Monday, January 09, 2006

Book Review: What Went Wrong?

This is the second year I gave Thomas Sowell's recommended Christmas book list to my wife for ideas, and this is another year I wasn't disappointed and her shopping was abbreviated (for me at least). Of the many books he recommends, Bernard Lewis' What Went Wrong? is the first (and shortest) I've completed.

In What Went Wrong?, Mr. Lewis outlines Muslim history starting with the creation of Islam and follows its rise to the pinnacle of civilizations and religious tolerance to its current state where its arts, sciences, human rights, politics, and education are at historical lows when measured against nearly any other present-day non-Arab culture. This hundreds-year-long trend began long before the United States ever existed. Some of the most interesting (and perhaps incriminating) evidence of Arab civilization's attitude towards the rest of the world includes its complete disinterest in reports of Columbus' new world, time (clocks, watches, etc.), or even electricity.

Of the many interesting facts and stories in this book is Mr. Lewis' discussion on the problems many cultures and languages have with the word secular, and how the concept of religion being separate from politics is an invention of Christianity. Even if by necessity, no religion before Christianity imagined politics and religion could or should be separate. The US Constitution's non-establishment clause may owe much to Jesus' ".. give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and give to God what is God's."

If you're in a rush, reading the forward, conclusion, and afterword will give you the gist, while still leaving your appetite whetted for the meat between.

This accounting of Muslim's past and present serves as a warning for us all. First is how a civilization's arrogance begins its downfall. Whether that civilization is secular or religious its dismissal of other culture's progress in politics, arts, or science leads to its stagnation and that stagnation leads to is isolation and makes it vulnerable to both military and cultural invasions. Both have plagued Arab states for the past few hundred years.

Once a culture has fallen behind instead of planning to catch up or seriously ask what went wrong or how to fix it, it asks, "who is to blame?" With few exceptions blame is placed externally. Rather than confess responsibility for the problem or the solution and proceed to a remedy leaders of trailing cultures fault outsiders and not their own beliefs, traditions, or attitudes. Paranoia becomes the national psychosis and loathing its foreign policy.

This is not an argument for multiculturism. It is an invitation to consider the value of the cultures, groups, churches, and parties we belong to or identify with, weigh the benefits each provides us, the opportunities we've taken, the values they promote, and whether we're better off as members or if it's time for our own reformation.

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