“What Went Wrong?” (ch 1)
I’m reading Bernard Lewis’s little book, What Went Wrong, and I thought I’d summarize each of the book’s seven chapters; it’ll help me remember the material and perhaps you’ll find it useful too, dear reader. Chapter 1 is roughly about how the Ottoman Empire (i.e. Islam) discovered that the Westerners from Europe (Lewis refers to them as “barbarians” and “infidels,” depicting what he maintains was the common view of the West by Muslims since Islam sprang from the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century CE.) had advanced technologically, militarily, and otherwise, and that the balance of power had shifted from East to West.
The chapter begins with the Treaty of Carlowitz, signed in 1699–”the first peace signed by a defeated Ottoman Empire with victorious Christian adversaries.” The Christian adversaries in question were the members of a Holy League, formed with the blessing of the Pope: Austria, Venice, Poland, Tuscany, and Malta. Lewis writes that loss of territory for Islam was not new (see, Spain), but it appears to have been “a relatively minor issue–far away, not threatening.”
The lessons that the Treaty of Carlowitz provided were twofold. First, defeat: they had been defeated by a superior Western force. Second, diplomacy: “For the Ottomans [diplomacy] was a new task, one in which they had no experience: how to negotiate the best terms the could after a military defeat.” The British and Netherlands assisted them to this end. They wanted to balance against Austrian power by maintaining a “weakened but surviving Ottoman empire, in which their merchants could come and go at will.”
The Ottomans also sought Western help in terms of military affairs. The Ottomans had begun to recognize by the 18th century that the military might, organization, and strategy of the West had surpassed that of the West and that they needed to do something about it. Lewis argues that it was not a matter of Ottoman decline, but rather “it was European invention and experiment that changed the balance of power between the two sides.” Two changes, sanctioned by the ulema (curiously and repeatedly referred to as “doctors of the Holy Law”), for they weren’t in keeping with Islamic norms at the time, were 1) the use of non-Muslim teachers to teach Muslim students at new military and navy schools in Turkey and 2) “accept infidel allies in their wars against other infidels.” Lewis stresses that seeking knowledge and help from “infidels” was “an innovation of staggering magnitude in a civilization that for more than a millennium had been accustomed to despise the outer infidels and barbarians as having nothing of any value to contribute, except perhaps themselves as raw material for incorporation in the domains of Islam and conversion to the faith of Islam.”
Lewis provides three more examples of the insular culture of Islamic civilization and the more open West. First, although Muslims aren’t strangers to travel (indeed, one of the five pillars of Islam is to make the pilgrimage to Mecca if you’re able), when they did it was hardly ever to lands northwest of Islamic civilization. Those who did manage to visit barbarous Europe were usually in captivity, and when they returned, they didn’t have much to say about the foreign land. Westerner captives on the contrary returned home and “produced a considerable literature telling of their adventures, of the lands they had seen, and the people they had met in the mysterious Orient.”
Another example is the attitude displayed towards the other’s languages. In the West you could find universities where the study of the Orient and it’s languages was taking place. These scholars came to be known as Orientalists. Those who may be called Occidentalists haven’t been found in the East until a more recent date. ”The Occident remained even more mysterious than the Orient, and it aroused no equivalent curiosity.”
Last, European powers established embassies and consulates in Islamic lands while Islamic rulers, on the other hand, sent an ambassador to Europe when they had something to say, and immediately recalled him when he had said it. ”This eminently sensible and economical practice was maintained for centuries.” That is, until the 18th century when Ottoman rulers realized that their Western adversaries might be of some use in redressing the shift in the balance of power that had taken place.
When Salim III became the Sultan in 1789, he embarked on a program of (Western-based) military and administrative reform mentioned above. The Ottoman Empire remained weak, however. Less than 10 years later, in 1798, Napoleon was able to occupy and govern Egypt. It wasn’t the Ottomans that caused his expulsion a short few years later; it was another European power, the British. Ottoman weakness was also on display when nationalist agitation arose from Christian refugees within the Empire. Under the millet system, religious communities would remain relatively autonomous, “controlling their own education and social life, and enforcing their own laws” under “the authority of their own religious chiefs” within the general laws of the Empire. Lewis attributes the ideas of the French Revolution to the nationalist fervor and subsequent independence uprisings against the Empire in the early 19th century. The Serbs and then the Greeks, with Western backing, were able to autonomous and independent, respectively, setting an example for the rest of the 19th century and early 20th century.