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Book Review
Last Updated: 09/16/2003
Laying the Blame

Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, Perennial (HarperCollins), 2003, ISBN 0-6-051605-4, PB, pp.186

Bernard Lewis argues that Islamic fundamentalism (thus terrorism) is a result of the failure of Islam to produce modern societies and nation states, and the best prescription for the current violent conflicts between the West and the Islamic world is the spread of modernism.

Bernard Lewis summarized his position on Islam and modernity many years ago in an article in the Atlantic Monthly entitled “The Roots of Muslim Rage” or  Why so many Muslims deeply resent the West, and why their bitterness will not easily be mollified.” ( His words have been truly prophetic and now his lengthier views are available in paperback.

The second paragraph in the 1990 article  reads: “If the idea that religion and politics should be separated is relatively new, dating back a mere three hundred years, the idea that they are distinct dates back almost to the beginnings of Christianity. Christians are enjoined in their Scriptures to "render ... unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and unto God the things which are God's." While opinions have differed as to the real meaning of this phrase, it has generally been interpreted as legitimizing a situation in which two institutions exist side by side, each with its own laws and chain of authority -- one concerned with religion, called the Church, the other concerned with politics, called the State. And since they are two, they may be joined or separated, subordinate or independent, and conflicts may arise between them over questions of demarcation and jurisdiction.”


The book What Went Wrong, listed as a best seller in its 2002 paperback version. is a succinct history of Islam and of the Ottomans. The history gets to the point in Chapter 5 “Secularism and Civil Society” where he enlarges on the point made in his Atlantic Monthly article. Though from time to time Christian princes generally saw the political advantages of making themselves head of the religion in their own territories, the state did have a separate identity from the church. To this extent it was possible to develop science and a concomitant supportive legal system and therefore achieve modernity without the brake of religion, despite the odd hiccup faced by the likes of Galileo. To this extent, therefore, Islamic “fundamentalism” is the refusal to secularise and seek nationhood. The biggest enemy to Islam is as much the close enemy, Kemal Ataturk, as the distant enemy, the  Judaeo-Christian USA.


Bernard Lewis is adept at finding the apt reference that appears to signify a real understanding of the Muslim dilemma. For instance, he quotes the contempt of one Arab Muslim traveller in the Nineteenth Century who, observing the British parliament, remarks how dreadful it must be to have to live by man-made laws rather than those made by God. However, as the book draws to a close the reader begins to wonder at the eclectic nature of his evidence. He spends some time discussing clocks and calendars in order to make the point that the Muslim world simply refused to innovate in the face of superior technical and technological developments, and now feels overwhelmed, bitter and dominated by Western modernity that not only defines Western culture and economy but also has become the key features of  the Chinese and Japanese. 


The conclusion then begins to sound less certain: the Arabs should spend less time blaming others and begin to blame themselves for their own refusal to modernise.


We realise as we get to the end of the book why it appeals to so many Western readers. Bernard Lewis would have us believe that Islamic fundamentalism (thus terrorism) is a result of the failure of Islam to produce modern societies and nation states, and the prescription to the current violent conflicts between the West and the Islamic world is the forced spread of modernism.


This the question: does Bernard Lewis offer key insights into the tension between Islam and Modernity? Or is his (in the words of another reviewer mentioned below) attack on Islam based on “aggressive ideology” and the need to justify more or less continuous western intervention in the Middle East.


Scroll down or go straight to the review by M.Shaid Alam





BERNARD LEWIS,  Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Emeritus, in his own words (

I was educated in the University of London, primarily but not entirely at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where I took both my B.A. (Honors in History) and my Ph.D. My B.A. degree was in History with special reference to the Near and Middle East; my Ph.D. in the History of Islam. I also studied Law, and went part of the way towards becoming a barrister, but decided that I didn't like it, and returned to study, and later teach, Middle Eastern History. It was a choice that I have never regretted. I also did part of my graduate work in the University of Paris, and spent some months touring the Middle East. I received my first teaching appointment in 1938, as an assistant lecturer (the lowest form of human life in British universities) in Islamic History at the School of Oriental and African Studies. With the exception of the years 1940 to 1945, when I was otherwise engaged, I remained a University teacher until my formal retirement in 1986, and, in a less formal sense, ever since. Until 1974, I taught at the University of London; since 1974 at Princeton.

Like most university teachers, I have had a somewhat narrow field in which I conducted my own research, a rather wider one in which I was willing to assist others undertake research, and a still wider one in which I was willing to risk undergraduate teaching. My earliest interest was in medieval Islamic History, especially that of religious movements such as the Ismailis and Assassins. The war years awakened and nourished an interest in the contemporary Middle East, which I have retained ever since. My major research interest for some time past has been the history of the Ottoman Empire. At the present time I am trying to combine all three by studying the history of the relations between Europe and Islam from early through Ottoman to modern times.

For a critical view of Bernard Lewis and of Western “orientalists” see” Here is an extract:

Scholarship or Sophistry?

Bernard Lewis and the New Orientalism

By M. SHAHID ALAM, Professor of Economics at Northeastern University.


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 fort1unes 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 élan, 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.


More at

[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