Best Books on the Middle East, 2010
The Atlantic asked me to name an outstanding book from 2010 in Middle East Studies. I chose John Calvert’s Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism. In honor of that choice, I’m delighted to publish today Calvert’s essay “The Afterlife of Sayyid Qutb” on the Middle East Channel, an essay which fills in one ...
The Atlantic asked me to name an outstanding book from 2010 in Middle East Studies. I chose John Calvert’s Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism. In honor of that choice, I’m delighted to publish today Calvert’s essay “The Afterlife of Sayyid Qutb” on the Middle East Channel, an essay which fills in one of the only real gaps in the book. Choosing only one book was difficult, but fortunately I have a blog of my own to offer a longer list of the best books published this year on the Middle East — or at least the best books published this year which I actually had time to read, which means that it’s far from exhaustive. Without further ado, the list:
John Calvert, Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism (Columbia University Press). The Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb has been one of the most influential Islamist thinkers of the century, a key figure in the evolution of radical Islamist movements such as al-Qaeda and a pivotal voice in the shift by some Islamists towards violence. In one of the first serious English-language biographies of Qutb, Calvert puts this often misunderstood figure into his historical context, situating Qutb within the turbulent intellectual and political flow of Egyptian and Arab history. He expertly shows the development of Qutb’s thinking, from literary critic to Islamist, and powerfully details the impact of the repression and torture carried out by the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser on his turn towards the stark, radical doctrines which have shaped generations of Islamist radicals. Fascinating details emerge in this book, about what really happened during his famous visit to the United States, about his tenuous relationship with a Muslim Brotherhood organization, which he joined only late in his career, and about how he built a following among Islamists outside of Egypt. The Qutb which emerges from Calvert’s even-handed history is far more complex and interesting than the caricature of him which dominates popular understanding. Anyone interested in the evolution of Islamism in the 20th century should read it. John Calvert in the Middle East Channel: “The Afterlife of Sayyid Qutb” (Dec. 15, 2010).
Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi Arabia. The best book written on the evolution of the jihadist trend inside of Saudi Arabia by a rising star in the field (and one of the patrons of the Jihadica blog). By exploiting a vast array of new documentary evidence and interviews inside of Saudi Arabia, Hegghammer paints a compelling portrait of the divisions within Saudi Islamism, locating al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula He explains why al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula launched its wave of attacks in 2003, and why the Saudi state was able to respond as effectively as it did. A must read for those interested in Saudi Arabia, al-Qaeda, or Islamism. Thomas Hegghammer in the Middle East Channel: “The Case for Chasing al-Awlaki” (Nov. 24, 2010), “Lady Gaga vs. the Occupation” (March 31, 2010).
F. Gregory Gause III, The International Relations of the Persian Gulf. This long-awaited analytical overview of the dynamics of the Gulf region has immediately taken its place as one of the key texts for the field of the International Relations of the Middle East. Gause works as easily within the domestic politics of the Gulf States as he does at the level of regional jockeying for power and security. The book presents a definitive and persuasive account of the regime security imperatives behind the Iraqi decisions to invade Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990, of the tripolar logic of the Iranian-Iraqi-Saudi competition for regional supremacy, of the formation of the GCC, and of the steadily shifting American role in the region. Greg Gause in the Middle East Channel: “The Iraq War: The Hole in the Middle Eastern Doughnut” (Nov. 30, 2010), “What Saudis Really Think About Iran” (May 6, 2010), “Strikeout: How Cook Fails to Bring the Neocons Back” (March 17, 2010).
Nir Rosen, Aftermath. The fearless journalist Nir Rosen grapples here with the course of the Iraq war and its effects upon the region as a whole. Ranging from Lebanon and Jordan to Afghanistan, Rosen digs deep into the experience of the war from the perspective of Iraqis and Arabs instead of from the U.S. military-centric perspective of most writing on the war. While his description of Iraq is vital and important, perhaps the most gripping sections of the book focus on the rise of a Salafi trend in Lebanon. The Iraq war will be shaping the region for many years to come. Nir Rosen in the Middle East Channel: “What America Left Behind in Iraq” (Sept. 7, 2010).
Joy Gordon, Invisible War. While most Americans have largely forgotten the long decade of U.S. led sanctions on Iraq, Gordon forces attention back to their long-lasting effects on the Iraqi state and society. She offers a deeply researched account of American and United Nations policies towards the sanctions which captures the contradictions between an overt focus on forcing Saddam Hussein to surrender his WMD programs and a deeper interest in maintaining containment (“keeping Saddam in a box”) and pushing for regime change — contradictions which remain deeply relevant to current debates about Iran. Gordon tracks the effects of the sanctions on Iraqis, which drove international outrage as the decade of the 1990s dragged on but which most of the world now seems eager to forget. Joy Gordon in the Middle East Channel: “Lessons We Should Have Learned From the Iraqi Sanctions” (July 8, 2010).
There were also some very intriguing books that I haven’t yet had the chance to read. Timur Kuran’s The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East promises to be controversial. Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia, by Toby Jones, has just been published by one of our sharpest analysts of the Gulf. In the Shadow of Sectarianism: Law, Shi’ism and the Making of Modern Lebanon, by Max Weiss, is based on a dissertation which a committee I headed named the Malcolm Kerr Award for Best Dissertation a few years ago. And I’m sure there are others — put them in the comments section so I know what to read over Christmas break!
Also, in case anyone cares, I think that this year has roundly disconfirmed Nas’s hypothesis that “Hip Hop is Dead.” My personal list of the top albums of the year: Kanye West’s brilliant My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which delivers on the promise of GOOD Fridays even if it didn’t include the Power remix with Jay-Z and even though Nicki Minaj’s atrocious verse ran “Monster” into a ditch; Eminem’s Recovery, which would have been #1 with a bullet almost any other year; Big Boi’s ridiculously fun Sir Lucious Left Foot / The Son of Chico Dusty; and B.o.B’s The Adventures of Bobby Ray. Reflection Eternal rounds out the top 5, thanks to disappointing showings by T.I. and Lil Wayne (please don’t mention the abysmal offerings by Minaj or Drake). But ahead of that I would place at least three mixtapes: J.Cole’s Friday Night Lights; Wale’s More About Nothing; and Jay Electronica’s Victory. Not a bad year in music.