"We are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them... This is no less than a clash of civilisations, the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judaeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both."

Bernard Lewis is professor emeritus at Princeton University and acknowledged by many as the West's leading expert on the Middle East. Professor Lewis is, almost incredibly, still writing excellent books in his mid-80s.

Islam is one of the world’s great religions. It has given dignity and meaning to drab and impoverished lives. It has taught men of different races to live in brotherhood and people of different creeds to live side by side in reasonable tolerance. It has inspired a great civilisation in which others besides Muslims lived creative and useful lives and which, by its achievements, enriched the whole world. But Islam, like other religions, has also known periods when it inspired in some of its followers a mood of hatred and violence. It is our misfortune that we have to confront part of the Muslim world while it is going through such a period, and when most, though by no means all, of that hatred is directed against us.

        - from "The Crisis of Islam"

The question which people have been asking all the time is I think the wrong question. The question people are asking is why do they hate us? That's the wrong question. They've been hating us for a long time. In a sense, they've been hating us for centuries, and it's very natural that they should. You have this millennial rivalry between two world religions, and now, from their point of view, the wrong one seems to be winning. And more generally, I mean, you can't be rich, strong, successful and loved, particularly by those who are not rich, not strong and not successful. So the hatred is something almost axiomatic. The question which we should be asking is why do they neither fear nor respect us?


Book - What Went Wrong (2002)
Book - The Crisis Of Islam (2003)
Other Quotes
External Resources


What went wrong? For a long time people in the Islamic world, especially but not exclusively in the Middle East, have been asking this question.

For centuries the world view and self-view of Muslims seemed well grounded.  Islam represented the greatest military power on earth - its armies, at the very same time, were invading Europe and Africa, India and China. It was the foremost economic power in the world, trading in a wide range of commodities through a far-flung network of commerce and communications in Asia, Europe, and Africa; importing slaves and gold from Africa, slaves and wool from Europe, and exchanging a variety of foodstuffs, materials, and manufactures with the civilized countries of Asia. It had achieved the highest level so far in human history in the arts and sciences of civilization.  Inheriting the knowledge and skills of the ancient Middle East, of Greece, and of Persia, it added to them new and important innovations from outside, such as use and manufacture of paper from China and decimal positional numbering from India. It is difficult to imagine modern literature or science without one or the other.
It was in the Islamic Middle East that Indian numbers were for the first time incorporated in the inherited body of mathematical learning. From the Middle East they were transmitted to the West, where they are still known as Arabic numerals, honoring not those who invented them but those who first brought them to Europe. To this rich inheritance scholars and scientists in the Islamic world added an immensely important contribution through their own observations, experiments, and ideas.  In most of the arts and sciences of civilization, medieval Europe was a pupil and in a sense a dependent of the Islamic world, relying on Arabic versions even for many otherwise unknown Greek works.

The impotence of the Islamic world confronted with Europe was brought home in dramatic form in 1798, when a French expeditionary force commanded by a young general called Napoleon Bonaparte invaded, occupied and governed Egypt. The lesson was harsh and clear - even a small European force could invade one of the heartlands of the Islamic empire and do so with impunity.
The second lesson came a few years later, when the French were forced to leave - not by the Egyptians nor by their Turkish suzerains, but by a squadron of the Royal Navy commanded by a young admiral called Horatio Nelson. This lesson too was clear; not only could a European power come and act at will, but only another European power could get them out.

When things go wrong in a society, in a way and to a degree that can no longer be denied or concealed, there are various questions that one can ask. A common one, particularly in continental Europe yesterday and in the Middle East today, is: "Who did this to us?" The answer to a question thus formulated is usually to place the blame on external or domestic scapegoats - foreigners abroad or minorities at home. The Ottomans, faced with the major crisis in their history, asked a different question: "What did we do wrong?" The debate on these two questions began in Turkey immediately after the signing of the Treaty of Carlowitz; it resumed with a new urgency after Küçük Kaynarca. In a sense it is still going on today.

A question often asked by the memorialists was: 'Why is it that in the past we were always able to catch up with the new devices of the infidels, and now we are no longer able to do so?' Interestingly, for a long time they did not ask why it was always the infidels who introduced the new devices.

With the crumbling of the language barrier direct observation of the West was now possible, and an increased recognition and more intimate awareness of European wealth and strength.  The question now was more specific - what is the source of this wealth and strength, the talisman of western success?  Traditional answers to such a question would have been in religious terms. All problems are so to speak ultimately religious, and all final answers are therefore religious.  The final answers given by traditional writers to the older formulation of the question were always 'let us go back to our roots, to the good old ways, to the true faith, to the word of God.'  With that of course there was always the assumption that if things are going badly, we are being punished by God for having abandoned the true path. That argument loses cogency when it is the infidels who are benefiting from the change.

Middle Easterners found it difficult to consider what we might call civilizational or cultural answers to this question. To preach a return to authentic, pristine Islam was one thing; to seek the answer in Christian ways or ideas was another - and, according to the notions of the time, self-evidently absurd.  Muslims were accustomed to regard Christianity as an earlier, corrupted version of the true faith of which Islam was the final perfection.  One does not go forward by going backward. There must therefore be some circumstance other than religion or culture, which is part of religion, to account for the otherwise unaccountable superiority achieved by the Western world.

For the whole of the 19th and most of the 20th century the search for the hidden talisman concentrated on two aspects of the West - economics and politics, or to put it differently, wealth and power.

Unlike the rising powers of Asia, most of which started from a lower economic base than the Middle East, the countries in the region still lag behind in investment, job creation, productivity, and therefore in exports and incomes. According to a World Bank estimate, the total exports of the Arab world other than fossil fuels amount to less than those of Finland, a country of five million inhabitants.

For a long time, 'freedom' and 'independence' were used as virtually synonymous terms. More recent experience has demonstrated that they are very different, and may even, in certain situations, be mutually exclusive.

The West European empires, by the very nature of the culture, the institutions, even the languages that they brought with them and imposed on their colonial subjects, demonstrated the ultimate incompatibility of democracy and empire, and sealed the doom of their own dominion. They taught their subjects English, French and Dutch because they needed clerks in their offices and counting houses. But once these subjects had mastered a Western European language, as did increasing numbers of Muslims in Western-dominated Asia and Africa, they found a new world open to them, full of new and dangerous ideas such as political freedom and national sovereignty and responsible government by the consent of the governed.
These ideas powerfully affected the subjects and masters of the Western empires, making the one unwilling to accept, the other, to impose, an old-style autocratic domination.

"The main reason for our backwardness as compared with the West is the way we treat our women; thereby depriving ourselves of the energies and talents of half the population."
    - Nama Kamal, 1868

In a series of speeches delivered in the early Twenties, Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, argued eloquently for the full emancipation of women in the Turkish state and society. Our most urgent pressing task, he repeatedly told his people, is to catch up with the modern world. We shall not catch up with the modern world if we only modernize half the population.

Westerners tend naturally to assume that the emancipation of women is part of liberalization, and that women will consequently fare better in liberal than in autocratic regimes. Such an assumption would be false, and often the reverse is true.

For men to wear Western clothes, it would seem, is modernization; for women to wear them is Westernization, to be welcomed or punished accordingly.

They were willing enough to accept the products of infidel science in warfare and medicine, where they could make the difference between victory and defeat, between life and death, between life and death. But the underlying philosophy and the sociopolitical context of these scientific achievements proved more difficult to accept or even to recognize.

Secularism in the modern political meaning - the idea that religion and political authority, church and state are different and can or should be separated - is, in a profound sense, Christian.

The term 'secularism' appears to have been first used in English toward the middle of the 19th century, with a primarily ideological meaning. As first used, it denoted the doctrine that morality should be based on rational considerations regarding human well-being in this world, to the exclusion of considerations relating to God or the afterlife.

The absence of a native secularism in Islam, and the widespread Muslim rejection of an imported secularism inspired by Christian example, may be attributed to certain profound differences of belief and experience in the two cultures. The first, and in many ways the most profound difference, from which all others follow, can be seen in the contrasting foundation myths - and I use this expression without intending any disrespect - of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The children of Israel fled from bondage, and wandered for 40 years in the wilderness before they were permitted to enter the Promised Land.  Their leader Moses had only a glimpse, and was not himself permitted to enter. Jesus was humiliated and crucified, and his followers suffered persecution and martyrdom for centuries, before they were finally able to win over the ruler, and to adapt the state, its language, and its institutions to their purpose. Muhammad achieved victory and triumph in his own lifetime.  He conquered his promised land, and created his own state, of which he himself was supreme sovereign. As such, he promulgated laws, dispensed justice, levied taxes, raised armies, made war, and made peace.  In a word, he ruled, and the story of his decisions and actions as ruler is sanctified in Muslim scripture and amplified in Muslim tradition.

In the more generally accepted interpretation of the term 'civil society', civil is opposed, not to religious or to military authority, but to authority as such. In this sense, the civil society is that part of society, between the family and the state, in which the mainsprings of association, initiative, and action are voluntary, determined by opinion or interest or other personal choice, and distinct from - though they may be influenced by - the loyalty owed by birth and the obedience omposed by force.

The practice of team sports like football and basketball and the rest is purely Western, mostly English in origin. It was the English who invented football and its analogue - parliamentary politics. There are remarkable resemblances between the two and both obviously come from the same national genius. The adoption of competitive team games has so far been more successful in the Middle East than the adoption of parliamentary government.

In every era of human history, modernity, or some equivalent term has meant the ways, norms, and standards of the dominant and expanding civilization. Every dominant civilization has imposed its own modernity in its prime.
Modern Western civilization is the first to embrace the whole planet. Today, for the time being, the dominant civilization is Western, and Western standards therefore define modernity.
Western civilization incorporates many previous modernities - that is to say, it is enriched by the contributions and influences of other cultures that preceded it in leadership. It will itself bequeath a Western cultural legacy to other cultures yet to come.

In the course of the twentieth century it became abundantly clear in the Middle East and indeed all over the lands of Islam that things had indeed gone badly wrong. Compared with its millennial rival, Christendom, the world of Islam had become poor, weak, and ignorant.  In the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the primacy and therefore the dominance of the West was clear for all to see, invading the Muslim in every aspect of his public and - more painfully - even his private life.

Particularly the second half of the century brought further humiliations - the awareness that they were no longer even the first among the followers, but were falling ever further back in the lengthening line of eager and more successful Westernizers, notably in East Asia. The rise of Japan had been an encouragement, but also a reproach.

'Who did this to us?' is of course a common human response when things are going badly.

The attempt to transfer the guilt to America has won considerable support, but remains unconvincing. Anglo-French rule and American influence, like the Mongol invasions, were a consequence, not a cause, of the inner weakness of Middle-Eastern states and societies.

With rare exceptions, where hostile stereotypes of the Jew existed in Islamic tradition, they tended to be contemptuous and dismissive rather than suspicious and obsessive. This made the events of 1948 - the failure of five Arab states and armies to prevent half a million Jews from establishing a state in the debris of the British Mandate for Palestine - all the more of a shock. As some writers at the time observed, ot was bad enough to be defeated by the great imperial powers of the West; to suffer the same fate at the hands of a contemptible gang of Jews was an intolerable humiliation. Anti-Semitism and its demonized picture of the Jew as a scheming, evil monster provided a soothing answer.

Some of the solutions that once commanded passionate support have been discarded. The two dominant movements in the 20th century were socialism and nationalism. Both have been discredited, the first by its failure, the second by its success and consequent exposure as ineffective.

The question 'Who did this to us?' has led only to neurotic fantasies and conspiracy theories. The other question - 'What did we do wrong?' - has led naturally to a second question: 'How do we put it right?' In that question, and in the various answers that are being found, lie the best hopes for the future.

If the peoples of the Middle East continue on their present path, the suicide bomber may become a metaphor for the whole region, and there will be no escape from a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression, culminating sooner or later in yet another alien domination.


Imagine if the Ku Klux Klan or Aryan Nation obtained total control of Texas and had at its disposal all the oil revenues, and used this money to establish a network of well-endowed schools and colleges all over Christendom peddling their particular brand of Christianity. This is what the Saudis have done with Wahhabism. The oil money has enabled them to spread this fanatical, destructive form of Islam all over the Muslim world and among Muslims in the west. Without oil and the creation of the Saudi kingdom, Wahhabism would have remained a lunatic fringe in a marginal country.


"The American Revolution was fought not by Native American nationalists but by British settlers, and, far from being a victory against colonialism, it represented colonialism's ultimate triumph – the English in North America succeeded in colonizing the land so thoroughly that they no longer needed the support of the mother country.

The Soviet Union played a significant role in procuring the majority by which the General Assembly of the United Nations voted to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, and then gave Israel immediate dejure recognition. The United States, however, gave only de-facto recognition. More important, the American government maintained a partial arms embargo on Israel, while Czechoslovakia, at Moscow's direction, immediately sent a supply of weaponry, which enabled the new state to survive the attempts to strangle it at birth. As late as the war of 1967, Israel still re lied for its arms on European, mainly French, suppliers, not on the United States.

Today, it is often forgotten that the strategic relationship between the United States and Israel was a consequence, not a cause, of Soviet penetration.

There is some justice in one charge that is frequently levelled against the United States: Middle Easterners increasingly complain that the United States judges them by different and lower standards than it does Europeans and Americans, both in what is expected of them and in what they may expect–in terms of their financial well being and their political freedom. They assert that Western spokesmen repeatedly overlook or even defend actions and support rulers that they would not tolerate in their own countries.

If Bin Laden can persuade the world of Islam to accept his views and his leadership, then a long and bitter struggle lies ahead, and not only for America. Sooner or later, Al Qaeda and related groups will clash with the other neighbors of Islam – Russia, China, India – who may prove less squeamish than the Americans in using their power against Muslims and their sanctities. If bin Laden is correct in his calculations and succeeds in his war, then a dark future awaits the world, especially the part of it that embraces Islam."

        - from "The Revolt of Islam", an article in the New Yorker magazine

"Resentment of America as the sole surviving superpower, capable of unilateral political or military action when and where it chooses, is normal enough, and is not limited to the Middle East. There as elsewhere, the fear and envy of America are based less on American actions than on a kind of projection-the expectation that America will act as they themselves would act if they possessed America's power.

Generally speaking, popular good will towards the United States is in inverse proportion to the policies of their governments. In countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, with governments seen as American allies, the popular mood is violently anti-American, and it is surely significant that the majority of known hijackers and terrorists come from these countries. In Iran and Iraq, with governments seen as anti-American, public opinion is pro-American.

In time, the advance of science and technology, which first made oil necessary, will make it obsolete, and replace it with cleaner, cheaper, and more accessible sources of energy. When that happens, oil wealth will no longer be available to sustain tyranny at home and finance terror abroad, and the outside world will no doubt view the struggles and upheavals of the Middle East with the same calm detachment - or as some might put it, callous indifference - as it now views the civil wars in Somalia and Sierra Leone.

The range of American policy options in the region is being reduced to two alternatives, both disagreeable: Get tough or get out."

        - from "American Imperialism", National Review.

"There is a Fascist element in the Islamic world, but it's not in the religious fundamentalists. It's rather in people like Saddam Hussein and his regime and the Syrian regime. These were directly based on the Fascist regimes. We can date it with precision: in 1940, the French government capitulated and a collaborationist regime was established in Vichy... But that has nothing to do with Islam. The Islamists' approach is quite different from that and has its roots in the history of Islam. Though, of course, it is also influenced by outside ideas. I would not call it Fascist. I would say it is certainly authoritarian and shares the hostilities of the Fascists rather than their doctrines.
I prefer to use 'Islamic fundamentalists' (rather than Islamists or Islamo-fascists) though that's also a loose analogy."

        - from "Islam's Interpreter", "The Atlantic"

"Most of North America's borders are straight lines. That's understandable because they were drawn with pencils and rulers on maps. The borders of Europe are different. They are not straight lines. They are the result of a thousand years of struggle."

"You know, there's this old American dictum: no taxation without representation. What is
sometimes overlooked is that the converse is also true: no representation without taxation. And with our revenues, they didn't need taxes; therefore, they didn't need assemblies to levy taxes. And they were made independent of public opinion in their own countries with this untold wealth accruing from oil revenues. This greatly strengthened the power of autocratic governments, far greater than it had ever been in the past. Now if traditional Islamic government is authoritarian, but it is not dictatorial or despotic, it is governed under certain rules and so on.
In modern times, the power of the ruler has been vastly augmented by these huge revenues so that he doesn't need public support or public approval of his taxes. It has also been increased by all kinds of modern devices for surveillance and repression so that any tin pot dictator today wields far greater powers than were ever wielded by Suleyman the Magnificent or Harun al-Rashid or any of the legendary rulers of the Islamic past."

"Tolerance is, of course, an extremely intolerant idea, because it means 'I am the boss: I will allow you some, though not all, of the rights I enjoy as long as you behave yourself according to standards that I shall determine.' That, I think, is a fair definition of religious tolerance as it is normally understood and applied."


This excellent website from the Brothers Judd offers a review of "What Went Wrong" and links to dozens of articles by Professor Lewis.