Tuesday, May 02, 2006


The great and good have been celebrating the 90 years of Bernard Lewis, 'the last of the great Orientalists'. Well might they. As the followers of Edward Said grew to become the voice of academia, teachers for whom Arabs became the new proletariat, hapless victims of world capitalism and the Imperialist West, Lewis must have felt very lonely. Yet he knew the languages, dug deep in the documents and was not in search of a millennial explanation for the history that surrounds us. He said uncomfortable things and not only did he have the knowledge and sources to back it up, but he didn't tend to feed (on) the self-pity of the new proletariat.

One of the most interesting chapters in What Went Wrong concerns the lack of interest in Arabs and Ottoman Turks for the outside world. Well before the age of European empires, traders from Italy, Portugal and France were investigating and learning about the Middle East. Offices became consulates and then embassies. Chairs of Arabic and Persian were set up in the major European universities. Many of the great works of those languages were translated and sold. But before the 19th century, no Middle Eastern state did anything of the sort. If there was information to be sought, Jews or Greeks were sent to report back.

When the need arose to actually go there, Muslim jurists were asked to adjudicate on difficult questions. Might a Muslim live in an infidel country? Or even a convert to Islam in his own (non-Muslim) country? Should a Muslim learn from an infidel? More often than not, the answer was 'no'. Not always, however. When the Ottomans captured a Venetian ship, their engineers found a lot of useful technology aboard. Over to the jurist, May we imitate the infidel? Yes, came the reply, all the better to fight them.

All this changed in the 19th century when the technological gap grew too great to be ignored. Lewis highlights the huge cultural leap that was made to allow students to go to Europe to study, and how difficult it was given the lack of tradition in language learning, given the almost invincible aura of cultural superiority that had hung over this civilisation for so long.

I would only add that this same sense of superiority has now turned to resentment and a crippling attachment to an outworn identity.

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