Marc Lynch

Best Books on the Middle East, 2011

It’s time for the official, Aardvark-certified list of the Best Books on the Middle East for 2011! (See last year’s winners here.) Next year’s list will undoubtedly be dominated by books addressing this year’s uprisings which have transformed the Arab world, but not many significant books on the topic were published in 2011.  That’ll hopefully change ...

It’s time for the official, Aardvark-certified list of the Best Books on the Middle East for 2011! (See last year’s winners here.) Next year’s list will undoubtedly be dominated by books addressing this year’s uprisings which have transformed the Arab world, but not many significant books on the topic were published in 2011.  That’ll hopefully change on March 27, when my own book The Arab Uprising comes out — don’t worry, it won’t be eligible for the 2012 awards of course! — and, all joking aside, when a number of great journalists and scholars weigh in with books in the pipeline.  In the meantime, you can always go back to Revolution in the Arab World, the eBook based on Foreign Policy articles, which I think remains an outstanding guide to the first few months.

First, the ground rules. The awards are limited to English-language books that were published in calendar year 2011 and which dealt primarily with the contemporary broader Middle East. I read more than 65 books published this year which fit that description, from academic and trade presses alike. The award is entirely subjective, based on what I found impressive or interesting. There’s no committee, no publishers sent me free copies or offered up lucrative swag, and I couldn’t read everything — especially if books were published too late in the year or if publishers insisted on releasing them only as $90 hardcovers. If your book didn’t make the list, however, then you know what do do (hint: you really can’t go wrong by blaming Blake Hounshell).

And with that…the 2011 Aardvark Awards for the Best Books on the Middle East:

Book of the Year

Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia, by Stephane LaCroix (Harvard University Press). Awakening Islam is an astonishingly rich, detailed analysis of the fascinating world of Saudi Islamism. The young French scholar Stephane LaCroix spent significant time in Saudi Arabia, and got deep inside the competing networks that have shaped Saudi Arabia’s distinctive Islamist milieu. He unpacks the role of Muslim Brothers and Salafis and their sometimes-uneasy relationship with the state. He carefully traces the evolution of the Sahwa (Awakening) networks, and how they both carried political dissent and re-structured the pathways of political mobilization. And while he certainly pays attention to militant jihadism and the worldview which helped spawn al-Qaeda, that does not overwhelm his broader analytical mission.  This book is simply an extraordinary accomplishment, and should be required reading for anyone interested in the politics of Islam. Read LaCroix on the Middle East Channel: “Saudi Islamists and the Potential for Protest” (June 2, 2011).

Runner Up

Violence, Non-Violence and the Palestinian National Movement, by Wendy Pearlman (Cambridge University Press). Pearlman has produced a beautifully written, deeply researched, and theoretically sophisticated overview of a century of Palestinian political mobilization. She goes deep inside the political opportunities and obstacles which have shaped Palestinian decisions about violence and non-violent mobilization, with a particularly rich and insightful reading of both of the Intifadas.  Nobody should ever again dare ask “where is the Palestinian Gandhi?” before reading her book.  This is the best kind of scholarship, and deserves a wide readership — which I fear it will not get, unless Cambridge decides to quickly issue it in an affordable paperback version instead of as an absurdly expensive $99 hardcover. Read Pearlman on the Middle East Channel: “A New Palestinian Intifada?” (Oct. 10, 2011).

Honorable Mentions

Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, by Timothy Mitchell (Verso). Mitchell offers an alternative reading of the political and economic history of the Middle East that offers new interpretations of the impact of the struggle for the control of oil. Carbon Democracy ranges widely over the 20th century, placing oil not only at the center of U.S. foreign policy and the evolution of state structures and popular protest in the Middle East but also at the evolution of the disciplines of economics and political theory. Like many such alternative readings, Mitchell sometimes pushes his argument too far and produces contestable historical interpretations. But Carbon Democracy is a challenging, sophisticated, and important book that undermines expectations in the best kind of intellectual provocation. Read Mitchell on the Middle East Channel…next year!

The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square, by Steven Cook (Oxford University Press). Cook’s timely, well-written history offers the best up to date review of Egypt’s modern political history through the opening months of the revolution that brought down Hosni Mubarak. His account of how the 1952 Egyptian revolution produced the Nasserist authoritarian regime is more relevant today than ever, as is his discussion of the final years of the decaying Mubarak regime — including intriguing new evidence about Gamal Mubarak’s activities.  I’m still just glad that he didn’t go with his editor’s original suggested title, “Why the Mubaraks Will Never Ever Fall No Matter What Even If Martians Attack and Eat the Pyramids.” Read Cook on the Middle East Channel: “The Frankenstein of Tahrir Square” (Dec. 19, 2011).

Finally, I found a huge number of books about other regions of the world to be critically important in shaping my thinking about the unfolding events in the Arab world this year. Of those, I’d like to recommend one in particular: The Justice Cascade, by Kathryn Sikkink (Norton). Sikkink, a leading IR scholar and Latin America specialist, details the growth of the norm of human rights prosecutions for regime officials responsible for atrocities against their own people. Whether such a norm can take hold in a changing Arab world strikes me as one of the most interesting and important questions out there — I’m developing an academic research project on it, at any rate, so I hope so!  Sikkink presents an invaluable guide to the possibilities of normative and political change in world politics.

Congratulations to all the winning authors — we hope that the honor and prestige and Aardvark love compensates for the complete absence of any cash prize.

And then, tradition demands…. 

Tr adition demands that I also present here my picks for the top hip-hop albums of the year. And so I shall. Top of the list is Watch the Throne, by Jay-Z and Kanye West. I wasn’t blown away by this one at first, especially after the ridiculously high bar set by the first single Otis.  But this adventurous, playful, and surprisingly mature album really grew on me over repeated listenings and after seeing them perform at the Verizon Center in DC. See Jay-Z and Kanye on the Middle East Channel here: Jay-Z’s Hegemony in the Age of Kanye.

Next comes J. Cole’s wonderful, smart debut Cole World: The Sideline Story, which finally brought one of my favorite rappers from the mixtapes to a wider public. Pusha T’s Fear of God II EP was wicked (I think I played the first verse of Trouble on My Mind 17 times in a row at one point). I liked Kendrick Lamar’s Section 80, and Monumental by Pete Rock and Smif n Wessum. I wanted to like the new albums by Wale, Big Sean, Game, the Roots, Talib Kweli and especially Lupe Fiasco but I just didn’t really feel them.   And I really liked the various collections of revolutionary Arab rap that everyone kept sending me this year, and I hope y’all will keep sending them. I’m still bummed that Lauren Bohn managed to track down El General in the south of Tunisia for an FP interview while I had to settle for seekng J.Cole, Jay Z and Kanye in DC.

Thanks for a great 2011, everyone — and get on those great books and great albums which might earn you an Aardvark Award of your own in 2012!

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark