Political Islam 101

Engaging the Muslim World by Juan Cole Palgrave MacMillan, 282 pages, $26.95

Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East by Rashid Khalidi, Beacon Press, 308 pages, $25.95

Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East by Robin Wright, Penguin Press, 464 pages, $26.95

Few if any foreign-policy challenges will command the attention of the Obama administration more than those emanating from the broader Middle East. The scars of the Bush years are deepest there, adding to a long history of mutual suspicion between America and the Muslim world. As a step toward overcoming that distrust, President Obama has said he would deliver a keynote address to the Muslim world in a Muslim capital during his first 100 days in office (though we shouldn't be surprised if that deadline slips). Among the people of the region there is a fragile sense of hope for a changed relationship because of who Barack Hussein Obama is and, perhaps even more, because of who he is not--George W. Bush.

Success in the region, or just improved relations between America and the Muslim world, will require more than a feel-good speech. It will take a fundamental re-evaluation of policies and a rediscovery of the long-dormant capacity to listen, empathize, and understand on terms other than one's own. In their new books, Robin Wright, Juan Cole, and Rashid Khalidi all begin to map out that terrain. Any re-evaluation cannot wish away, or continue trying to blast or boycott away, the most potent nongovernmental social force in the region today--Islamism. A survey course, Political Islam 101, should be compulsory for Middle East policy-makers, and they cannot be allowed to skip the class on distinguishing between the revolutionary destructive Islamists of al-Qaeda and the reformist democratic-oriented Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood (as troublesome as the latter may be across a range of issues).

If there were such a course, Dreams and Shadows, Engaging the Muslim World, and Sowing Crisis might all appear on the required reading list. When it comes to rethinking policy on political Islam, all three have much to offer. Cole has made engagement with political Islam the animating theme of his work, while Wright puts us in the room with leading Islamists, and Khalidi provides essential historical background, notably on the U.S. promotion of Islamism as the alternative to Soviet ideology during the Cold War.

Both Cole and Khalidi present their materials thematically--Cole from the perspective of America's interaction with the Muslim world and the anxiety that each society has about the other; Khalidi from the vantage point of the Cold War, when American regional dominance developed and then took on even more imposing dimensions afterward. Wright takes us on a tour of eight regional destinations, introducing us at each turn to a triad of figures--autocrats, theocrats, and democrats--who will be shaping the future of the region, and her particular passion is for the latter. When she began her journey in 2006, the democrats were in the ascendancy, but by its conclusion they were cowering in the basement, to paraphrase former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher, who has his own fascinating book on the subject, The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation.

Of the three books, Wright's Dreams and Shadows is by far the longest but also probably the most accessible for the general reader. The book is replete with sociocultural insights and depictions of colorful characters, recounted by a keen journalistic observer. Wright is at her best, for instance, when contemplating what recent controversial Iranian movies such as Under the Moonlight or The Lizard tell us about contemporary Iran or when noting the proliferation of phone cards bearing the image of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah after the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War. In an ironic variation on the old "Where are they now?" genre, Wright tracks down former U.S. hostage takers in Tehran (now disillusioned with aspects of the revolution) and the topplers of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad (now equally disillusioned with the American occupation of Iraq). She explores the significance of the region's youthful demographic profile and the potential impact of the new generation weaned on satellite TV, SMS, and the Internet. Her analysis of such matters as U.S.?Iran relations and the role that judges may play in advancing change in Egypt is astute.

Through her interviews with Islamist leaders and defenders of existing regimes, or in her enthusiastic, at times gushing depictions of liberal challengers to the status quo, Wright illuminates a Middle East that Americans rarely glimpse. In thoughtful and rich detail, she tells us about a new generation of women activists and their struggles, such as the story of Morocco's Fatima Mernissi, author of the 1995 book Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood. Wright's recounting of Mernissi's efforts to secure equal rights in Morocco from within an Islamic discourse is a refreshing antidote to Ayaan Hirsi Ali's recent book, Infidel [see Stephen Holmes' review, "The European Dilemma," April 2007], and the peddling by right-wing think tanks of the notion that Islamic and Western values are incompatible.

Yet Wright's tendency to romanticize the region's Western-oriented reformers may also be a weakness of Dreams and Shadows. In each of the eight destinations in the region where Wright takes us to meet a democrat, a theocrat, and an autocrat, she provides a detailed description of the interview setting as well as the interviewee's appearance and public role. The format becomes a bit predictable and belabored, though she does serve up a good read, and in breaking bread with Islamist leaders from Hamas' Khalid Mashaal to Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah, she puts flesh and bones on characters who often appear as two-dimensional cardboard cutouts in the American media. Demystification is a necessary station on the path to more mature policy. Wright has an impressive capacity to open a space for dialogue that America's governmental decision-makers are often legally prohibited from conducting.

But in discussing political Islam or the challenges of democracy, Dreams and Shadows is strangely inattentive to the role of the United States itself. Sowing the Crisis and Engaging the Muslim World fill that gap by the spade-full. If Wright is about personalities, Cole and Khalidi are all about context--historical, contemporary, and geo-political--and especially the shaping role of American influence.

A professor of history at the University of Michigan, Cole has acquired a wide reputation for his award-winning blog on Middle East politics, Informed Comment. Here he sets out to examine "the myths and realities that provoke Islam Anxiety in the West, and the grounds, legitimate and illegitimate, for America Anxiety in the Muslim world." Each chapter introduces and then critiques another form of anxiety--U.S. dependence on oil from Muslim states, Muslim radicalism (which he usefully distinguishes from Muslim activism), Wahabism, and the challenges posed by Iraq and Iran and now Pakistan and Afghanistan. To bring home the analysis to an American audience, Cole draws analogies between Islamists and what he sees as their American counterparts. In Cole's vernacular, Salafi Jihadists are, for instance, best understood as fundamentalist vigilantes in the Timothy McVeigh or Waco mold, while Wahabis are akin to the Amish or Mennonites. That the paramilitary radical right in America draws on some of the same ideological sources as the right wing of the GOP does not make them synonymous, and for Cole the same criteria should be applied when considering al-Qaeda's relations to the mainstream political Islamists of the Muslim Brothers. Not everyone will accept the comparisons, but it is a usefully provocative way of walking readers through the arguments.

Anyone familiar with Cole's Informed Comment blog will not be surprised to discover that Engaging the Muslim World is rich in policy prescriptions across a diverse range of subjects. He is at his best when demolishing myths and dealing with complex issues. Can America make energy policy independent of Middle East oil considerations? For the next generation, Cole argues, it cannot. He has timely and pertinent things to say about the role of regional diplomacy in stabilizing Iraq, what to do about Kirkuk, engaging Islamists in Pakistan, and addressing the Iranian nuclear program. Most important of all is his call for an honest, ongoing conversation of equals between America and the Muslim world.

Engaging the Muslim World's most scornful moment is its critique of the disastrous and misinformed policies of the neoconservatives and the radicalizing and destabilizing effects they have had on the broader Middle East. Some of the omissions in Engaging the Muslim World are unfortunate. An examination of the Justice and Development Party and the role of political Islam in Turkey belongs here, and Hamas makes only a cameo appearance in the Iran chapter. But Cole has delivered an important book that members of the administration would be wise to read en route to the Middle East.

The role that the United States played in promoting Islam as an alternative ideology to the nationalist left in the Arab world forms only a backdrop of Cole's study, but that story takes center stage in Khalidi's Sowing Crisis. The two books complement each other nicely, as Khalidi discusses Lebanon, Turkey, and Palestine, as well as a possible source of future Gulf instability, namely Yemen, which Cole hardly mentions.

Sowing Crisis sets out, 20 years after the Cold War, to re-examine the effect of that era on the Middle East and the continuities as well as changes in policy since that time. Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, builds a rather strong case that even during the Cold War, the United States exercised regional dominance. Since then and most especially under George W. Bush, America has combined unprecedented military engagement with an equally unprecedented diplomatic self-marginalization. If Wright's Middle East focuses on the internal dynamics of the region, Khalidi emphasizes external influence as the driving factor, even if the tail occasionally wags the dog (and that applied to both Soviet and American allies sometimes playing their superpower masters). Sowing Crisis provides a useful recap of a long and rich history of American undermining of democracy and support for authoritarianism in the Middle East, whether in Lebanon, Jordan, and Iran in the 1950s or in Palestine today.

Khalidi's emphasis on the relationship between the expansion of U.S. military bases and arms sales in the region and the domestic military-industrial complex is particularly timely given the current economic crisis. Being an American ally in the region has translated into massive arms purchases, whether or not they are subsidized. In recent years, the United States also shifted from maintaining a largely over-the-horizon security presence to basing a huge and permanent physical military concentration in the region. Khalidi suggests that we should be concerned that the current economic crisis may create a dangerous incentive to ramp up elements of a war economy.

The global war on terrorism has replaced the Cold War as a defining frame of reference, acting as justification for this massively increased U.S. military role. Islamofascists have taken the place of Reds, and being "soft on terrorism" has become as terrifying a political accusation as being "soft on communism" once was. Sowing Crisis hardly bemoans the passing of the Cold War or its Arab world manifestation of competing camps led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but it does express a concern that a predictable and rules-based set of relations and constraints that held between America and the Middle East has been replaced by a rules-free environment, not least with regard to America's own actions.

Khalidi describes America's current Middle East posture as resembling a "stumbling giant." The United States is deeply invested and embroiled in the region yet also likely to be outflanked by small or medium-sized local actors such as Qatar or Turkey. But his criticism of the other international powers and many Arab regimes is also stinging. He condemns the failures of international actors such as the European Union, Russia, India, and China as well as the Arab states themselves to act responsibly and in their own interests. With only rare exceptions he describes the Arab states as being "no longer an actor or a force," unfavorably comparing them with non-Arab Middle East states such as Israel, Turkey, and Iran, which have demonstrated an independent capacity to act. And in one of the weak points of an otherwise impressive and highly useful book, Sowing Crisis in its final chapter descends into lists of seemingly hurriedly laid out policy prescriptions that it would have been helpful to expand on in greater detail.

Though Wright, Cole, and Khalidi are not exactly wide-eyed optimists, they all see paths to a more hopeful future for the region and for America's relations with it. The Obama administration has so far displayed an interest in rethinking policy and re-engaging the region. It has empowered envoys to deal with the crisis in Afghanistan-Pakistan and the Arab-Israeli conflict, announced a plan to withdraw from Iraq, and sought a deal with Russia to help in pressing Iran on its nuclear program. It's a meaningful beginning, but the hard work of steering American policy to less choppy waters has just started.

Even Wright, who most emphasizes the potential of indigenous regional actors to drive change, recognizes America's decisive role in not undercutting or embarrassing reform efforts by guilt of association. For Cole and Khalidi, an inescapable centerpiece of any new strategy for the region must also be a genuine effort to address Palestinian grievances and to achieve a solution on Israel-Palestine. "Resolving this conflict in a way acceptable to all the major parties involved," Cole says, "should be the highest priority of [Obama's] administration. This step would resolve 90 percent of America's problems with the Muslim world." While that number is impossible to prove, it certainly has a powerful logic behind it.

But beyond Israel-Palestine, there has to be a move toward co-existence with non-al-Qaeda political Islamists. That is the message of these three books, and as the Obama White House speechwriters gear up for that address to the Muslim world, they might consult these studies to try to figure out how that new co-existence could become a reality.

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