Browse Topics

Services

Programs

What Went Wrong?
Scholar Portrays Islamic World as Culture in Turmoil

Listen Listen to Robert Siegel's interview with Bernard Lewis.

cover for What Went Wrong

Cover for What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response
Photo: Oxford University Press

Jan. 3, 2002 -- In the summer of 1683, the Ottoman Turks laid siege to Vienna, Austria, but were repelled and later defeated by an alliance of Christian European states. Historian Bernard Lewis calls that defeat a turning point for Islam -- and the beginning of centuries of culture clashes between Europe and the Middle East.

Lewis, an emeritus professor at Princeton University, explores the decline of Islamic culture in a new book, What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response. The central premise of the book is likely to stir fierce debate, because it describes an Islamic world trying to catch up with the Western world for 400 years.

In an interview with All Things Considered senior host Robert Siegel, Lewis talks about how events centuries ago still resonate within the Islamic community. He contends that current events in much of the Islamic world are fueled by a desire for retaliation, and suspicion of European and American motives.

"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."

from What Went Wrong

While Europe was mired in the Dark Ages, Lewis says, the Islamic world flourished with art, music, science and military might. But Europe gradually made its own mark on the "civilized arts" -- thanks in part to what it learned from the Islamic world. In the meantime, Islamic countries began to sink militarily, politically and economically, Lewis says.

Lewis, an acclaimed Near East scholar, has written more than two dozen books. But this latest book, coming so soon after Sept. 11, is especially provocative, with passages such as this:

“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; perhaps from a new Europe reverting to old ways, perhaps from a resurgent Russia, perhaps from some new, expanding superpower in the East."

Browse for other NPR stories on Islam and Arabic culture.

In Depth

Muslims in America, a three-part series from NPR and American RadioWorks.
Oct. 21, 2001: Profiling the Proud Americans of 'Little Mecca'
Oct. 29, 2001: North Carolina Muslims Step Up Public Relations
Nov. 5, 2001: Middle East Heritage in America's Heartland

Roots of Resentment, a documentary project by American RadioWorks.

Other Resources

Biography of Bernard Lewis, a professor emeritus at Princeton University's Near Eastern Studies Department.

Oxford University Press is publishing Lewis' book.

Islam.com, a Los Angeles-based Web site with comprehensive information and links to Muslim culture worldwide.

Arabia.com, based in Dubai, UAE, is a news and information portal for the Arabic world.

Search the Koran by key words or phrases.