Why a Civilization Declined

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Terrorism is the bitter howl of the victimized. For a short course on why so many Muslims feel that rage, Bernard Lewis is the man. He has been going over this ground since he coined the phrase "clash of civilizations" back in 1990. What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (Oxford University Press; 180 pages) doesn't directly address terrorism's latest face, as it was written before Sept. 11. But for newcomers to the subject, Lewis' brisk explication of the tense dynamic between Islam and the West offers a historical case for what he calls the Muslim world's "downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression."

Combining grand generalizations with the telling vignette, Lewis offers a European's-eye view of how Muslims, primarily in the Middle East, arrived at their current sorry pass. He gives Islam full credit for a millennium of glory, when the faith conquered much of the world, dominated the global economy, and brought civilization to high flower in science, medicine, classical learning. But his interest is in unraveling the recent centuries in which the Muslim world lost virtually all of it, dating from Kara Mustafa's military defeat at the gates of Vienna in 1683.

That setback was repeated in other spheres as Western (Christian) societies leaped ahead. When Muslims tried to respond, argues Lewis, they confused Westernization (which they rejected) with modernization (which they sought). It's a bleak road map of missteps to the Islamic world of today, impoverished in almost everything but terrorism and despotism. And while Lewis never poses it directly, he leaves readers to ponder an explosive question: whether a religion rooted in the belief that all truth was revealed to its prophet can ever successfully embrace change.

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