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Analyzing the Cultural Collision That Gave Rise to Sept. 11

January 25, 2002

Analyzing the Cultural Collision That Gave Rise to Sept. 11


One of the first and most troubling questions to arise after Sept. 11 was whether Osama bin Laden represented a fanatical aberration of an otherwise humane and tolerant faith or whether he was the cutting edge of a dangerous and swelling sentiment in Islam. The question revealed a considerable ignorance about Islam in America and placed a high premium on those few with genuine expertise in the field.

Bernard Lewis, an 85-year-old retired professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton and a wartime British intelligence officer (he describes it as a period when he was "otherwise engaged"), was among those who came to the fore. His books were sought out; his essays in The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly were widely cited; he appeared on "Meet the Press" and "Charlie Rose." So it is not surprising that a new book by Mr. Lewis with the enticing title "What Went Wrong?" would raise high expectations.

The title is certainly provocative, suggesting as a starting point a general agreement that something has gone amiss in the Islamic civilization, at least in its reaction to the impact of the Judeo-Christian West. But this has been Mr. Lewis's basic premise for some time. His fundamental argument is that Muslims became accustomed in the early centuries of their history to perceiving themselves as the bearers of the final and true faith, and so never came to understand or accept the Christian civilization of Western Europe that he maintains has surpassed and humbled them.

The shock of Western ascendancy has led, in our time, to two responses: emulating the West and its secular culture or returning to the fundamentals of the faith — the path whose most extreme manifestation is Mr. bin Laden. This, Mr. Lewis wrote in 1990 in a celebrated essay in The Atlantic Monthly (which introduced the catch phrase the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington then made famous) "is no less than a clash of civilizations — the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present and the worldwide expansion of both."

"What Went Wrong?" explores the various aspects and consequences of this cultural collision — military, social, cultural, governmental — usually with the conclusion that even in those rare instances when Islam overcame its fundamental resistance to learning from the infidel, it was for a specific and limited purpose, generally military.

In other words, Westernization, even when it happened, did not lead to modernization. Simply agreeing to send students to Europe, Mr. Lewis writes, was a radical act: "It is difficult for a Westerner to appreciate the magnitude of this change, in a society accustomed to despise the infidel barbarians beyond the frontiers of civilization. Even traveling abroad was suspect; the idea of studying under infidel teachers was inconceivable."

Not surprisingly, assertions like that have attracted no little controversy. Mr. Lewis has been accused of too Eurocentric an approach, of creating a justification for European imperialism, of taking too narrow a view of Islam. There is no doubt that he eschews relativism, from the title of his book to affirmations like this: "By all the standards that matter in the modern world — economic development and job creation, literacy and educational and scientific achievement, political freedom and respect for human rights — what was once a mighty civilization has indeed fallen low."

But such certainty only raises expectations that "What Went Wrong?" will take the case forward. Unfortunately, the volume is in fact a few steps behind. In the preface, Mr. Lewis acknowledges that the book was already in page proof on Sept. 11, so it does not deal with the terrorist attacks. But the more important disclosure is reserved for the Afterword, where Mr. Lewis confirms what the reader already suspects, that the book is really a compilation of lectures and articles dating from 1980 to 1999.

That does not mean that they are uninformative or uninteresting. There are fascinating riffs on the profound and fateful differences between the cultures of Islam and Christendom, from fundamental differences in the understanding of relations between church and state to more subtle contrasts in perception of time, literature, authority and identity.

"For traditional Muslims," Mr. Lewis writes, "the converse of tyranny was not liberty but justice. Justice in this context meant essentially two things, that the ruler was there by right and not by usurpation, and that he governed according to God's law, or at least according to recognizable moral and legal principles."

In his chapter "Time, Space and Modernity," Mr. Lewis advances the provocative notion that one of the central elements of Western progress is the prevalence of poly phony — not only as many voices proceeding harmoniously in music, but also as a capacity for complex interaction in sports, literature, science and ultimately politics. In Islamic civilization, he argues, the long absence of a precise measurement of time has precluded this critical synchronization.

These are certainly intriguing concepts to chew on as we seek to comprehend the world from which the suicide pilots came to do us such extraordinary damage. But they do not quite satisfy expectations. For one thing, this slim, 180-page volume never really overcomes the feel of old lectures. There is a lot of repetition, a lot of reference to old texts and a lot of generalization of the sort that may be acceptable in a lecture but is frustrating in a book whose title promises convincing answers to the riddles of Sept. 11.

It is especially difficult to accept that so vast and complex a portion of the world could be reduced to a fairly homogeneous historic force. Mr. Lewis often seems to treat the Ottoman Empire as a template for the entire Muslim civilization, drawing broad conclusions about all Muslims from Turkish examples even as he writes elsewhere of the ancient differences and great rivalries among Turks, Persians, Arabs and other Islamic nations.

Similarly, some of Mr. Lewis's conclusions simply long for more evidence, like the civilizing role of polyphony. Is its absence really all that great a handicap? And if it is, why did it not afflict Far Eastern nations with different musical or organizational traditions? It's an enticing notion, but not convincing.

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