetorician; the classical principles of harmony, balance, and cohesion, that have governed Western history since Herotodus (and to which Lewis pays implicit homage) are rejected as restrictive, and as in fact imposing a certain morality that inherently sympathizes with the powerful, who according to Nietzsche’s ideas, are not necessarily better, or worthier than the powerless. Foucault’s technique imposes a certain morality of its own, in which any historical conflict must be viewed as being between the powerful and the powerless, and in which the powerless, in any given situation, are assumed to be morally superior to the powerful. It is a socialistic morality in which the mass is perceived to be more important than the individual, and the individual is judged by how well he exemplifies the traits of his class, or the race the historian is trying to demonstrate. It is Said’s technique as well—he is as explicitly a disciple of Foucault as Foucault is of Nietzsche—and it is one that is diametrically opposed to Lewis’s technique. Said cultivates a personal voice, constructs a narrative, manipulates rhetoric, and carefully chosen facts with artistry; he is a fine essayist, but not a dispassionate one. He does not believe that Lewis’s is “liberal objective scholarship,” because he does not believe in liberal objective scholarship at all. He rejects dispassion; his idea of the intellectual requires that it be in opposition to power, that it be “committed.” It requires contrarianism, and rejects the reason that forces one to always judge each issue on its merits. He is always a critic, and never a historian.

Lewis, conversely, is a historian and nothing else. He manipulates his narratives with the skill of an artist, and his facts are at least as carefully chosen as Said’s, but it is facts that are his métier: the sequence of them, their weight in relation to one another, what they reveal and do not reveal. He is as fine for the odd bit of information tucked away in some dusty government archive as Said, but he does not make use of such points exclusively, nor for their own sake. Facts are what he presents, and their arrangement constitutes his argument—it is striking to read "What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity" and realize that there are no more than two or three points at which he intervenes in the narrative. He is more a historian than a writer, but as a writer, he reminds one of Tolstoy more than of anyone else.

More recently, in a well-circulated article, Said wrote of Lewis’s influential 1990 article “The Roots of Muslim Rage” that in it “the personification of enormous entities called “the West” and “Islam” is recklessly affirmed, as if hugely complicated matters like identity and culture existed in a cartoonlike world.” This is an example of the second sort of criticism Said made of Lewis, and it is a more valid one—at least as regards that sort of article. In writing a polemical essay such as “The Roots of Muslim Rage” (or Orientalism), one naturally simplifies and distills the large and complex dissonances of heterogeneous societies into abstract conceptions; using such abstractions is what allows man to think about matters more complex than from behind which bush his next meal is coming. What Said finds missing in Lewis—the “internal dynamics and plurality” of societies—is not necessarily accurate. By saying that to speak of “Islam,” one is oversimplifying complex realities is a tautology, and a disingenuous one. In fact it is the internal dynamics and plurality of societies that Lewis excels at depicting, in the work at hand, and in others.

There is, finally, a more general charge, that he omits facts, that he selects only those that present the Arab as something “other,” something vile, something worthy of oppression; but even this is insubstantial. It is a given that someone who views the writing of history, because some facts are always omitted, no matter who is writing. It is a given that he will, in his dialectical view of the world, find fault in those who aspire to serve an abstract notion of truth rather than the dispossessed of the earth; and in truth, Lewis does not attempt to give voice to the feelings of oppression that Middle Easterners now feel, something required of him as a man of conscience by Said’s notion of the intellectual. He takes those feelings for granted; he assumes they are something that does not have to be explained to his audience. He is probably right. No one who will read this book is unaware of the Saudis who are watching their country decay at the hands of foreign oil interests and the decision of their fathers to raise an entire generation not to do manual labor, or the Iranians striving to rid their country of its despotic ayatollahs through the establishment of free and open elections, or the innocent Palestinians watching the streets where they live turned into hell. Given that Lewis’s stated task is not to document their suffering but to explain how these crises came about and what their context is, the criticism is another tautology.

 Reading Lewis, reading Said, and meditating on these issues—reading history in an engaged fashion—should, if we are equal to it, have a broader effect on us than to simply stuff us with what are ultimately ephemeral opinions and information. The crises of the day pass, and new ones arise, but how we make sense of our past and our present, and whether we are willing to discard the striving for objectivity in favor of passion, personal bias, and rhetoric, are what should matter most if we are to try and discern what is really going on in the world. What we can ultimately learn from examining the history being written in our time is that ideology, when it infects the very reason upon which debate is founded, cancels out the mutual sympathies that naturally exist between all people of conscience.


Tim Marchman

TIM MARCHMAN is a contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.


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