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Occasionally my reading programme drags two related books separately to the top of the "to read" pile, and this was one of those occasions. Both of these are excellent and short guides to their respective subjects.

November Books 23) A History of the Middle East, by Peter Mansfield (second edition, revised and updated by Nicholas Pelham)

This really covers only the last two centuries - the period to 1800 is covered in a breathless 35-page first chapter - but I learnt a lot from it. Although I knew the general outline of the fall of the Ottoman Empire (including the Arab revolt) and was also fairly familiar with the highlights of post-1948 history, there was a lot from the three decades between that was new to me, specifically the various imperialist engagements with Arab governments and governance. Really the notion that the US and/or the Europeans could be credible advocates of democracy in the Middle East was always nonsense.

(And on reflection, a further cause for disappointment with Kissinger's Diplomacy is that it has almost nothing to say on this subject.)

November Books 24) Islam: A Short History, by Karen Armstrong

This obviously overlaps a bit with Mansfield, and also with the books about Muhammad and his successors which I had read a couple of years back. I was expecting a largely political history of the Islamic world, but in fact Armstrong gives a fascinating account of the development of Islamic religious thought in its political context. My own political contacts have tended to the more secularised and secularist end of the spectrum (my professional interests in the Balkans, Turkey/Cyprus, Polisario, Somaliland, my relatives from Bangladesh - only one of those areas being Arabic-speaking) and my contacts on the religious side have been rather eclectic (the Bektashi tekke in Tetovo and the followers of Said Nursî in Nicosia) so it was useful to be reminded that these are only a part of the story.

Armstrong makes the point that Islam was always engaged with government and with politics in a way that few other major faiths have been. This has made the encounter between Islam and the modern particularly painful; not helped by the fact that the advocates of secularism and modernity in the Muslim world have tended to be repressive and dictatorial in their actions, and the international community's havit of excoriating, ignoring or conniving in the corruption or cancellation of the results of democratic elections does not really help.

Comments

( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
fanf
Nov. 29th, 2009 05:37 pm (UTC)
Is Islam really more engaged with government and politics than Christianity was in Europe?
nwhyte
Nov. 29th, 2009 07:00 pm (UTC)
It's a question of origins. There was no Christian state untile several generations after Christ; Islam dates its inception from the Prophet's move to Medina to set up the first Islamic state. Both of course then have a variety of interactions with state structures, but Armstrong's point is that it's rather more incidental to Christianity than to Islam. To make a sweeping generalisation, trendy Christian theologians write about the nature of God; trendy Muslim theologians write about politics.
unwholesome_fen
Nov. 30th, 2009 02:46 am (UTC)
Well in a sense Christianity only fell into it by accident - it was only its adoption by Constantine that enabled it to spread so rapidly through Europe, and that (converting rulers) thereafter became the model for spreading the religion beyond. But by the time Islam came into existence, Christianity was intimately tied up with goverment and politics in Europe, and would remain so for many centuries.

So one might equally say that it was a characteristic of that period that these major religions were inseparable from politics. Also one could speculate that the founders of Islam were aware of the history of the spread of Christianity, or at least its political status in Europe and set out to emulate that.
nwhyte
Nov. 30th, 2009 06:43 am (UTC)
one could speculate that the founders of Islam were aware of the history of the spread of Christianity, or at least its political status in Europe and set out to emulate that

I don't think that the founders of Islam cared very much about Europe. However, it's a fair point that in both the Byzantine and Sassanid Empire religion and politics were closely intermingled, and certainly this would have been very visible from Arabia.
unwholesome_fen
Nov. 30th, 2009 07:59 am (UTC)
Yes, and it's interesting to look at what is happening at the same time (the 620s CE) - for example Heraclius regaining a lot of territory lost to the Sassanids in a sort of proto-crusade.
unwholesome_fen
Nov. 30th, 2009 03:12 am (UTC)
Incidentally, I'm not entirely convinced that "the advocates of secularism and modernity in the Muslim world have tended to be repressive and dictatorial in their actions". Rather, that Cold War manoeuvring tended to favour the more dictatorial, many of whom still enjoy support from the west. In fact Saddam Hussein seems to have been pretty unlucky in being helped in to power by the US but later ousted by them. The transition of Iran over the last 60 years is a particularly salient example.
nwhyte
Nov. 30th, 2009 06:47 am (UTC)
Mansfield and Armstrong both convincingly demonstrate that this is something that started long before the Cold War (eg Atatürk) and continued well after it (eg Algeria).
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