Lewis discusses 'What Went Wrong' in Middle East

The future of the Middle East hinges upon whether Muslim nations choose to view modernization as a necessary pursuit to keep up with the West, or reject it as the root of their problems and an obstacle to their return to authentic Islam.

Both sides of this debate were presented by Professor Bernard Lewis, one of the world's foremost authorities on the Middle East, in a lecture Thursday sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs . Lewis, the Cleveland Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies Emeritus, examines the history and future of the region in his recent book, "What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response."

Lewis retired from teaching at Princeton in 1986, but has remained in great demand from the media and political leaders for perspective on the Muslim world, particularly after Sept. 11. "What Went Wrong" was written before the attacks on the United States.

Lewis explained to a capacity audience at Dodds Auditorium in Robertson Hall that the Middle East - for centuries the center of civilization - has struggled to define how it fell behind not only the West, but more recently modernized nations such as Korea and Singapore. He discussed the history of conflict between the Middle East and the West, which, he said, ultimately boils down to two questions for the Muslim world: "What did we do wrong?" and "Who did this to us?"

The first approach, Lewis said, is more constructive and naturally progresses toward a remedy for the Middle East, which is "more active and effective modernization in every field - economic, cultural, intellectual, as well as military."

Lewis noted Muslim society's treatment of women as its biggest failure in falling behind the West, citing Turkish writer Namik Kemal's contention that the Muslim world's male-dominated society is akin to a human body that is paralyzed on one side. This must change for the Middle East to advance toward greater freedom and democracy, he said.

The second approach of blaming the West and modernization for the plight of the Muslim world "leads into a twilight world of neurotic fantasies and conspiracy theories and the like. And that has been much more popular in recent years in a large part of the region," Lewis said.

Osama bin Laden, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and other fundamentalists believe that the Muslim world must stop imitating "the infidels" and that the pursuit of modernization is preventing a return to their true, original faith, Lewis said.

"Both of these can make strong cases, and both of them command considerable support," he said. "The future of the Middle East will depend on which of them prevails."

Contact: Lauren Robinson-Brown (609) 258-3601