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Present-day commentary, historical reviews, and critiques of competing Islamic schools of thought


Uncompromised: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of an Arab American Patriot in the CIA by Nada Prouty (Palgrave Macmillian, 2011). 282 pages.

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011

The basic facts of Prouty’s story are well known, thanks to a 60 Minutes story that aired in 2010: a Lebanese student who entered the United States at age 19, she joined the FBI and swiftly rose up through its ranks to investigate prominent terrorism cases. Seeking more action in the aftermath of 9/11, Prouty transferred to the CIA where she found herself in Iraq, clandestinely traveling about the country, identifying and debriefing Iraqi “assets.” She did this at considerable risk to her life, including a period of time when she was pregnant. But when the FBI Detroit’s office linked one of her family relatives to a Lebanese sheik purportedly associated with Hezbollah, Prouty’s world crashed down upon her. Accused of begin a Hezbollah mole, she was forced to plea guilty to criminal fraud based on a twenty year old sham marriage. Her U.S. citizenship was revoked but her deportation was “withheld,” an implicit recognition that the same terrorist groups in Lebanon she allegedly helped would have killed her for having worked for the CIA.

Uncompromised tells of the numbing unfairness of the FBI investigation and federal prosecution of Prouty and stands as a warning of how paranoia and xenophobia can twist the U.S. justice system. There was no evidence that she ever illegally passed intelligence or that she undermined U.S. national security. She was wholly vindicated by a subsequent internal CIA investigation. Public opinion and parts of official Washington rallied around her, resulting in what Prouty now calls her “redemption.”  Nine months after the 60 Minutes broadcast, her legal permanent residency status was reinstated.  Her U.S. citizenship application is pending.

Prouty stated during an interview on the Diane Rehm Show that she should have gone to trial. That probably was wishful thinking. Federal prosecutors had brow beaten her into submission through character assassination and intimidation. The New York Post took to calling her “Jihad Jane.” The lead prosecutor, Kenneth Chadwell, taunted her by declaring “in the post-9/11 environment, you could be found guilty by simply being an Arab.” He threatened to file fraud charges for each time over the past 15 years she had used her allegedly fraudulently issued U.S. passport. That would have constituted hundreds of separate criminal counts and exposed her to dozens of years in prison. Her husband was threatened with prosecution and the family’s financial savings were nearly exhausted. In the end, Proudy capitulated, agreeing “to any terms they set before me.”

Prouty’s plea agreement required her to admit that she illegally accessed an FBI computer system on Hezbollah when “she was not assigned to work Hizballal cases as part of her FBI duties.” She writes that the accusation was farcical as investigating Hezbollah was one of her principle tasks in the FBI’s anti-terrorism unit. But absent this concession, the prosecutor’s proclamations of exposing a Hezbollah mole in the FBI and CIA would have fallen flat.

Prouty also pled guilty to criminal immigration fraud based on her 1990 sham marriage. That the prosecutor achieved this conviction only after coercing her to waive the 10 year statute of limitations underscored the lack of evidence supporting any claims of espionage. Prouty admitted that when she was 19 years old she married solely to obtain legal permanent residency (eg. the “green card”) but insists that the FBI and CIA knew about it. Her claim rings true: the practice of fraudulent marriages in green card applications was so well known that the same year Prouty was married, the Oscar-winning movie Green Card came out, a romantic comedy about a sham marriage. It’s impossible to believe that both agencies’ background investigations would have failed to scrutinize her prior marriage.

Much of Uncompromised tells of Prouty’s journey from Lebanon to the United States. It was an immigrant experience warped by unique hardships. Growing up in the midst of Lebanon’s civil war was deeply unsettling for her and the Levant’s internecine battles were echoed Prouty’s home life. Her father was physically abusive and he valued only his son. She admits that the FBI became her “first real American family,” providing the stability and normality she coveted. At the Bureau, she was a workaholic and wholly devoted to protecting America from terrorist attacks. That is why, when her new-found family turned on her and she summarily was marched out of her office under armed guard, the pain she suffered was immeasurable.

The government’s case against Prouty was not evidence based but fueled by politics, personal ambitions, and anti-Arab fear-mongering. Uncompromised, along with her web site and a Facebook page, exposed such abuse and helped Prouty reclaim her reputation. This self-advocacy is understandable but it’s unfortunate that she devoted only two paragraphs on what the broader implications of her experience portends for Arab or Muslim Americans. That hardly was adequate in light of the systematic efforts to demonize Islam and Muslim Americans. Critics’ complaints that she was remiss for not trusting the U.S. justice system to prove her innocence could have been quieted by explaining that Chadwell’s abusive tactics were not uncommon, as American University law professor Angela J. Davis points out in her book Arbitrary Justice: The Power of the American Prosecutor. That power helps to explain why 95 per cent of all criminal cases in the U.S. end in guilty pleas.

It appears that the FBI’s distrust toward Arab Americans have not changed since Prouty’s redemption. Chadwell continues to rely on immigration-related errors to prosecute Muslims, dubious FBI tactics continue to fuel animosity toward Arabs and Muslims, and young Arab Americans are labeled suspected terrorists for purchasing too many cell phones at Wall-Mart. Prouty found redress because of the power of 60 Minutes; other individuals coming under the Justice Department’s scrutiny may not be so lucky.

The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists by Charles Kurzman. (Oxford University Press, 2011) 204 pages.

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

Often heard following the 9/11 attacks was the scary prediction that if only one percent of the world’s one billion Muslims joined al-Qaeda, at least one million terrorists would soon be launching attacks against the U.S. and its allies. The subsequent years have shown that forecast to be pure hogwash, tinged with a little anti-Islamic bigotry. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2009 Country Reports on Terrorism, worldwide terrorist acts from 2005 through 2008 – excluding attacks occurring in war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan – averaged about 6,600 yearly, hardly the number you’d expect from a million person assault.

Nor has the United States been inundated by Islamist inspired terror attacks. According to Would-Be Warriors, 2010 Rand Corporation study, from 9/11 to the end of 2009, 46 publicly reported cases of domestic radicalization and recruitment to jihadist terrorism occurred in the United States. Only 125 persons were identified in the 46 cases and half of the cases involved only a single individual. The report’s author, Brian Jenkins, one of the toughest but fair-minded analysts on terrorism, also pointed out that “the volume of domestic terrorist activity was much greater in the 1970s than it is today.” That decade, Jenkins calculated, saw 60 to 70 terrorist incidents, most of them bombings, on U.S. soil every year—a level of terrorist activity 15 to 20 times that seen in most of the years since 9/11, even counting foiled plots as incidents.

Equally specious have been the repeated claims that while “all Muslims are not terrorists, all terrorists are Muslim.” The FBI’s publication Terrorism 2002 -2005 calculated that Islamic extremists accounted for only six percent of all terrorist acts on U.S. soil from 1980 to 2005; in contrast, Jewish radical groups accounted for seven percent, Latino groups 42 percent, and “extreme left wing groups” 24 percent, and “others” 16 percent.

This is not to dismiss the real threat that domestic terrorism poses to the United States or to minimize the tens of thousands of individuals killed or injured in worldwide terrorist attacks. But these figures plainly deflate the alarmist “Muslim as terrorist” hyperbola that continues to abound a decade after 9/11. The anticipated million man march of al-Qaeda suicide bombers was a delusion but continues in personalities as diverse as Sean Hannity, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Glenn Beck.

Charles Kurzman, professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wants to know why, if roughly one-fifth of mankind is Muslim and they all supposedly hate the West and embrace martyrdom, are there not more Muslim terrorists? The short answer is that the vast majority of Muslims – well more than 99 percent – reject al-Qaeda’s goals.  Kurzman points to numerous opinion polls evincing that the number of Muslims eager for a theocratic state ruled by Sharia law is a distinctly small minority.  Secularists number a fifth to half of the population in various Muslim majority countries and liberal Muslims – those supporting an Islamic government following democratic procedures – account for about half the populace, including in countries such as Saudi Arabia. A 2007 Pew Research poll found that majorities in 13 out of 14 Muslim societies agreed that religion should be kept separate from government policy.

Kurzman wants the American public to “turn down the volume on terrorism debates” and “put the threat of Islamist terrorism in perspective.” Given how the U.S. media immediately assumed that the slaughter in Norway was perpetrated by Islamists, he faces a towering, up hill battle. But Kurzman offers convincing arguments for those willing to listen. The surprising numbers of opinion polls that regularly monitor public attitudes in Arab and Muslim communities evince support for his views. They show that the vast majority of Muslims are repulsed by terror attacks against civilians and that such acts turn public opinion against al-Qaeda and its affiliates. He also introduces the idea of “radical sheik” to explain to why internet forums and young Arab musical groups laud Islamist attacks on the U.S. and the West. Young Muslims, he counsels, express sympathy for “Bin Ladin and his ilk as heroes of anti-imperialism and Islamic authenticity – without actually wanting these revolutionary movements to succeed.” This widespread “symbolic endorsement” of radical Islam, Kurzman points out, has “not translate into support for revolutionary goals or potential collaboration with terrorism.” Radical Islamists appear to have the upper hand in Muslim communities because so long as they use violence, “their visibility far outweighs their numbers.”

Kurzman makes the case that radical Islamists are under ideological siege and losing the war of ideas among Muslims. Socially conservative but non-violent Muslim televangelists attract thousands of more adherents than the barkers of revolutionary Islam. Eclipsing radical Islamist doctrine has been the evolving tradition of liberal, democratic Islamic thought that has sought to modernize Muslim majority countries while paying fidelity to socially conservative Islam. Kurzman’s critique of liberal and revolutionary Islam should be mandatory reading for anyone insisting that Islam inherently stifles creative political thinking or condemns its adherents to a backward, violent theology. Progressive Islamic opinion has been publicly stifled in the Arab world partly by the murderous attacks of radical Islamists but more so by repressive Arab governments that view such voices as threats to their hold on power. Facilitating such silence has been the U.S. and its Western allies. In the U.S., Kurzman points out, such silence has been enforced by ignoring or belittling the proponents of liberal, democratic Islamic thought. “Expert pessimism about the potential for Islamic liberalism,” Kurzman explains, “has a long heritage in the West.”

Kurzman is one of the few analysts to admit that there is little Washington can do to change the Arab world’s deep hostility toward the United States, absent a meaningful change in U.S. foreign policy – a nil prospect.  But most Muslims view the U.S. as a threat to their national security and religion yet still maintain positive attitudes toward American culture and society. Kurzman urges U.S. policymakers to take advantage of the latter. Published before the current “Arab Spring,” he suggests that Washington replace its traditional, narrow question of how a policy will affect U.S. “national interests” with how will a policy effect the groups and movements that share American values and care about democracy. Forging alliances with such groups in the long term will help to secure U.S. national interests and further isolate radical Islamists. Readers seeking insight into the political cross-currents emerging from the Arab Spring without fear mongering rhetoric over radical Islam would do well to read The Missing Martyrs.

Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East by Asef Bayat (Stanford University Press, 2010) 304 pages, index. Reviewed by Kaveh Ehsani.

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

What a timely book! Or should we call it prophetic? Published a year before the uprisings that have begun reshaping the contours of the region’s authoritarian politics, this book offers great insights into, and a provocative comparative and analytical framework for comprehending the often overlooked social dynamics underlying the current upheavals across North Africa and the Middle East. Bayat takes aim at debunking two prevalent tropes. The first is the idea of Middle Eastern exceptionalism, the widespread notion that the politics of this particular region is uniquely immune to democratization and popular sovereignty due to intrinsic political deficiencies and cultural inertia (read Islam, patriarchy, the corruption caused by petrolic wealth, etc.). The second is the notion that these societies are inherently weak and bereft of the autonomous social organizations and the culture of citizenship needed to challenge corrupt authoritarian states, the intolerant sectarian violence of radical Islamists, or the ravages of neo-liberal economics.

This book challenges the resulting conventional wisdom of many experts and pundits, both local and international, that in this region meaningful change can come only as a result of external pressure (military, economic, political) or internal violence. Instead, Life as Politics offers a brilliant alternative perspective on public life by taking seriously the daily lives and the social agency of ordinary people, hence its subtitle “How ordinary people change the Middle East.” Bayat’s central argument is that formal social movements, like trade unions, student organizations, political parties etc. have little chance of withstanding the repression of authoritarian states. When states are challenged openly, they respond with violence. This intolerance is not inherent to this region, but a byproduct of geopolitical calculations, especially of the self-interested western support of Israel as well as the dictatorial regimes that control the region’s oil resources. In spite of repression and chronic maldevelopment, the politics of the region are under constant challenge, not necessarily through the organized resistance of social movements, but through what Bayat calls the “non-movements” of ordinary people pursuing their self interests in the public domain.

By “non-movements” the author means “the collective actions of non-collective actors” (pp. 14-20) – the urban poor taking over public spaces for informal housing or street vending, the unemployed engaged in the informal economy, the housewives empowered through engagement in neighborhood and informal social services, young people aspiring to normal life chances by seeking fun in spite of the moral condemnation of Islamists or state authorities, etc. What distinguishes these non-movements from formal political challenges to the existing order is the fact that they are driven not by organized leadership, formal organization, or specific ideologies, but by the atomistic and self-interested practices of daily routines.  They involve vast numbers of ordinary urban subaltern subjects of all kind whose common practices of survival and their pursuit of individual life chances and material security undermine the rigid and undemocratic political architecture of police states. The recent events in Iran following the 2009 election, and then in Tunisia and Egypt, and the subsequent wildfires of public discontent across the region, seem to confirm Bayat’s arguments.

In spite of its theoretical contribution, especially the focus on the notion of “non-movements” of ordinary people as political agency, this is not a book of pure theory. Far from it! Bayat’s strength has always been a combination of accessible and lucidly argued theoretical sophistication, accompanied by rigorous comparative empirical research and analysis. Most of the chapters of this book have been previously published, but here they have been selected specifically to support and expand the book’s central theme. The introduction, titled “The art of presence”, is an original essay in which the author presents his main theoretical arguments. This important essay will become, rightly, the centerpiece of much debate about the nature of social agency in the region. Chapter 2 is a seminal critique and debunking of the 2002 UN Arab Human Development Report, an important document that supports the Middle East exceptionalism discourse. Part 1 of the book (chapters 3-7) titled “Social non-movements” analyzes the “quite encroachment of the ordinary” daily life by the young, the urban poor, social activists, and women. Part 2 (chapters 8-12) titled “Street politics and the political street” analyzes the spaces of urban life and how ordinary people’s activities reclaim the city and the streets from neo-liberal developers, intolerant Islamists, and authoritarian states. Part 3 looks at the prospects of political change, especially by focusing on the emergence and the discursive development of “post-Islamism”, the intellectual and social movement of the pious activists and thinkers who want a place for religion in political and public life, but not at the expense of human rights and democracy.

Life as Politics is written in a clear and accessible prose. It is a wonderful book to use in a multitude of interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate courses on social movements, the Middle East, urban sociology, and political economy. Its insights into the micro dynamics of the Middle East were prescient and anyone interested in finding a provocative, insightful, and timely analysis of the ongoing transformations in this region will be rewarded by reading this book. I cannot but endorse it most enthusiastically.

Having said this, I also have some critical remarks to make. Bayat’s notion of “non-movements” as a sort of emancipatory politics is certainly thought provoking, but also problematic. Liberal and utilitarian political theories are imbued with the notion of atomistic self-interested individuals who, while selfishly pursuing their personal happiness, inadvertently benefit the common good not through design and benevolence, but through the unintended consequences of their fragmented actions. These are the arguments of Adam Smith, J.S. Mill, and James Madison in the Federalist Papers (Not to mention Hayek). Indeed, it is hard to argue with the separate elements of Bayat’s argument: Which progressive person of the left would not support destitute urban squatters from claiming land for housing when the state fails miserably to protect their rights and ensure their entitlements as citizens? And it would be difficult not to support the rights of the young and the unemployed to don fashionable outfits and turn officially solemn religious festivals into public parties and festive occasions. But “non-movements” do not necessarily lead to democratic empowerment or a more just society. Urban squatters do not resolve the pressing housing question. At best, they alleviate the plight of the individual squatters by turning what had been common property into the private property of the lucky few. This is dispossession of the commons by another means. Young Iranian supporters of the Green movement may have displayed great integrity by their adherence to non-violence, but the apparent absence/rejection of serious ‘ideological’ debates within this movement may reflect the hegemony of neo-liberal ideas about the economy and the market rather than a sign of non-sectarianism.

To claim and to show how ordinary people’s daily routines undermine the tyranny of the markets, authoritarian states, and moralist Islamists is vitally important. Life as Politics convincingly debunks the orientalist myth of Middle East exceptionalism by showing that there is indeed politics and agency among the subaltern. Whether this political agency of ordinary people’s daily struggles can develop an institutionalized form of democratic politics, however, will require good old fashioned political organizing and ideological battles. I don’t think Bayat is advocating a liberal-utilitarian model of politics here, but the notion of ‘non-movements’ needs a more rigorous and critical articulation.

Kaveh Ehsani is an assistant professor of international studies at DePaul University and an editor of Middle East Report

The Muslim Revolt: A Journey through Political Islam by Roger Hardy (Columbia University Press, 2010) Reviewed by Hicham Safieddine

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

In his introduction to The Muslim Revolt: A Journey through Political Islam, Roger Hardy asks the hard and pertinent question “Why another book about political Islam.” As a journalist who has covered political Islam for decades, he hopes his book will explain political Islam to a public that remains “perplexed” and “maddened” by this subject matter.  The author offers a succinct and informed summary of the political and intellectual history and present-day conditions of the Islamic world. His argument is the culmination of three decades of travels and encounters in the Islamic World and Hardy weaves his intellectual and physical journey into two intertwined narratives. The first is that of exploring the role of Islam in local and regional states and societies such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, East Asia and East Africa. The second is a much more daunting task: building an “overarching narrative” that tells the “story of Islam” from its beginnings in the time of European colonialism to the emergence of what he terms the global jihadists of today.

Assuming the existence of such an overarching narrative creates an unresolved tension in the book. Hardy is empathetic to several of the political struggles across this world and exhibits a keen sense of understanding of the nuances shaping them. He recognizes the problem of such an endeavour is the unavoidability of generalizations while trying to shun, as he puts it, endorsing Muslim exceptionalism that both critics and apologists of Islamism fall into.  This exceptionalism is the assumption that Islamic societies are uniquely afflicted by some condition that separates them from the rest of the global society and they cannot be understood within the same socio-economic and political frameworks applied to other non-Muslim societies. Yet, it is not clear how Hardy can avoid such exceptionalism when he employs the concept of a “Muslim Revolt” to refer to phenomena as wide-ranging and disparate as the intellectual revival movement of the late 19th century by reformers like Muhammad Abduh and the domestic strife in Indonesia in today’s world.

Moreover, Hardy’s suggestion that the age-old adage of Muslims revolting due to some unfinished business of accepting modernity reinforces the erroneous notion of the Islamic World’s exceptionalism. Early attempts at modernization in the 18th and 19th century resulted in numerous clashes between Islamic communities and the West but it was not on account of irrational resistance to change. What sparked local reaction to Western-styled modernization was mainly the question of control and power. For example, laying out a railway across Greater Syria was not an issue in itself under the reign of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. It was who got to control the railway and the impact it had on routes of trade, surplus extraction, and the autonomy of local powerbrokers.

Much of the same can be said about today’s conflicts. Framing these conflicts within their political and economic dimensions would have gone a long way to dispel the exaggerated notion of Muslim exceptionalism. The language and discourse by which these conflicts are articulated in the Islamic world may very well be different compared to other societies. But why turn this into the defining feature, as Hardy does? Identifying problems common to Muslim and non-Muslim countries caused by globalization would have countered beliefs – that Hardy clearly rejects – that Muslim societies are incapable of democracy or orderly social change.

Hardy explores the colonial role of the Dutch for example in Southeast Asia but tells his reader very little about the specific interests and operations of British colonialism.  Discussion of the current American Imperialism does not go beyond the general reference to oil and security.

One of the thorniest and most contested conflict that is central to addressing the roots of the “Muslim Revolt,” is the Palestinian Israeli conflict. Hardy admits that. Yet, it is conspicuously absent from the book. Islamic movements engaged in this conflict, such as Hizbullah and Hamas, have captured the attention of Islamic and political scholars as well as the public imagination. But they are mentioned only in passing. Chapters on other movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Islamists of Turkey and Iran, or the salafis of Saudi Arabia do provide informative analysis and interesting anecdotes about the people behind these movements. But they indirectly privilege the notion that the problem between the “West” and “Islam” is one of understanding and not a complex clash of interests and ideologies often couched in ethical and moral paradigms easier to justify and defend than the driving forces beneath them.

Shortly after 9/11, one might have welcomed Hardy’s book as a starting point to explore the question of political Islam among a shocked and apprehensive public in the West. But one decade – and a plethora of books and articles on the subject – later, readers might expect a lot more than that, something Hardy commendably aims for but falls short of.

Hicham Safieddine is a journalist and researcher of Middle East based inToronto, Canada.

The Future of Islam by John L. Esposito (Oxford University Press, 2010) Reviewed by James A. Reilly

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

John Esposito makes the case that what he calls the “mainstream” of Muslims worldwide are engaged in vigorous debate about their future as communities, and the future of Islam as a faith, in the modern world. He introduces his readers to clerical and lay thinkers, writers, televangelists and political figures from Muslim communities and societies who are engaged with issues of Islam and democracy, Islam and human rights (including especially women’s rights), Islam and citizenship, the role of Muslims living in Western lands, and the place of Islamic law in the modern world. The book’s geographic breadth is wide, encompassing Muslim personalities — men and women — from the Arab world, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America.

His protagonists’ methodologies, like their geographic origins and national identities, are diverse. Some can be characterized as progressive and liberal, whilst others are deeply conservative. Some argue for a reinterpretation of early Islamic sources; others argue for a reassertion of traditional understandings of Islam against present-day attempts to bowdlerize Islam and turn the religion into a political ideology. What Esposito’s protagonists have in common, however, is that they are critical of “extremist” Islam. “Extremists” are defined by their advocacy of political violence; or of misogynistic and narrowly punitive understandings of Islamic law; or of intolerance toward other religions, and of sectarian attitudes vis-à-vis other Muslims. Again and again Esposito asserts that the extremists of various types do indeed have followings, but that they lie outside the “mainstream” understandings of Islam to which most Muslims subscribe and which are most relevant to the future of Islam and of Muslims.

Esposito is a liberal American scholar writing for an American audience. Thus many of his comparative references are to American phenomena. One goal of his book is to normalize Islam and Muslims, to portray the religion and its members as part of a wider Abrahamic moral tradition with which Americans are assumed to be comfortable. Another goal of his book is to prescribe approaches for US policy and policymakers dealing with the Muslim world (i.e., Muslim-majority countries for the most part). Esposito emphasizes the importance of dialogue, mutual comprehension, and identification of shared interests rather than what he sees as a Bush-era preoccupation with “security” and “terrorism” as determining factors in US-Muslim relations. Written in the glow of Barack Obama’s June 2009 speech in Cairo, The Future of Islam expresses hope that US relations with the Muslim world are about to take a turn for the better, under the aegis of a new US administration prepared to act according to new criteria. The year that has passed since this book went to press has not been kind to its author’s more optimistic assumptions.

Because Esposito presents the future of Islam and of Muslims as a foreign policy challenge, his book is less successful in achieving the author’s clear wish to normalize Muslims as part of American society. Interpreting “them” to “us,” The Future of Islam reinforces a framework that defines Muslims as outsiders, as foreigners who need skilled interlocutors in American society. For the past generation, few academic interlocutors have been as skilled, tenacious and prolific as John Esposito. But as Muslims assert a role for themselves as American citizens by right and not by sufferance, a different kind of discourse will need to develop.

James A. Reilly is a Professor in the Department of Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations, University of Toronto

Engaging the Muslim World by Juan Cole (Palgrave MacMillan: 2008) 247 pp. + index. Reviewed by Rex Wingerter

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

The late Edward Said  lamented  years prior to 9/11 that America and the West were adopting a “devil theory of Islam,” where behind every explosion hid a worldwide Islamic conspiracy.  Since the attacks, the theory has emerged full blown.  Juan Cole views such Western fears to be indicative of “Islam Anxiety,” a condition where the Muslim world is viewed “solely in a cultural and religious context and not understanding the social and economic dynamics that drive its tensions with the West.” Engaging the Muslim World is tendered as an antidote to this angst. A history professor at the University of Michigan and a recognized top expert on the Middle East, he’s been offering his insights for some time on his well-known web log Informed

The first chapter bluntly explains why Americans need to take a fair-minded approach to Islam: oil.  A resource found largely in Muslim-majority countries, Cole warns that these oil producing countries soon will tire of America’s threats and demonization and sell their product to non-American buyers. The result will be dangerous resource wars between and among oil suppliers and consumers. “Petroleum makes the world go round,” he notes, “which means that, increasingly, Muslims will make the world go round.” Assuring the continued supply of oil to the U.S., in his view, is best served by improving friendly relations with the Muslim world.

Seeking to shatter anti-Muslim stereotypes, Cole points to public opinion polls showing that most Muslims don’t hate our freedom after all. Nearly 60 percent of Saudi Arabians think democracy is the best form of government and four-fifth of Iranians view the American people favorably. His knack for invoking comparisons also is an effective pedagogical tool:  the 4 million displaced Iraqis resulting from the U.S. invasion would be proportionately equivalent to the entire populations of California and Michigan. Similarly, the estimates of the number of Iraqi deaths range from the entire population of Pittsburgh or Cincinnati to imagining that “a death ray had mown down everyone in Ohio.”

Cole’s critiques of “radical Islam” will be heresy for readers accustomed to mainstream U.S. punditry. He dismisses the idea that Islamic fundamentalist groups are powerful and pervasive in Muslim societies. The September 11th attacks did not herald the beginning of the Islamic revolution but symbolized “the flailing about of a dying organization of aging revolutionaries banished to camps in the rugged waste-lands of failed states.” Heretical nor not, his thoughtful insights and arguments are compelling.

Arab attitudes toward U.S. leadership – distinct from their attitude toward the American people – are poor.  Approval rates in Egypt for President Obama only reach 37 percent. This, advises Cole, is on account of “American Anxiety,” a condition where Muslim-majority countries fear that Washington seeks to cripple and destroy their religious identity and control their resources. Opinion polls support his theory: 79 percent of those questioned in Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, and Indonesia believe that America seeks to “weaken and divide the Islamic world.” A similar percentage in those countries believe the United States wants “control over the resources of the Middle East” and about 64 percent believed Washington wanted to spread Christianity among them.

Such disquiet is understandable based on how the U.S. helped to overthrow Mosaddegh in Iran, perhaps placed Saddam Hussein in power in Iraq, and has propped up authoritarian regimes through the region. But the emphasis in Engaging the Muslim World is less on U.S. policy machinations and more on highlighting the confusing complexity of the Middle East. This is where Cole shines, deftly describing the histories and intricacies of individual countries. He disputes accusations that Wahhabism, the fundamentalist strain of Islam that dominates Saudi Arabia, is the cause for the Kingdom’s repressive political policies by pointing out that the co-religious State of Qatar is much less repressive. Pakistan and Afghanistan are shown to have their own factious, domestic agendas that often are distinctly different, if not contrary, to American efforts to fight Taliban insurgents. Iran’s political history makes it highly unlikely that it will halt its uranium enrichment efforts but similarly unlikely to embark on a campaign of regional conquest. Cole also touches on Lebanon, Syria, Hamas and Hizbullah with equal craftsmanship.

Little is said about Israel, except to contend that the Israel/Palestine conflict significantly undermines U.S. interests in the Middle East. Many would pause at his claim that the conflict’s equitable resolution would resolve 90 percent of U.S. problems with the Muslim world. But the suggestion that Israel’s return of the Golan Heights to Syria and the Shebaa Farms to Lebanon would vacate Hizbullah’s justification for militancy makes sense.

Many will cast Cole as an apologist for Islamic fundamentalist violence. Others will dismiss as naïve his call for mutual understanding and cooperation between North Atlantic and Muslim countries. But if Cole does at times sound like a defender of the Muslim world, it’s because he is one of the few knowledgeable voices that eschews fear mongering and offers a clam, reasoned approach to explaining the Muslim and Arab worlds. At a time when the Obama Administration appears to be adopting “Bush-lite” policies toward the region, such a perspective is sorely needed.

“Why are there so Many Engineers among Islamic Radicals?” by Diego Gambetta & Steffen Hertog, European Journal of Sociology (2009)

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Engineers and engineering students — particularly if they are Muslims – may soon encounter more troubles when boarding their next airline flight.  In a study sure to catch the eye of airport security administrators, the European Journal of Sociology finds that engineers are more apt to join, and are disproportionately represented, in violent, Islamic extremist groups.

Its frequently been noted that many past radicals or revolutionaries had professional backgrounds – Che Guevara was physician as was George Habash, Fidel Castro a lawyer as was Mohandas Gandhi and Vladimir Lenin, and Frantz Fanon a psychiatrist. The authors of the present study identified the educational background of members of violent Islamist groups and found that 69% had higher education degrees or attendance. And of that percentage, 44% were engineers. The number of engineers was more than the combined number of individuals enrolled in Islamic studies, medicine, business, or the sciences.

When examining Islamic extremists in Western countries (either residents or citizens), the study found that while the educational level of the extremists were lower than their counterparts in Muslim majority countries, engineers remained overrepresented. When examining non-violent Islamic movements, engineers were far less dominant in number, having been joined by other professionals. This suggests to the authors that engineers “seem more prone to end up in violent groups.” Among non-Islamic extremists, there were almost no engineers among left-wing extremist groups but they did have a presence and often played significant leadership roles in right-wing extremist groups.

The authors posit two reasons for why engineers are overrepresented in violent jihadist groups. First, engineers’ possess a “mindset” exhibiting “a corporatist and mechanistic view of the ideal society,” uncomfortable with ambiguity, and favoring technical and logical approaches to problems solving. Such attributes easily coalesce around narrow, fundamentalist ideologies such as contemporary Salafalism.  Second, the juxtaposition of the particularly high level of social prestige and expectation conferred on engineers in Muslim majority countries with the dearth of employment opportunities leave engineers frustrated and resentful. This classical explanation for what sparks rebellion seemingly is confirmed in Saudi Arabia: it’s the only country where engineers are gainfully employed and not overly represented in violent radical movements.

The final critical factor added to this mix is the “harsh repression on the part of the authoritarian Islamic governments.” Repression, radical Islamic ideology, and the “engineering mindset,” suggest the authors, blend together in a way that tips engineers toward violent jihadism.

Critics may object to the survey’s small sample size or the outdated material sometimes relied upon, and civil libertarians will protest the ensuing ethnic profiling, but the study’s provocative findings cannot lightly be dismissed.  Either way, much hassle awaits Muslim engineers at international airports.

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