Expert Middle East Perspectives
THE ISLAMIC THREAT: MYTH OR REALITY? By John L. Espito, Oxford University Press, 243 pp., $22.; PASSION AND POLITICS: THE TURBULENT WORLD OF THE ARABS By Sandra Mackey, Dutton, 448 pp., $23.; THE PASSIONATE ATTACHMENT: AMERICA'S INVOLVEMENT WITH ISRAEL, 1947 TO THE PRESENT BY Georg Ball and Douglas Ball, W. W. Norton, 328 pp., $24.95.; THE NEW PALESTINIANS: THE EMERGING GENERATION OF LEADERS By John and Janet Wallach, Prima Publishing, 351 pp., $22.95.; SHIFTING LINES IN THE SAND: KUWAIT'S ELUSIVE FRONTI ER WITH IRAQ By David H. Finnie, Harvard University Press, 221 pp., $29.95.Skip to next paragraph
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A SPATE of excellent books on Islam and the Middle East puts the region's threats - and its hopeful developments - in perspective.
Few would quarrel with the thesis that Islamic fundamentalism is one of the most potent ideological forces in the post-cold-war era. In "The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?" John Esposito examines whether, politically, Islam is a force for peaceful reform or violent revolution.
Hijackings and hostage-takings have given militant Islam a bad name. So have fanatical and anti-Western leaders like Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini and Iraq's Saddam Hussein. In Algeria and elsewhere, fundamentalists threaten incipient democratic movements.
Esposito says Islam does pose a challenge, if not an outright threat, to Western interests. But he argues that fundamentalism is neither as militant nor as monolithic as many Westerners suppose. His controversial but persuasive argument is that Islamic fundamentalism is an authentic, if not always benign, populist movement that has tapped into legitimate discontent produced by harsh economic conditions in the Islamic world.
Written by one of America's leading scholars on Islam, the book may be tough going for the layman, but it is well worth the effort to get a balanced view of the West's relationship with the Islamic world.
Whether Islam becomes another "evil empire" at war with the "New World Order," Esposito says, depends on whether the West can distinguish a "religious and ideological alternative" from a genuine threat and whether the governments of Muslim countries choose to tolerate or repress opposition fundamentalist movements.
"Passion and Politics: The Turbulent World of the Arabs" is another serious book for the specialist and industrious layman. Journalist Sandra Mackey explores the political makeup of an Arab world caught between the myth of unity and the reality of conflict.
One source of this often debilitating tension, she writes, is that Arabs have had a difficult time reconciling the nationhood imposed by colonial rulers with centuries of localism based on loyalties to families and clans. Another is the resurgence of Muslim fundamentalism, which Mackey describes as an "outpouring of Arab agony" over three centuries of Western domination.
Readers will find especially helpful five illuminating profiles of figures who have shaped the Arab world, including Egypt's Gamel Abdel Nasser, who galvanized Arab nationalism, and Syria's Hafez al Assad, a potentially key figure in the historic transition now under way in Arab attitudes toward Israel.
The existence of the Jewish state in the Arab Middle East has long nourished Muslim extremism. It has also posed dilemmas for American policymakers who have tried to balance conflicting interests in the region.