Years ago, when the media was filled with optimistic treatments of the Arab Spring, I remember reading a quote from a Mideast bishop, who remarked that there was no such thing as an Arab Spring, “only Winter.” Certainly the Arab Spring hasn’t worked out terribly well for the region’s Christians. It hasn’t been a great success for others, either. A new book from Yale, however, has a more optimistic assessment of the future of the movement. Readers can judge for themselves. The book is The Levant Express: The Arab Uprisings, Human Rights, and the Future of the Middle East, by University of Denver professor Michelene Ishay (international relations). Here’s the description from the Yale website:
The enormous sense of optimism unleashed by the Arab Spring in 2011 soon gave way to widespread suffering and despair. Of the many popular uprisings against autocratic regimes, Tunisia’s now stands alone as a beacon of hope for sustainable human rights progress. Libya is a failed state; Egypt returned to military dictatorship; the Gulf States suppressed popular protests and tightened control; and Syria and Yemen are ravaged by civil war. Challenging the widely shared pessimism among regional experts, Micheline Ishay charts bold and realistic pathways for human rights in a region beset by political repression, economic distress, sectarian conflict, a refugee crisis, and violence against women. With due attention to how patterns of revolution and counterrevolution play out in different societies and historical contexts, Ishay reveals the progressive potential of subterranean human rights forces and offers strategies for transforming current realities in the Middle East.
We’re a little late getting to this one, but earlier this year, Georgetown University Press published an interesting looking book on a religious divide that gets insufficient attention from Americans: A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi’is by John McHugo (University of St. Andrews). The Sunni/Shia divide forms the background for many contemporary conflicts in the Mideast, especially between Saudi Arabia and Iran. An understanding of the conflict is thus essential to appreciating the politics of the region. Here’s the description of the new book from the Georgetown website:
The 1,400-year-old schism between Sunnis and Shi’is is currently reflected in the destructive struggle for hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran—with no apparent end in sight. But how did this conflict begin, and why is it now the focus of so much attention?
Charting the history of Islam from the death of the Prophet Muhammad to the present day, John McHugo describes the conflicts that raged over the succession to the Prophet, how Sunnism and Shi’ism evolved as different sects during the Abbasid caliphate, and how the rivalry between the Sunni Ottomans and Shi’i Safavids ensured that the split would continue into the modern age. In recent decades, this centuries-old divide has acquired a new toxicity that has resulted in violence across the Arab world and other Muslim countries.
Definitive, insightful, and accessible, A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi’is is an essential guide to understanding the genesis, development, and manipulation of the schism that for far too many people has come to define Islam and the Muslim world
In April, the University of California Press will release “States of Separation: Transfer, Partition, and the Making of the Modern Middle East,” by Laura Robson (Portland State University). The publisher’s description follows:
Across the Middle East in the post–World War I era, European strategic moves converged with late Ottoman political practice and a newly emboldened Zionist movement to create an unprecedented push to physically divide ethnic and religious minorities from Arab Muslim majorities. States of Separation tells how the interwar Middle East became a site for internationally sanctioned experiments in ethnic separation enacted through violent strategies of population transfer and ethnic partition.
During Britain’s and France’s interwar occupation of Iraq, Palestine, and Syria, the British and French mandate governments and the League of Nations undertook a series of varied but linked campaigns of ethnic removal and separation targeting the Armenian, Assyrian, and Jewish communities within these countries. Such schemes served simultaneously as a practical method of controlling colonial subjects and as a rationale for imposing a neo-imperial international governance, with long-standing consequences for the region.
Placing the histories of Iraq, Palestine, and Syria within a global context of emerging state systems intent on creating new forms of international authority, in States of Separation Laura Robson sheds new light on the emergence of ethnic separatism in the modern Middle East.
New from Indiana University Press, Jihad and the West: Black Flag over Babylon, by Mark Silinsky (US Department of Defense). The publisher’s description follows:
U.S. Department of Defense analyst Mark Silinsky reveals the origins of the Islamic State’s sinister obsession with the Western world. Once considered a minor irritant in the international system, the Caliphate is now a dynamic and significant actor on the world’s stage, boasting more than 30,000 foreign fighters from 86 countries. Recruits consist not only of Middle-Eastern-born citizens, but also a staggering number of “Blue-Eyed Jihadists,” Westerners who leave their country to join the radical sect. Silinsky provides a detailed and chilling explanation of the appeal of the Islamic State and how those abroad become radicalized, while also analyzing the historical origins, inner workings, and horrific toll of the Caliphate. By documenting the true stories of men, women, and children whose lives have been destroyed by the radical group, Jihad and the West presents the human face of the thousands who have been kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered by the Islamic State, including Kayla Mueller, who was kidnapped, given to the Caliphate’s leader as a sex slave, and ultimately killed.
From Penguin Random House, a new book arguing that American policy contributed to the rise of the Islamic State, The Age of Jihad, by journalist Patrick Cockburn. The publisher’s description follows:
Next month, the University of California Press will release Afghanistan’s Islam: From Conversion to the Taliban edited by Nile Green (University of California, Los Angeles). The publisher’s description follows:
This book provides the first overview of the history and development of Islam in Afghanistan. Written by leading international experts, chapters cover every era from the conversion of Afghanistan through the medieval period to the present day. Based on primary sources in Arabic, Persian, Pashto, Uzbek, and Urdu, its depth of coverage is unrivalled in providing a developmental picture of Afghanistan’s Islam, including such issues as the rise of Sufism, women’s religiosity, state religious policies, and transnational Islamism. Looking beyond the unifying rhetoric of theology, the book reveals the disparate and contested forms of Afghanistan’s Islam.
In December, Routledge Publishing will release Christian Communities in the Middle East: Faith, Identity, and Integration by Fiona McCallum (University of St. Andrews). The publisher’s description follows:
The Christian communities in the Middle East exist in an environment where religion has retained strong social significance but society is dominated by a different faith. This work explores the different historical processes of state building to examine regime policies towards the Christian presence in Syria and Jordan, identifying the methods used to accommodate groups with a distinct identity and integrate them into the nation state. This volume aims to give an overview of the under-studied Christian groups in this area, providing much-needed information on these minorities, assessing the implications of these policies on the two countries with reference to the question of regime legitimacy and determining if they can prove insightful for other regional governments in their efforts to integrate Middle Eastern Christian communities.
By examining different approaches such as secular nationalism, cultural pluralism, protected minority (dhimmi) and coercion, it would appear that there is a constant dilemma between attaining regime stability by promoting a national identity and allowing minority groups to retain their own identity. As indigenous communities, the case studies of the Christians of Syria and Jordan demonstrate to what extent the two regimes have successfully addressed this dilemma. The two countries offer interesting comparisons, and McCallum is able to highlight both the contrasting regimes and the similarities in the ongoing crises facing the region – economic problems, cultural change, the growth of political Islam and challenges posed by regional conflict. This new research will demonstrate that their role as interlocutors continues today and that their experience of living in this region has provided them with a rich knowledge and understanding of their coreligionist that is crucial to our understanding of Middle Eastern society.
Tackling issues central to the relationship between religion and politics including secularization, religious revival and the legal status of religions and their adherents, this work will be of great interest to all scholars of Religion, Comparative Politics and the Middle East.
In December, Oxford University Press will release The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi’a-Sunni Divide by Geneive Abdo (Atlantic Council). The publisher’s description follows:
The Shi’a-Sunni conflict is one of the most significant outcomes arising from the Arab rebellions. Yet, there is little understanding of who is driving this tension and the underlying causes. By delving deeply into the historical factors leading up to the present-day conflict, The New Sectarianism sheds new light on how Shi’a and Sunni perceive one another after the Arab uprisings, how these perceptions have affected the Arab world, and why the dream of a pan-Islamic awakening was misplaced.
Geneive Abdo describes a historical backdrop that serves as a counterpoint to Western media coverage of the so-called Arab Spring. Already by the 1970s, she says, Shi’a and Sunni communities had begun to associate their religious beliefs and practices with personal identity, replacing their fragile loyalty to the nation state. By the time the Arab risings erupted into their full fury in early 2011, there was fertile ground for instability. The ensuing clash-between Islamism and Nationalism, Shi’a and Sunni, and other factions within these communities-has resulted in unprecedented violence. So, Abdo asks, what does religion have to do with it? This sectarian conflict is often presented by the West as rivalry over land use, political power, or access to education. However, Abdo persuasively argues that it must be understood as flowing directly from religious difference and the associated identities that this difference has conferred on both Shi’a and Sunni.
The New Sectarianism considers the causes for this conflict in key countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Bahrain and the development of regional trends. Abdo argues that in these regions religion matters, not only in how it is utilized by extremists, moderate Islamists, and dictators alike for political purposes, but how it perpetually evolves and is perceived and practiced among the vast majority of Muslims. Shi’a and Sunni today are not battling over territory alone; they are fighting for their claim to a true Islamic identity.