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What Went Wrong?
Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response

By Bernard Lewis
Oxford University Press, 180 pp, 2002

In this sleek and informative book, noted Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis examines the interaction between the Islamic world and the West. It's a fascinating and illuminating book.

At one time, the Muslim world was the richest, most powerful, and culturally advanced civilization on the planet. The Muslim empire encouraged education and learning, treated its minorities reasonably well, traded with its neighbors, and conquered every army it faced. 

Because of its obvious superiority, the Muslim world felt that no other culture or nation - Christian Europe, India, China - offered anything of value. Muslims paid little attention to what was going on inside those countries, beyond what immediately affected them. 

So when Europe advanced through the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment, the Muslims missed it. Suddenly, their armies were losing. Suddenly, they were losing previously won territories to backward nations like Russia. Even Napoleon himself successfully invaded Egypt.

But it went beyond the military. Europe and other regions were catching up to Islamic knowledge and surpassing it. Many Muslims belatedly realized they had better keep a closer eye on the Western world, and maybe even learn from it. But not enough Muslims agreed, and though Muslim embassies were established in western capitols, and many Muslim ambassadors wrote alarming books about the rapid advancement of the West, the Islamic world fell further behind, in military and economic terms. It is still trying to catch up.

In the meantime, the Western world was having its own effect on the Muslim world. Some influences were eagerly adopted, others resisted, others adopted grudgingly. So when you hear Muslims today bemoaning the corrosive Western influence of their culture, they have a point. It's been going on for centuries, though, and Muslim nations haven't always handled it well.

Lewis examines every aspect of Western influence - art, music, time, technology, and more. It's a surprisingly exhaustive account for such a slim book. Short or not, the book is a vital tool for gaining an understanding of the Muslim world today.

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