Brief Book Reviews
by Daniel Pipes
Middle East Quarterly
Syria's Terrorist War on Lebanon and the Peace Process. By Marius Deeb. New York: Palgrave, 2003. 285 pp. $49.95.
The title says it all: Deeb, an instructor of Middle East politics at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, has broken ranks with the pieties of his field and asserted that the Syrian regime is engaged in a "terrorist war" on Lebanon. Nor does he mince words in the text of his book:
"The ‘Alawi regime in Syria never had any intention of making peace with Israel."
"Syria has deliberately kept Lebanon in an artificial domestic conflict at war with Israel for over a quarter of a century, for the interests of its own regime." Deeb even has the temerity to cast aspersions at the "latter-day post-Orientalist scholars on the Middle East," a declaration of intellectual war on his fellow specialists.
In a furious but meticulous, well-grounded, and powerful analysis, Deeb then establishes the above points, recounting the era 1974-2000, showing how in the course of this era, using many devious means, Hafez al-Assad gradually took over the once independent country of Lebanon and turned the "Switzerland of the Middle East" into a viper's den of extremism. It is not only an ugly tale but from an American viewpoint, an embarrassing one, as he shows how U.S. diplomats and politicians consistently misunderstood Assad's methods and goals.
Thoughts on two specifics: first, while Deeb devotes plentiful attention to the Israeli Labor governments' diplomacy with Syria, he flies through the Netanyahu years as though nothing took place then, when in fact, it witnessed some of the most dramatic developments in Syrian-Israeli relations. Second, even though the Libyan government has finally acknowledged responsibility for the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Scotland in 1988, Deeb continues to believe that this atrocity "was linked to groups with strong ties to Syria and Iran," and sees the Libyan culprit as a "much needed punch bag to get Syria off the hook" and into the anti-Saddam Hussein coalition two years later.
The Oxford Dictionary of Islam. Edited by John L. Esposito. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. 359 pp. $45.
In 1995, I wrote in these pages about an earlier co-production by Esposito and the Oxford University Press, the four-volume The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, that "Like many other reference works in the age of deconstruction, it faces problems of identity and purpose. An encyclopedia used to be a straightforward compendium of known and useful facts. But when scholars increasingly agree that truth depends on one's vantage point (and especially one's gender, race, and class), the encyclopedic function becomes far less obvious. A large number of the 450 contributors to this work would seem to accept the modern notion that objectivity being unobtainable, there's little point in even trying."
Eight years later, the same problems bedevil the much smaller Oxford Dictionary, but this time, the lack of objectivity seems to have more of an agenda: namely, whitewashing Islamism. This theme pervades the volume. Thus, Ahmad Deedat, the Islamist attack dog against Christianity, while called "controversial," is described as "widely respected" and noted as the winner of a prize for "outstanding service to Islam." Hizbullah, the Lebanese Islamist group, is said to finance a "wide range of social, economic, and media projects," while no mention is made of its being a mainstay of the U.S. government's terrorism list. The Tunisian Islamist Rashid al-Ghannushi might rant against conspiracies by "Jewish Masonic Zionist atheistic gangs" but our dictionary respectfully defines him as an "Islamic thinker, activist, and political leader." Steven Pomerantz, the FBI's former chief of counterterrorism, may say about the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations that the organization, "its leaders and its activities effectively give aid to international terrorist groups," but the Oxford Dictionary assures us it is merely "a civil rights organization defending the right of Muslims to live and practice Islam in America without having to suffer discrimination."
And on and on through the dictionary. One wishes that this handsomely produced and practical volume could be recommended but it should be strenuously avoided.
Tolerance and Coercion in Islam: Interfaith Relations in the Muslim Tradition. By Yohanan Friedman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 233 pp. $60.
What does Islam say about non-Muslims? The vast literature on this subject tends to wobble unsteadily on a narrow base of evidence—namely the Qur'an itself. Or as Friedman, professor of Islamic studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, delicately puts it, "some of the more substantial works on our topic are based exclusively on the few relevant Qur'anic verses and, surprisingly enough, have no recourse to the enormous amount of material in hadith, tafsir, and fiqh." The preference to focus on the Qur'an rather than the million or so hadiths (sayings and actions attributed to Muhammad) is certainly understandable, but for a true understanding of Muslim jurisprudence and ethos, the latter needs to be taken into account.
In a tour de force, Friedman reviews the hadith literature on a series of topics concerning pre-modern Muslim attitudes toward non-Muslims, including equality before the law, religious compulsion, apostasy, and interfaith marriages. The power of his analysis lies in the distinctions he finds between eras and madhhabs (schools of law). For example, he shows that whereas Muslims early on granted non-Muslims equal protection from murder, with time, only one of the four Sunni madhhabs held to this position. More broadly, he argues that this development over time signifies that "the idea of Islamic exaltedness gained the upper hand as the decisive factor in the determination of the law."
This theme of Islamic supremicism has key importance; in the words of one hadith, "Islam is exalted and nothing is exalted above it." With the most minor of exceptions, Friedman observes, Muslims throughout the pre-modern period "faced the other religions from the position of a ruling power, and enjoyed in relation to them a position of unmistakable superiority." To a great extent, this also defined their attitudes toward tolerance and coercion.
The Malady of Islam. By Abdelwahab Meddeb. Trans. from French by Pierre Joris and Ann Reid. New York: Basic Books, 2003. 241 pp. $24.
On the subject of Islam, Meddeb presents a brave and insightful Muslim voice; on the subject of politics, he is just another group-think French intellectual. Fortunately, his thoughts on the first topic have real importance while those on the second do not.
On Islam, Meddeb (professor of comparative literature at the Sorbonne) sees militant Islam as the religion's endemic problem, comparable to fanaticism in Catholicism and Nazism in Germany. His lament about "the malady of Islam" emphasizes the loss of scientific creativity, cultural suppleness, and eros. Highly cultured in the French tradition, he openly admits his puzzlement with militant Islam ("I must confess that I cannot grasp the logic that predisposes a person to inscribe humiliation in the innermost core of his being"). As a connoisseur of Muslim culture—its poetry, mosque architecture, its tradition of travel, even its drinking songs—Meddeb fills out the picture of Muslim life so sadly missing from the "simplistic Islam, cut off from its civilization" that characterizes the Islamists. He rightly derides Wahhabism as aiming ultimately "to make one forget body, object, space, beauty."
For all its charm and erudition on the Islamic topic, Meddeb's writing degenerates into self-indulgence, quirkiness, and disorganization when he takes up politics. He blames the 9/11 hijackers, for example, in large part on a "world transformed by Americanization" and elaborates his bizarre notion that as "the Americanization of the world slowly began to replace its Europeanization," it spawned the Wahhabi sect. In passages of surpassing idiocy, Meddeb states that "Wahhabite Saudi Arabia and Puritan America were held over the same baptismal fonts" and "the Wahhabite sectarian walks hand in hand with the American," the two sharing much in common. And what Meddeb writes about Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, and other current issues is best left unsaid.
Zacarias, My Brother: The Making of a Terrorist. By Abd Samad Moussaoui, with Florence Bouquillat. Trans. from French by Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003. 143 pp. $14.95, paper.
In one of the more complete and insider accounts on the men of al-Qaeda, the elder brother of Zacarias Moussaoui, the "twentieth hijacker," tells his brother's story in a slim volume published by Noam Chomsky's and Howard Zinn's favorite press. The tale has a long run-up—grandparents, parents, childhood, teenage years—and a brief denouement, for the two brothers were close only until Zacarias went Wahhabi. Born in 1968, Zacarias experienced a childhood in which his parents (immigrants from Morocco) divorced; he moved from city to city, had no education in Arabic or Islam, and did quite well in school and socially. Still, he was increasingly alienated from French life ("they're all racists and fascists") to the point that racism became his obsession.
Partly to flee this and partly to learn English and become a successful businessman, Zacarias moved to London in 1991. Over the next four years, however, he fell in with a militant Islamic crowd. By 1995, he told his sister-in-law that she should not work outside the house and responded approvingly to a television husband hitting his wife ("Serves her right, that's what women need"). More generally, he had "become a stranger" to his family. On a visit to Morocco, he physically accosted the imam of a mosque in disagreement over his understanding of Islam. After an absence of several years, the next Abd Samad knew about his kid brother was his alleged complicity in the 9/11 atrocities.
Abd Samad draws some interesting conclusions from his experience. One is that Muslim children in the West need to learn their religion at home or they are susceptible to the extremist forces of the sort that seduced his brother. Another is that the Muslims with a public voice need to address the roots of the problem: "Though they condemn attacks and assassinations, they do not denounce Wahhabi ideologists … and Muslim Brotherhood ideologists."
Shaping the Current Islamic Reformation. Edited by B.A. Roberson. London: Frank Cass, 2003. 262 pp. $27.50, paper.
What "Islamic Reformation," the reader might correctly ask? Despite the eccentric title, this multi-author work has an unusually interesting assortment of essays. Here are three: Rudolph Peters traces the complex transformation of the Shari‘a (Islamic law) "from jurists' law to statute law." For centuries, the Shari‘a consisted of "open, discursive, and contractory" scholarly discussions of jurisprudence—not something readily applicable in a court of law. Peters shows the wrenching that this tradition underwent so as to fit the needs of a state system. He also notes the improbable but possible eventuality of a democratic Muslim state deciding the specifics of the Shari‘a via the electoral box.
Ann Elizabeth Mayer adopts the tripartite schema of Italian scholar Ugo Mattei, whereby the law is either traditional (small-scale, families as the basic unit, gender distinctions emphasized), political (law courts as the servants of the ruler), or professional (independent judiciary, rule of law). She establishes that much of the Muslim world suffers from political law; to escape it, Islamists are proposing an impossible return to the golden age of traditional law via the Shari‘a. In fact, she asserts—and is roundly seconded by the Iranian dissidents she cites—the real need is to move ahead to the rule of law.
Rodney Wilson reviews and explains the grudging policies of the Egyptian and Saudi governments to the emergence of Islamic financial institutions. So uneasy were the Egyptian authorities with this somewhat out-of-control phenomenon that they prevailed on a leading religious figure, Muhammad Sayyid at-Tantawi, to rule that interest paid by conventional banks does not constitute usury. Ironically, the Saudis have a hard time with Islamic banks because their whole system is supposedly Islamic already; creating explicitly Islamic institutions implies that the others are not.
To see the Daniel Pipes archive, go to http://www.DanielPipes.org