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Interesting Times: Writings from a Turbulent Decade

Award-winning journalist George Packer grapples with the global consequences of political idealism.

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A more serious issue is the author’s occasional naiveté. At times, Packer doesn’t seem to grasp the extent of anti-Americanism in the Arab world. (This is especially puzzling given his excellent essay “Betrayed” – which he adapted into a play – on the plight of Iraqis who cooperated with the United States.) When he suggests that the US government fund reform-minded Middle Eastern groups in a bid to replicate a successful strategy in Serbia, he does not explain how to counter widespread and inflammatory conspiracy theories regarding American intentions and the violence these theories engender.

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Packer is also a bit too taken with the notion of reforming Islam. Like Daniel Pipes, a writer on Middle East politics and history at the other end of the ideological spectrum, the liberal Packer evinces a deep respect for Sudanese Islamic reformer Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, executed for sedition and apostasy by the Sudanese regime in 1985. Taha was a fascinating figure, but Western intellectuals’ obsession with Islamic religious reform betrays a distressing lack of faith in the prospects of secularization in the Islamic world, and ignores or even subverts the efforts of secular reformers.

Because Taha considered personal freedoms and rights to derive from the Koran, implementing his ideas – while admittedly empowering women and non-Muslims – would further consecrate Islam as the source of human rights legislation.

Whereas the future may reveal whether or not Packer’s leanings – including his more controversial ones – are sound, for now the emphasis must remain on his journalism. The essays in “Interesting Times,” though uneven in terms of length as well as depth, include several outstanding pieces on Iraq, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Burma.

And without making any predictions, Packer points to a possible phenomenon-in-the-making that the world should watch. Although he concedes that “Obama’s movement didn’t exist before his candidacy,” Packer observes that “it has the breadth, the organization, and the generational energy of other movements, and it can be converted into a political coalition if its leader knows how to harness it.”

Rayyan al-Shawaf is a writer and freelance  reviewer based in Beirut, Lebanon.

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