Milton Viorst, previously on staff at The New Yorker, is among the most perceptive observers of contemporary Arab political life. Over the years, he has reported extensively from many corners of the Middle East. In this book, which is essentially a follow-up on his earlier Sandcastles: The Arabs in Search of the Modern World (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), he purports to investigate why the Arab world is increasingly falling behind other societies, in both political and economic terms. Why is the region unable to compete in today's international system? Why has it failed to contribute in any meaningful way to the global political and economic changes of the late twentieth century?
To answer these critical questions, Viorst proceeds, as he puts it, "to get to the heart of Arab culture," which to him consists of "the body of conventional Islamic belief" for, in his eyes, "it is there that the current problem surely lies" (p. xi). To Viorst, the Arab world's inability to meet the challenge of the modern world can ultimately be traced back to the weight of Islamic orthodoxy. Islam, the reader is told, has proven far more resilient than other civilizations it has been able to maintain much of its integrity and has resisted compromises with other cultures. Its continued hold over Arab society has stifled individualism and creativity, depriving the region of the intellectual flexibility needed to trace an indigenous path toward modernity. The author repeatedly suggests that, because Islamic law prohibits innovation (he makes much of the fact that the Arabic word for "innovation," bidaa, also means heresy), the Arab world is somehow frozen in time and unable to accommodate modem values.
This essentialist approach, which permeates the book, also leads to its main weaknesses. To begin with, even among those readers who agree with Viorst that the region's religious heritage has acted as a brake on its development potential, many will object to the author's cultural determinism. At the very least, Viorst should have acknowledged that the region's poor performance on the global racetrack can be traced back to a host of complex factors, the most prominent of which are not cultural in nature. Certainly, one should not ignore the role played by such variables as poor leadership and misguided state policies; the debilitating legacy of colonialism, imperialism and the Arab-Israeli dispute; and the historical imbalance in resources between state and society.
One would also have assumed that in the wake of the Asian crisis and the discrediting it brought to the so-called "Asian values" argument, Viorst would have been more careful in advancing such claims as "Islam thus denies to Muslims the right to participate in the changes that take place from one moment to the next in the real world" (p. 143). It was not long ago, after all, that the key to Asia's economic success and global competitiveness was said by some to reside in the community-oriented values, work ethic, emphasis on social order, and healthy respect for authority that presumably characterize Asian cultural systems. (Max Weber, who argued that the Confucian insistence on obedience to authority discouraged innovation and therefore prevented economic success, would have disagreed.) But in the wake of Asia's economic meltdown, we were also told that Asian values were at the root of the nepotism and lack of transparency in financial transactions that largely contributed to the onset of the currency crisis. Such developments confirm that to explain success or failure on the global stage by resorting to cultural explanations is an inherently risky exercise. Yet it is one in which Viorst engages in this book.
Viorst also seems to assume that a single Islamic "essence" pervades all Arab societies. In fact, as Clifford Geertz most brilliantly demonstrated long ago in Islam Observed, Islam is shaped by the societies and cultures in which it is found at least as much as it influences them. Abundant anthropological research has shown that the nature of Islam and the forms it assumes vary not only from one society to another but within given societies as well. Equally problematic is Viorst's description of Islamic orthodoxy as "the Weltanschauung of the Arab world" (p. 8). Such sweeping statements largely reflect Viorst's apparent belief in "cultural essences," religious or otherwise. In Chapter One, for instance, the author reminisces about an evening in the fall of 1993, as he was wandering through the narrow streets of Jerusalem's Old City. He is struck by some basic differences in the products sold by Arab and Jewish storekeepers: "Most of the Arab shops had identical olivewood camels for sale, beautifully carved by native craftsmen; the Jewish shops peddled dazzling jewelry, freshly designed, obviously fabricated in state-of-the-art workshops" (p. 3). Viorst then elevates this contrast into a symbol of the cultural differences separating the Middle East from the West:
The wooden camels. emblem of the bedouin roots to which so many Arabs remain attached. were a reminder of the resistance to change that strongly pervades Arab culture. The silver necklaces ... testified to the innovativeness, as well as the glitz, that the Jews who settled in Israel brought with them from the West.... The camels, I believe, bespeak the deep attachment of Arab culture to a heritage that has been transmitted largely intact over countless generations. The jewelry encapsulates the greater readiness of Westerners to subject their practices to constant review, experimentation, modification. (pp. 3-4).
Such excessive generalizations are spread through the text. In the chapter on Iran, for instance, Viorst puts forward the dubious claim that "in the Arab world, the street scene normally conveys a certain lethargy, which suggests societies that are no more interested than Islam itself in serious change" (p. 175). This portrayal of “the typical Arab street scene" and of what it presumably reveals of Arab society's incapacity for innovation seems even more bizarre after it is followed immediately by a contrast with Viorst's impression of “the street scene" in Tehran, : .... after a few days of rarely hearing a muezzin's call, Tehran's energy proclaimed to me that the city was hardly Islamic in the social sense of the term after all."
In fact, there is in the Arab world today a far greater propensity to re-examine old ideas and explore sensitive social, political and religious issues than this book would lead one to believe. The evidence of the past decade also suggests that the main obstacle to change and innovation resides not so much in the strictures imposed by Islamic orthodoxy as in the weight and inadequacy of the dominant political and economic institutions. What is holding back Arabs has more to do with economic and political constraints than religious ones. Across the region, individuals and communities have shown that when the state relaxes its control over economic and social areas, and when positive incentives are created and negative ones removed, individuals and communities usually respond by displaying considerable dynamism and a capacity to take advantage of the new opportunities that arise. When freedom of expression and association is broadened, advocacy groups are created that actively lobby the authorities and seek to sensitize public opinion; seminars, conferences and workshops discuss topics long considered taboo; and new publications are established that explore often with great audacity and by pushing further the limits of what is allowed subjects previously seen as the preserve of a small elite making decisions behind closed doors. Islam at that point does not seem to be an insurmountable problem to the release of individual and collective energy.
Having delved into the most problematic aspects of the book, a return to Viorst's own arguments is now in order. The author distinguishes between three conflicting interpretations of Islam: Islamic orthodoxy, Islamic fundamentalism, and Islamic modernism. The first has been dominant, both historically and today, while the other two have developed primarily since the turn of the twentieth century. Led by the ulama, Islamic orthodoxy represents a conservative, status quo oriented force that is committed to preserving existing Islamic traditions and practices. By and large, it does not concern itself with how Islamic societies are faring relative to the outside world. By contrast, both Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic modernism do draw this comparison, and both arrive at a similar conclusion: the Islamic world is falling behind, and orthodoxy is largely to blame. However, fundamentalism and modernism differ radically on how to remedy that situation. The former advocates a return to the presumed purity of the original faith, and aspires to re-create the "Golden Age" of Islamic society under the Prophet. The latter urges instead selective borrowing, i.e., a skillful blending of Islamic and Western-based concepts and methods, so that Muslim societies can face up to the West without sacrificing their Islamic character. Yet, for all these differences, Viorst argues, Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic modernism implicitly share basic misgivings about the extent to which it is important for Islamic civilization to compete in the global arena. In Viorst's words, "modernists make clear that, if they must choose between sacrificing prosperity or the essence of Islam, they will give up prosperity." As for fundamentalists, their public claim that a return to the values of seventh-century Islam will restore the competitiveness of Islamic civilization may actually be hiding "a willingness to abdicate competing" and an implicit recognition that "catching up with the West is hopeless" (p. 13).
Early on in Islamic history, Viorst notes, a decisive struggle took place between traditionalists and modernists. In the ninth century, orthodoxy was challenged by the Mutazilites, a group of theologians and intellectuals influenced by Greek philosophy and science. The Mutazilites denied orthodoxy's claim that the Quran had always existed and that it was based on eternal and immutable laws. They argued instead that the Quran had to be seen as a historical document, created in response to the circumstances which existed at the time of the Prophet's life. From this, they inferred that, as circumstances changed and new situations arose, religious law would need to be constantly reinterpreted. Furthermore, they invoked man's right to use reason to carry out that reinterpretation and provide moral guidelines on matters not directly addressed by the Quran.
More generally, Mutazilite doctrine revolved around the principle of rational inquiry into the nature of God and His will. Viorst sees the eventual victory of orthodoxy over Mutazilism and the ensuing quick demise of Mutazilism itself as a school of thought as a defining moment in Islamic history. By missing this opportunity for an equivalent to what Europe would go through during the Renaissance several centuries later, the world of Islam failed to free itself from the traditionalist dogma. In Viorst's words, "though Mutazilism was itself far from secular, it was the closest that Islamic culture ever came to unleashing a secular movement of intellectual reform ... In walking away from the Mutazilites, Muslims made a decision with which Islamic civilization has lived ever since" (p. 162).
In Chapters Three and Five ("The Prophet and the Book" and "Making the Sharia"), Viorst provides summaries of the historical role of Prophet Muhammad, the essential tenets of the Quran, and the genesis of Islamic law. Also spread through the book are explorations into various facets of the Sunni-Shiite divide, analyses of the rise of Islamic modernism and Islamic fundamentalism in the early part of the twentieth century, and reflections on the contributions of such important figures as Ayatollah Khomeini, Muhammad Abduh, Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb. Scholars of the region are unlikely to learn anything new in these sections, but general readers and students will appreciate the succinct and clear background they offer.
Viorst devotes separate chapters to Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Algeria. He justifies the focus on these countries by noting that it is in them that "the conflicts over interpretation [of Islamic concepts] have become the most tumultuous" (p. 11). In addition, the book also contains a chapter on Iran, on the ground that it is "the most important of the non-Arabic countries in shaping the faith among the Arabs" (p. 11 ). One may point out that Viorst's arguments would have been harder to sustain had he chosen different case studies. Certainly, the power of Islamic orthodoxy is far stronger in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran and Egypt than in other countries in the region. In North Africa, a focus on Morocco or Tunisia instead of Algeria would have yielded far different lessons. Similarly, among Gulf countries, Kuwait, Qatar or Oman would have led to different conclusions about the region's capacity for reform. The reader may thus object that Viorst tends to infer excessive generalizations from cases that do not reflect the variety of situations found in the region. Either Viorst's arguments were shaped by the countries that he selected for emphasis, or these countries were chosen precisely because they could most easily be used to support his thesis.
The country chapters consist essentially of insightful field reports with a heavy dose of historical background. They all follow the same format: they are built around conversations Viorst held with Arab and Iranian politicians, intellectuals, journalists, academics, writers and activists. Viorst lets his interlocutors speak freely but weaves his own views and comments through the text. The statesmen and key leaders he interviewed include the late King Hussein of Jordan; Hassan al Turabi, the soft-spoken, Sorbonne-educated Islamist ideologue who has been the architect of Sudan's Islamization since the military coup of I 989; the Tunisian Islamist ideologue Rashid Ghannoushi; Sheikh Muhammad Tantawi, whom President Hosni Mubarak appointed to head al Azhar in 1996; Mamoun al-Hudaibi, spokesman for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and son of the movement's second leader; Sadiq al-Mahdi, former prime minister during Sudan's last experiment with parliamentary democracy (1986-89) and critic (and brother-in-law) of Turabi; and Anwar Haddam, a leader of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front who acted as the party's spokesman in Washington for many years.
Chapter Two focuses on Egypt's besieged secular elite. Viorst discusses the June 1992 assassination of Farag Foda, an outspoken secular Egyptian intellectual, as well as the October 1994 attempt on the life of Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt's Nobel laureate in literature. He also dwells on the significance of the fate of Nasr Hamid Abuzeid, formerly an associate professor in the Arabic department at Cairo University, who through his writings had antagonized fundamentalists and the Islamic establishment alike. Accused of apostasy, Abuzeid left his country in the summer of 1995, a year before Egypt's highest court upheld the sentence by an Islamic court that his marriage ought to be dissolved on the grounds that he was a heretic. Viorst observes that, while radical Islam has been checked in its bid for power, the Islamization of Egyptian society and culture has proceeded apace. Underlying this trend, he notes, has been the tacit alliance that President Hosni Mubarak forged with al-Azhar, the voice of Islamic orthodoxy in Egypt. In exchange for al-Azhar's support for his campaign against Islamic extremists, for such policies as family planning, and, more generally, for helping legitimize the regime through religious edicts and pronouncements on critical issues, Mubarak has granted al-Azhar greater autonomy and freedom to propagate its orthodox, conservative views on religion and society.
Chapter Four, on the Sudan, is one of the most informative in the book. Viorst deftly guides the reader through the meanderings of Sudanese history since the nineteenth century, highlighting the central role that the Ansar and Khatmiyya Sufi orders have played in the development of Sudanese nationalism. Sudan being one of the least well-known polities in the Arab world, the author's succinct analysis of the instability and civil war that have plagued that country since independence in 1956 will be appreciated by the general reader. Viorst then zeroes in on the origins and nature of the military coup that brought the current leadership to power in 1989. He delves into the nature of the regime and its ruling party, the National Islamic Front (NIF) and explores the relationship between the nominal head of state, Omar al-Bashir, and NIF leader and speaker of Parliament, Hassan al-Turabi. Drawing on an extensive interview with Turabi, the author shows that by making Sharia the law of the land, and through its policy of systematic Islamization of society and culture, the regime is in effect endeavoring to use Islam as a way of asserting independence from the West and as a tool for nation-building (an inherently problematic strategy in a country where about one-third of the population is not Muslim). Viorst ends up being pessimistic about Sudan's medium-term prospects:
My own sense is that popular dissatisfaction with the Islamic state runs deep, but that Turabi and his followers have effectively succeeded in entrenching themselves in power. Turabi's government is by far the strongest since independence. Though Sadiq al-Mahdi and other rivals routinely issue manifestos, the regime has managed to outmaneuver all of them, neutralizing any real threat to its survival. It has done very little to improve Sudanese life, but it has absorbed the war in the south into its daily operations, and it exercises total control of the machinery of the state. I suspect that the upcoming generation of Sudanese, whatever its politics, may find that getting Turabi 's government out of power is all but impossible (p. 133).
Chapter Six, on Iran, is built around Viorst's visit there in 1996, a year before the election of Mohamed Khatami as president. After sketching Iranian history since the tobacco rebellion of 1891, Viorst focuses on the dynamic of the Islamic revolution of 1977-79, showing that "Khomeini is best understood within the context of the deep feelings of nationalism, rather than of piety, that swept through Iran during his long lifetime" (p. 184). Viorst then turns to an assessment of the current mood in Iran. He seems to be surprised at the extent to which Iranians are candid in assessing their government's failures and in discussing openly sensitive issues. And yet he sees no indication of nostalgia for the days of the shah and notes the widespread pride in what even the regime's critics see as the revolution's main achievement: independence from American domination and the country's ability to set its own course and make its voice heard.
Chapter Seven, on Saudi Arabia, explores the origins and evolution of the tribal-religious alliance that gave birth to the kingdom and remains the core of its power structure. Viorst then focuses on the growing dissent in the country since 1991, explaining how this trend can be traced back to the forces set in motion by the Gulf War. The chapter contains valuable information on the Saudi opposition, as well as on politics within the royal family and between the royal family and the religious establishment. Viorst suggests that the royal family is increasingly isolated and out of touch, and that it appears to have no clear strategy to address growing demands for greater accountability. While he recognizes that, at this point, the dissidents are not in a position to threaten the regime's survival, he also notes that the discontent "will not go away on its own accord," and, therefore, that the contest between the regime and its challengers is likely to intensify in the years ahead (pp. 235-36).
Chapter Eight provides a straightforward account of the roots and dynamic of Algeria's civil war. It is followed by an analysis of "The Beleaguered Muslims of France" (Chapter Nine), which highlights some of the cultural, socioeconomic and political challenges associated with the attempted integration of large communities of immigrant Muslims into Western Europe. (One could question the extent to which France's experience in this area is representative of broader European· dilemmas, or whether it is unique due to the peculiarities of France's colonial past in North Africa, its current political dynamic, and its historical emphasis on assimilating immigrants as opposed to integrating them.) Chapter Ten, finally, is built around a fascinating interview Viorst held with the late King Hussein in 1997. Viorst sees in King Hussein the spokesperson for what he calls "the Hashemite Option" - a liberal, tolerant vision of Islam, open to other civilizations, oriented as much toward the promises of the future as toward the preservation of the best of the region's cultural heritage, and capable of reconciling Islam with the modern world. But Viorst is also doubtful that, in the end, the late king's enlightened views will have much of an impact on the region as a whole. As Viorst puts it, "In the larger arena where the struggle for the soul of Islam is conducted, there is scarcely a sign that the Hashemite option will prevail" (p. 329).