Londonstani on “The Islamist”

Londonstani, a former Cairo drinking buddy and journalist who blogs over at our counter-insurgency obsessed friends Abu Muqawama (they who speak of themselves in the third person – just teasing, guys), has a great review of Ed Husain’s The Islamist, a book about the radicalization of British Muslims. Londonstani makes a very good point about its superficial treatment of “traditional Islam” vs. modern Islamism (whether radical or not) and the importance of understanding the rigid traditionalist socio-cultural concepts that are perpetuated among migrant communities (sometimes even when these things evolve in the “home country”):

“This ‘traditional’ outlook is in general terms shared by most (if not all) immigrant Muslim communities. Husain comes from a Bengali family background, but the cultural outlook he describes is shared by Pakistanis, Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Somalis and Nigerians. That’s not to say all these cultures are exactly the same, but in the main they exhibit large measures of racism (often against each other), sexism, tribalism and a quietist approach to dealing with the outside world that fail to meet the challenges their children experience in reconciling their backgrounds with their everyday lives.

In a depressingly high frequency of cases, these ‘traditional’ outlooks result in harmful and exploitative practices. Two years ago, I got to know several young men from Bengali backgrounds who lived in housing estates in Husain’s old stomping ground. One of the guys, Fasial, I knew from the local gym. He was bearded and religious, and an upstanding member of his community. Three times a week he helped organise a bus that took elderly residents of his housing estate to their local church. And could be found most afternoons teaching football to pre-teens in the estate’s playground.

After knowing Fasial for about six weeks, he started telling me how he had been a gang member until a visit to Bangladesh, where he found religion. A couple of weeks after that initial conversation, he told me how he had ended up in Bangladesh against his will because his father wanted him to marry his cousin. At his extended family’s village, Faisal had been poisoned by relatives angry that his intended bride had chosen him instead of another cousin who lived in the village. Faisal was sick for weeks and thought he might die. He found religion on what he thought would be his deathbed. When he got better, his newly acquired religious persona allowed him the gravitas to resist community pressure and reject his father’s plans.

The other friends I had made had equally horrific stories. And some were plain surreal involving severe beatings as part of what can only be described as a voodoo ritual to banish the evil eye.

Islamism addresses the questionable ‘traditional’ practices of the families its raw recruits come from. This is a large part of its appeal. If you find yourself in a lecture hall where young Muslims are told the way of life they struggled to follow is actually itself ‘un-Islamic’, you will be able to hear the collective intake of air and the surprised mumblings of the crowd.”

Go read the rest. Abu Muqawama recently became an official blog of the Center for a New American Security (the old security sucked should be their motto) and their comment counts have been going through the roof lately.

Shukair’s “My cousin Condoleeza”

"Ma cousine Condoleezza : Et autres nouvelles" (Mahmoud Shukair)

Click below for Le Monde’s review of Palestinian writer Mahmoud Shukair “My cousin Condoleeza and other stories”, originally released in Arabic and now available in French. And here’s a review of his previous collection of stories, Mordechai’s Mustache and His Wife’s Cats. Continue reading Shukair’s “My cousin Condoleeza”

New book on Egypt, “Egypt between democracy and Islamism”

Another new book about Egypt in the twilight of the Mubarak era has come out:

"L’Egypte entre démocratie et islamisme : Le système Moubarak à l’heure de la succession" (Jean-Noël Ferrié)

I haven’t gotten a chance to read it yet, but from the blurb it looks at how the “Mubarak system” works and its success in preventing a much-anticipated social explosion. For a look a Ferrié’s approach to Egypt, see this article [PDF], from November 2006.

On Hichem Djait

I read this Angry Arab post this morning and could not agree more:

Hichem Djait: Probably the most important and original scholar on Islam. I have been reading about the origins of the Great Fitnah in Islam. It is easy to discover that the best book there is on the subject is by the brilliant Tunisian scholar, Hichem Djait: La Grande Discorde, which appeared in an excellent Arabic translation but not in an English translation. Djait is largely unknwn in US academia although he is in my opinion one of the best contemporary scholars on Islam. This is a man who is equally fluent in German philosophy–in German–and in French historiography–in French–and in Arabic writings–in Arabic. Only one of his books is available in English, L’Europe et l’Islam. That book should be read along with Said’s Orientalism and Rodinson’s La Fascination de l’Islam as the essential readings on the subject (and Irwin’s latest Dangerous Knowledge, albeit as a critical counterpoint). In the introduction to his book on Fitnah, Djait points out (with surprise) that there are no studies about the subject, with the exception of a book by Taha Husayn which is literary in nature. Husayn (contrary to his reputation) was quite apologetic in his writings on Islam. Djait is great in being critical of Orientalist literature and critical of the early Islamic sources. Politically, Djait surprises me: this brilliant scholar has Saddamist Arab nationalist sympathies.

Hichem Djait’s Fitna is incredibly rich, detailed history and the best book on the subject I know of. Whatever you do, don’t get the book with the same main title by Kepel. Djait’s book is the real thing, and considering the creepy anti-Shiism rising in the Sunni Arab world it’s probably worth re-reading.

Rodenbeck to Pollack: you are not very good

If you read a lot of book reviews, as I do, you will have noticed that many reviewers (especially ones who are also writers or work in the same field as the author of the book) are reticent to go on attack mode when reviewing a peer’s work. Add to that the phenomenon of logrolling — trading favorable coverage in the expectation that the kind treatment will be returned — and many reviews only seem to tepidly explore the flaws of the work of the work under review.

Enter this review of Kenneth Pollack (he of Iraq: The Threatening Storm fame), which looks at his new book on US Middle East Strategy and finds it not very good at all:

Pollack commits errors that, despite his years in the corridors of power and some 70 pages of footnotes, betray a lack of genuine intimacy with his subject. It is not true, as he asserts, that education in the Persian Gulf emirates is largely private. Nor is it true, any longer, that virtually the only foreign investment in Arab countries goes toward pumping more oil: real estate, tourism, banking, telecoms and even heavy industry now lure investors, too.

It is an outdated generalization to state that “Arab bureaucracies . . . create interminable delays with customs regulations, inspections and other red tape.” Try telling that to Dubai Ports World, a company that runs 45 container terminals in 29 countries, or to the operators of the giant, state-of-the-art transshipment hubs in Egypt and Morocco that are set to dominate Mediterranean trade. It is even more misleading to assert that “the Arab regimes have implicitly or explicitly backed a range of terrorist groups.” Pray, which Arab governments does he mean, and which groups is he talking about?

Pollack also shows a shaky grasp of history. We know that the Ottoman Empire declined and fell, but to have endured for five centuries, and for half those as the biggest state in Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, does not make the Ottomans “unsuccessful.” Elsewhere he tells us sagely that “over time, the stagnation of the Arab economies has created considerable poverty,” as if there were no poor Arabs before, and as if one of the most startling modern examples of mass impoverishment was not the Clinton-era sanctions on Iraq, which destroyed its middle class and set the stage for postwar chaos.

America gets off rather lightly in gen eral, in Pollack’s account, compared with the sad Arabs whom we must help to be like us. We are told, for instance, that the United States only grudgingly became involved in the grisly Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s when it nobly undertook to reflag oil tankers in order to protect the flow of oil. No mention here of Donald Rumsfeld’s back-slapping with Saddam Hussein or the supply of satellite intelligence to him or the exchange of American weapons to Iran for hostages — all of which helped prolong the slaughter.

Pollack seems oddly unaware of history’s motivating forces. To assert that “what triggers revolutions, civil wars and other internal unrest is psychological factors, particularly feelings of extreme despair,” is plain silly. The Boston Tea Party could not have been prevented by Prozac. Similarly, he ascribes feelings to broad categories of Middle Easterners, devoid of any context or explanation. They are “angry populations” who suffer “inchoate frustration” and “a pathological hatred of the status quo.” We repeatedly hear of “Arab rage at Israel” and “Arab venom for Israel.” Nowhere is there a hint that such attitudes might bear some relation to the plight of the Palestinians, the agony of military defeat or the humiliation of life under Israeli occupation.

In fact, the book’s most salient distortions stem from Pollack’s protectiveness toward Israel. He makes some absurdly cockeyed assertions, like, “America’s support for Israel over the years has even been a critical element in winning and securing Arab allies.” He offers misleading false alternatives, declaring, for instance, that there is “absolutely no reason to believe that ending American support for Israel would somehow eliminate” the risk of Islamist zealots taking power and cutting oil exports. How about making aid to Israel, and not just to Arabs, conditional, or aiming at mitigating, rather than eliminating, such risks? Pollack makes a peculiarly acrobatic effort to prove that hostility to Israel is not a prime motivating factor behind militant jihadism, repeating this assertion no fewer than four times in two paragraphs. Has he not bothered to listen to Osama bin Laden’s addresses to the American people, where he said that what converted him from dreamer to murderous activist was Israeli bombs falling on Beirut in 1982?

Although I’ve only looked at this book briefly, from the little I saw it’s a well deserved put-down of the man who, with “Threatening Storm,” contributed significantly to the war-drums on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. Well-deserved.

[From Book Review – ‘A Path Out of the Desert,’ by Kenneth M. Pollack – Review –]

Bad writing from a long time ago

Search around Project Guttenberg, the excellent repository of free ebooks, and you’re bound to find dozens of books that in some way have to do with Egypt. One thing most of these have in common — particularly those from the 19th and early 20th century, when the Victorian fad was to write travel diaries — is that they are mostly dreadfully dull. They also appear to be written by the same person who writes the scripts for the sound and light show at the Pyramids (O Nile, Father of Time…)

Here’s one I found today, The Spell of Egypt by Robert Smythe Hichens (otherwise a relatively capable early fantastic/mystery writer). These are the first two paragraphs:

Why do you come to Egypt? Do you come to gain a dream, or to regain lost dreams of old; to gild your life with the drowsy gold of romance, to lose a creeping sorrow, to forget that too many of your hours are sullen, grey, bereft? What do you wish of Egypt?

The Sphinx will not ask you, will not care. The Pyramids, lifting their unnumbered stones to the clear and wonderful skies, have held, still hold, their secrets; but they do not seek for yours. The terrific temples, the hot, mysterious tombs, odorous of the dead desires of men, crouching in and under the immeasurable sands, will muck you with their brooding silence, with their dim and sombre repose. The brown children of the Nile, the toilers who sing their antique songs by the shadoof and the sakieh, the dragomans, the smiling goblin merchants, the Bedouins who lead your camel into the pale recesses of the dunes—these will not trouble themselves about your deep desires, your perhaps yearning hunger of the heart and the imagination.