Lewis, the last century's foremost interpreter of Middle East politics and society, opens the new one with surely the timeliest book of this eminent historian's career. In concise fashion, with prose both accessible to the generalist and instructive to the specialist, Lewis describes the many ways in which Muslims have attempted to explain (and often explain away) how Islamic civilization fell from its commanding global position half-a-millennium ago to lag behind the West in virtually all areas of political, military, economic, scientific, artistic, and intellectual development. In so doing, he provides a primer on the trauma faced by Muslims as solution after solution failed to propel Islam back into the lead, or even into a position to compete. This record of serial failure, leavened by a deeply rooted reluctance to address the true ills of Muslim societies, sets the stage for the radical and often violent solutions offered in recent years by various Muslims, such as Iran's ayatollahs, Sadat's assassins, and the suicide bombers of September 11.
Lewis's diagnosis is straightforward—Muslims (like Kemal Atatürk) who ask, "what did we do wrong?" have a good chance of fixing their societal problems; Muslims (like Ayatollah Khomeini) who ask, "who did this to us?" are likely to sink deeper into maudlin self-pity and lash out ever more violently at supposed villains, such as America or "the Jews." Never with ridicule and often with sympathy, Lewis chronicles Muslim efforts to graft this or that Western advance on the ailing Muslim body-politic, all the while showing that borrowing the superficial trappings of Western societies (whether trousers or parliaments) will not suffice. A key indicator of Muslim recovery, he argues, will be the role accorded to women, the "touchstone of difference between modernization and Westernization." While the choice, Lewis notes, is for Muslims to make, the prognosis is not bright.
The distillation of decades of scholarship, this brief book includes many pithy gems, such as the difference between Middle Eastern and Western corruption and the connection between team sports and good governance. Also, Lewis's asides on Israel—both its precarious security situation and the problems associated with the empowerment of religious-based political parties—are foreboding and deserve attention. On a hopeful note, Lewis suggests provocatively that the Christianization of Islam perpetrated by ayatollah-led Iran—with its "functional equivalent of a pontificate, college of cardinals, a bench of bishops and, especially, an inquisition"—may, over time, provoke a much-needed reformation. If it comes, it will not be a moment too soon.