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Reviewing the Book Review


6 January 2008

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review.

Because this week's Book Review is devoted exclusively to books about Islam, a presumption of pertinence is in order, and, indeed, none of the titles under review seems radically out of place. I have therefore scuttled the regular rubrics — although I suspect that The Adventures of Amir Hamza merits the criterion for the now rather rarely-awarded "Yes."

It seems apt, however, to ask what an all-Islam Book Review might ideally look like, if it were to be more than a miscellany of reviews. The editors, I feel, ought to have a few ideas about Islam today, particularly about militant Islam. A great deal of twaddle has poured forth since 9/11, suggesting that militancy is somehow more characteristic of Islam than of other religions and religious cultures — how soon we forget! — while at the same time commentators have been slow to appreciate the twisted but very identifiable contribution of Western, even Christian ideas to the latest model of jihad. In a recent review in Harper's, John Gray discusses, among other books, Olivier Roy's Secularism Confronts Islam (translated by George Holoch) — one might ask why this book hasn't been covered in the Book Review, in this issue or otherwise — and he restates a core idea of Mr Roy's that seems essential to understanding contemporary Islam.

Drawing on the analysis developed in his book Globalized Islam, Roy rejects the notion that the revival of Islam under way in so many countries involves a return to the past. Islamism is a modern political movement that has developed alongside an advancing globalization: it looks to the future rather than the past. Those who turn to fundamentalist versions of Islam do so not from nostalgia for traditional cultures but in order to establish a universal community: "Among the born-again and the converts (numerous young women who want to wear the veil belong to these categories), Islam is seen not as a cultural relic but as a religion that is universal and global." Some Islamists may talk of reestablishing a caliphate of the sort that existed centuries ago, but for them the caliphate "is embodied in fact by [a vanguard] party..., not by an individual: this conception of the party as a political actor in itself is a legacy of Marxism." In this and in other respects Islamism has more in common with modern revolutionary movements, such as Leninism, than with medieval Islam.

Here Roy provides a useful corrective to the interpretation of Islamism that sees it as a type of "Islamofascism." There are some features common to Islamism and Nazism, not least a shared anti-Semitism, but Islamists also share much with the French Jacobins — not only their belief in the purifying power of terror but also their illiberal conception of democracy as the expression of an infallible, semi-divine popular will. Above all, Islamism derives a great deal from the Bolsheviks, whose concept of a vanguard party it has adopted. Indeed, despite the fashion for comparing it with political movements of the far right, Islamism could more accurately be described as "Islamo-Leninism." If Leninism is a secular is a secular movement that denies its origins in religion, Islamism is an avowedly religious movement that suppresses its debts to secular thinking; eschatalogical thinking is equally central to both.

This sort of point can't be made loudly enough in an America that understandably equates traditional garments and third-world infrastructure with old-fashioned ways of thinking. Indeed, American christianists seem hardly less willfully quaint in their reaction against modernism than do militant Islamists. In both cases, the reaction against modernism seems to be far more concerned with preserving patriarchal arrangements than with resisting the impact of the latest technologies.

In short, militant Islamists are far more like some of us than most people realize — or than they, the Islamists themselves, would ever wish to be.

With this in mind, let's look at this week's selections.

The Adventures of Amir Hamza: Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction, by Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami (translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi). William Dalrymple devotes a tad too much of this favorable review to a recent exhibition of illuminated manuscript leaves at the Smithsonian, but he eventually gets round to pronouncing indispensable this millennium-old collection of stories.

At this perilous moment in history, the Hamza epic, with its mixed Hindu and Muslim idiom, its tales of love and seduction, its anti-clericalism (mullahs are a running joke throughout the book), its stories of powerful and resourceful women, and its mocking of male misogyny, is a reminder of an Islamic world the West seems to have forgotten: one that is imaginative and heterodox — and as far as can be from the puritanical Wahhabi Islam that the Saudis have succeeded in spreading throughout much of the modern Middle East.

Three books might be categorized as studies of "what's wrong with Islam," and both reviews fall into the trap of reading a warped history of Islam into current events. 

Arguing the Just War in Islam, by John Kelsay. It is perhaps overly ambitious of reviewer Irshad Manji to pin his appraisal to a concept, called "Shariah reasoning," that can hardly be explained in a few short columns, particularly when they are not quite the subject of the book under review. In the end, we have to take Mr Manji's word in lieu of judgment.

Like their Christian counterparts, Muslims have asked and asked again: When may battle be waged? Can noncombatants ever be targets? How much force is proportional? Does negotiation take precedence over a quick and easy victory?

Kelsay could have brought these questions to life had he given us something — anything — about the personalities of the questioners and not merely the process they followed. Stick with him, though. By forensically dissecting the development of Shariah reasoning he illuminates the situation we now face, in which classical Islamic scholars are trumped by bloodthirsty bandits who pose as thinkers.

This is not very helpful.

Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Islamism, Nazism and the Roots of 9/11, by Matthias Küntzel (translated by Colin Meade). Jeffrey Goldberg suspects that Mr Küntzel may have slightly overstated his argument that the Nazis deliberately and successfully fomented modern anti-Semitism in the Arab world, but he admires the book just the same.

Still, Küntzel is right to state that we are witnessing a terrible explosion of anti-Jewish hatred in the Middle East, and he is right to be shocked. His invaluable contribution, in fact, is his capacity to be shocked, by the rhetoric of hate and by its consequences.

Mr Goldberg's piece is a rare example of the review that aims to be sympathetic — with the reader's resistance, which he then seeks to overcome. It makes for very persuasive reading.

The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam's Threat to the Enlightenment, by Lee Harris. Our reviewer here, Ayann Hirsi Ali, is far better known than her author, and almost anything that she has to say about Islamic culture is bound to be interesting. At the same time, Ms Hirsi Ali is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. So when she claims that Mr Harris's sweepingly anxious analysis is "not entirely sound," we sit up and pay attention. On the whole, her review is revealingly sympathetic, but she counters Mr Harris's claim that Islamic culture ruins the minds of those who are raised in it by pointing to her elegant self. 

Only one book treats Western responses to the problem of radical Islamism, and it's an odd choice, a study of political cartoons.

Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy, by Peter Gottschalk and Gabriel Greenberg. Although reviewer Shibley Telhami never comes out and says so, it appears that the academics responsible for this book have perhaps taken the object of their study — political cartoons with an Islamic focus — too seriously. The review's final paragraph, however, is clear evidence of wildly brutal compression.

There is obvious anxiety about Islam in America today. Anchors for CNN are not the only ones who feel it. But that anxiety is not as deep as Gottschalk and Greenberg suggest. A shift in strategic interests could easily transform perceptions once again. Even now, the American educational system remains a strong force for civil liberties: most students in the country continue to be taught to be blind to race and religion. Many Americans, meanwhile, have genuinely sought to learn more about Islam, and a number of moviemakers, writers, journalists and scholars have moved to meet the demand for more balanced information. Despite these efforts, the trauma of 9/11 is very likely to shape the views of many Americans for years to come.

Phew! And what conclusions would you draw from this? "All of the above."

Surprisingly, there is only one book written from the inside, as it were, by a Muslim — in this case, a cleric working in Dearborn, Michigan, home to one of the country's most vibrant Islamic communities.

American Crescent: A Muslim Cleric on the Power of His Faith, the Struggle Against Prejudice, and the Future of Islam and America, by Hassan Qazwini. The bulk of Rashid Khalidi's review is given over to nit-picking disagreements with the author's finer points. A more sympathetic review would probably have revealed the book's flaws more clearly, making the review in turn more useful. Mr Khalidi seems to concede as much in his final sentence.

These flaws notwithstanding, “American Crescent” is a useful book, especially for American readers who are unfamiliar with Islam or who wonder how Muslim Americans and Arab-Americans can be integrated into American life. It does not chart the only possible path to such integration, but it illustrates well the one that many have embarked on.

Three books examine the history of Islamic tolerance — a feature that it is very easy to misinterpret in terms of contemporary cosmopolitanism. A history of the French invasion of Egypt in 1798 makes for a peculiar counterpoint. Finally, two books deal with intolerance in modern Iran. None of these books — or at least none of the reviewers — seems to be aware of Olivier Roy's studies.

The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In, by Hugh Kennedy. Max Rodenbeck's largely favorable and sympathetic review hails this book as the first "in a generation" to tackle the broad outlines of the Muslim conquest of North Africa and Spain. Mr Rodenbeck's reservations are very nicely laid out at the end, enabling prospective readers to judge for themselves whether this particular history will make for profitable reading.

Kennedy’s reluctance to pronounce sweeping judgments may disappoint general readers. His preference for dwelling on lesser-known episodes like the conquest of Central Asia, rather than on such oft-related exploits as the capture of Spain, is also more likely to please scholars than laymen. Fellow historians may fault Kennedy, too, for relying on textual evidence more than on archaeology. Nevertheless, this brisk yet richly detailed account is likely to remain the best we have for many years.

God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215, by David Levering Lewis. Reviewer Eric Ormsby, pointing out that Mr Lewis is "not a historian of Islam," questions several of his interpretations (particularly those concerning the wearing of badges by non-Muslims in Moorish Spain), but concludes,

In the end, these errors do not seriously mar the powerful thrust of his narrative. His darting juxtapositions of dynasties and of cultures give a vivid sense of the furious complexities of the age. He describes the simmering state of tribal relations in the region as constituting “a flammable symbiosis,” but the phrase has wider scope. To judge from his account, that symbiosis was more pervasive than we usually realize, and not merely flammable, but dangerously combustible.

Peace Be Upon You: The Story of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence, by Zachary Karabell. Jason Goodwin's generally favorable review indulges in storytelling, but it is peppered with positive assessments of Mr Karabell's book. The final paragraph is representative (if under-peppered).

What, then, accounts for the current hostility? Insecurity, of course, is widespread in the Muslim world. And terrorism works very well in an age of mass global communications and sophisticated technology. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict creates injustice, gets worse daily and has encouraged a complete reinterpretation of history. As this enlightened and enlightening book makes clear, we can, if we want, find evidence of clash and discord in the past, which makes for good reading. But we can also, if we wish, find many centuries, and many lands, in which nothing much happened, triumphantly — in which people of all faiths concerned themselves with “the uneventful reality of everyday life.” History matters; but, in Karabell’s resounding phrase, “it is up to each of us to use it well.”

Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East, by Juan Cole. Tom Reiss points out clearly that this is not so much an account of Napoleon's fundamentally bizarre attempt to follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great as it is a study of Egyptian resistance to the invasion. Beyond that, however, his review is not very useful. It consists principally of storytelling and it announces a preference for another book on the same subject. Mr Cole's attempt at "an intimate history, of what the French Annales school calls 'mentalités'," is not well served by a piece that appears to be bedazzled by the very Napoleonic legend that the author wishes to puncture.

Prisoner of Tehran: A Memoir, by Marina Nemat; and My Life As a Traitor, by Zarah Ghahramani (with Robert Hillman). Both of these authors were interned in the same political prison, Evin, over twenty years apart. Sarah Wildman finds both of these books "important and chillingly universal," but she deems the literary quality of Ms Ghahramani's book to be superior to that of Ms Nemat's. Where the latter is "sharp, evocative — and angry," the former is "treacly and hackneyed." Covering two books in less than the space normally allotted to one makes for a rushed and unsatisfactory review.

Of the four Essays, only Robert F Worth's, printed on the inside back, as Essays usually are, is a success. In "Arabic Lessons," Mr Worth discusses the difficulty of learning Arabic — especially what might be called the pan-Arabic that he might speak anywhere in the Arab world. He cites a very worrying statistic about the alarming attrition rate of Arabic students in the United States.

Tariq Ramadan's "Reading the Koran" is very nearly offensive, so infused is it with a proselytizing tone. Much of what Mr Ramadan has to say is useful to hear, but his off-putting presentation makes it difficult to consider.

Fouad Ajami, in "The Clash," may be right to eat his own words, written in criticism of Samuel L Huntington's famous book about clashing civilizations, but leaving it at "He told me so" is particularly unhelpful, especially as he makes Mr Huntington out, at the end of his piece, to be something of a Cassandra whom no one will listen to.

Finally, in "Beyond the Burka," Lorraine Adams complains about the preference of Western publishers for Islamic books with some sort of sex appeal. Aside from being pointless, the piece implicitly points to what it ought to be instead: an impassioned defense of two or three writers whom, in Ms Adams's view, Anglophone editors have overlooked.

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