Category Archives: Islam

Middle Eastern Memoirs: And Then All Hell Broke Loose by Richard Engel

And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle EastAt one time memoirs about life in the Middle East were a regular feature on my blog. Seems like every time I turned around I was reviewing some book in which the author recalled the time he/she spent living in, or traveling through that particular part of the world. But over the last few years I found myself reading these kind of books less and less. As for exactly why I’m not sure, but probably it’s because I haven’t been reading books about the Middle East like I used to. Too bad. I think that needs to change.

One afternoon months ago I was strolling along the new books section of my local public library when I came across  Richard Engel’s recently published memoir And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East. As I stared at Engel’s book, I realized how long it’d been since I read a memoir like his. Thinking that spending two decades in the Middle East certainly should give an author something to write about I grabbed Engel’s memoir. Even though I  stopped reading it about half way through only to finish it several months later, it’s pretty good memoir and in the end, I’m glad I took a chance on it.

Engel’s memoir begins with him as a 23 year recent graduate of Stanford who ships off to Egypt to live his dream as a foreign correspondent. After honing his Arabic skills and immersing himself in the local culture (and getting to know members of the Muslim Brotherhood) he eventually finds work as a reporter. Working his way up the journalistic food chain, his career takes him throughout the region to Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Israel/Palestinian Territories and Syria. In addition to covering two Gulf Wars and the Arab Spring protests, he also reported from the frontline battles in Libya and Syria, where in Syria he was kidnapped.

This is breezy and succinctly written memoir. If you’re looking for a light but informative look at the world of the Middle East And Then All Hell Broke Loose is your book. Give it a shot and I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Islam, Memoir, Middle East/North Africa

The ISIS Apocalypse by William McCants

The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic StateAfter spending a quiet evening watching a pair of Frontline episodes on the rise of ISIS I found myself wanting to learn more about the feared Islamist organization. Later on, I happened to see my public library had an available copy of William McCants’ The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State. Figuring now is as good as any other time to read up on the organization that’s dominated the headlines over the last couple of years I grabbed it. Fortunately for me, like almost all of the library books I’ve borrowed of late McCants’ book is pretty darn good.

Published in 2015, McCants’ book I suspect is unique among books about ISIS and al-Qaeda. McCants, in order to explain how ISIS came to be, recruits followers and strives to build an Islamic state shows how the organization took and continues to take inspiration and guidance from not just the Quran and the Hadith (the collected sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad) but especially medieval Islamic apocalyptic literature. Traditionally, most Sunni Muslims shied away from these esoteric writings, deeming them inspiration for crackpots or worse, the kind of holy scriptures dreaded Shia would follow. But in the hands of ISIS, they serve as a priceless playbook.

According to McCants the ISIS break from al-Qaeda was a major paradigm shift. Al-Qaeda wanted to draw Western, especially American military forces into the Middle East in hopes of inflicting a crippling defeat, eventually resulting in America’s decline. (After all, it worked it worked against the USSR in Afghanistan.) With America and its Western allies no longer able to support its client states in the Middle East al-Qaeda could resurrect the Caliph of old. While attacks on Western targets were fine, al-Qaeda ideologues stressed the necessity of Arab unity and that meant being careful not to inflict Arab civilian casualties.

But ISIS had a different game plan. Instead of fighting the West, ISIS preferred to seize territory within Arab world and begin the Caliph now, not sometime in the distant future. It’s had its best success in places like Syria, where President al-Assad has been willing to largely leave the group alone (as long as it doesn’t attack Damascus and is more interested in fighting other rebel groups) and Iraq where the country’s Shia-dominated government has limited influence in the Sunni regions. And as far as limiting Arab casualties, ISIS took the opposite approach. The more public beheadings, genocide and suicide bombings the better.

What impressed me the most with The ISIS Apocalypse is McCants’ scholarship. Besides being fluent in Arabic, his knowledge of the above-mentioned medieval Islamic writings is impressive. I was pleased with The ISIS Apocalypse and like any good book it’s left me wanting to read more. Therefore, get ready to see more books on ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Middle East featured on this blog.

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Filed under Arab World, Current Affairs, History, Islam, Middle East/North Africa

Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century

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I’m probably not alone in assuming when people rebel against the establishment they’re usually thought of as progressives or modernizers. These individuals see the old order as being, well, old. Sick of dealing with antiquated governance and out of step leaders, such agents for change want to move forward by bringing about needed reforms or even wholesale revolutions. What then do you make of those who, when taking on those in power, look not to the future for inspiration but to the past?

That is the question asked and answered by Christian Caryl in his 2013 book Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. It’s a book that’s been on my list to read for several years, ever since I read about it on Goodreads. I felt myself drawn to Strange Rebels because I came of age during this time. Of the many events he recalls, so many of them I watched unfold on the evening TV news. Not long ago my book group opted to read it and I couldn’t have been happier. I’m also happy to report it’s an excellent book.

To Caryl, 1979 was a pivotal year like few others. Britain elected its first female Prime Minister, an avowed conservative who moved the United Kingdom away kicking and screaming from a pro-union, Socialist-style system to free-market, Chicago School of Economics-oriented nation. On the other side of the globe, Deng Xiaoping sought to modernize China and raise living standards by bringing the nation into the global economy through embracing capitalism. In an age when many forward thinking intellectuals thought little of religion, especially conservative Catholicism, Pope John II believed the moral and intellectual strength of Christianity could bring about the end of Soviet oppression. Also in opposition to Soviet-sponsored oppression were the Mujahideen of Afghanistan, who had religious motivations of their own, drawing from their Islamic heritage. Lastly, in neighboring Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini and his fellow revolutionaries established the world’s first Islamic Republic. By doing so they abruptly ended the Shah’s attempts to make Iran a modern, Westernized (albeit authoritarian) nation.

Through Caryl’s eyes these strange rebels share striking similarities. Thatcher and Deng felt the only way their respective nations could prosper was to embrace free market reforms and lessen the state’s role in the economy. Khomeini, the Mujahideen and John Paul II all had religious motivations to replace the old order with one more in line with those beliefs. Both John Paul II and Khomeini’s religious views were shaped by their philosophical studies: John Paul II augmented his Christian beliefs with modern European philosophy while Khomeini was heavily influenced by Platonic thought, as well as the writings of the Red Shia Ali Shariati. Even though they were Sunnis and not Shias, the Afghan Mujahideen fought to defeat the Soviets and their Afghan allies and eventually set up their own version of an Islamic Republic. And just like Khomeini and his like-minded ruling clerics took inspiration from the Red Shia Shariati, the Mujahideen modeled themselves after the Muslim Brotherhood, which in turn shares similarities with Marxist vanguard parties.

It’s one thing to show what these leaders had in common, the hard thing is to convince the reader the things they did in 1979 in no small way shape our world. To his credit, Caryl pulls it off. Thanks to Deng’s reforms, China is now a world power, especially economically. The political/economic system of Britain looks nothing like the dark days of the early 1970s. (As an example, Tony Blair’s Labor Party was not your grandfather’s Labor Party.) ideological heirs to the Mujahideen like al-Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram fight to impose their will throughout the world as political Islam has become the dominant ideology for protest in the Muslim world, eclipsing Pan-Arabism, Arab Nationalism and Communism. Before 1979 Islamic Republic was an alien concept. Thanks to Khomeini, even many Sunnis find it an appealing one. (Even if they use the term Caliph.) An unwinnable war in Afghanistan led to the collapse of the USSR. It was the churches, both Protestant and Catholic, that provided safe places where dissidents and their allies could organize against the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe.

Strange Rebels is an excellent book. Consider it highly recommended.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Christianity, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Iran, Islam, Middle East/North Africa

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms by Gerard Russell

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle EastIf you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’re probably aware a number of the great books I’ve been featuring I learned about through the NPR program Fresh Air. Be it Lawrence Wright’s expose on Scientology Going Clear, Keith Lowe’s magnificent history of early post-World War II Europe Savage Continent or Doug Saunders’ intelligent and well-reasoned look at Europe’s Muslim population The Myth of the Muslim Tide I have the good people at Fresh Air to thank for bringing these terrific books to my attention. Now, I’m happy to say there’s one more book I can add to that list: Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East.

Back in October of 2014 I heard Russell’s interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross.  Listening to the program, I was fascinating by what Russell had to say about the Middle East’s small and increasingly endangered religious communities. Vowing to someday read Russell’s book, I quickly added to my “to read” list on Goodreads and kinda forgot about it. But about a month ago, feeling ambitious and in need of fresh reading material for an upcoming vacation I bought a copy off Amazon. Taking advantage of my time off I quickly made my way through Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms all the while enjoying Russell’s rather excellent book. On top of that, I was even able to talk my book club into reading it. And they enjoyed it too!

If anyone should write a book about the disappearing religious communities of the Middle East, it should be Gerard Russell. Fluent in Arabic and Persian, Russell spent years in the troubled region as a diplomat for both the British government and the United Nations. He’s also highly knowledgable of the area’s history and religions, including the beliefs, practices and philosophies of ancient times. For his book he traveled the entire length of the Greater Middle East, from bustling streets of Cairo to the isolated mountain villages along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. With communities like the Copts, Mandaeans and especially the Yazidis suffering persecution at the hands of Islamists, these beleaguered practitioners of ancient faiths have been leaving the Muslim world in droves. As a result, Russell’s travels took him thousands of miles away from the Middle East to newly established exile communities in London, Michigan and even Nebraska.

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is a great book. In order to serve up a rich, detailed and readable treatment of the subject matter, Russell skillfully manages to incorporate ancient history, politics, travelogue, philosophy and religion. Therefore, I have no problem recommending this excellent book.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Christianity, Current Affairs, History, Iran, Islam, Israel, Middle East/North Africa

Heretics and How God Changes Your Brain

Sadly, once again I find myself falling behind in my blogging and needing to play a little catch-up. In the future if this happens, (and probably will) my guess is you’ll see me doing more of  these little catch-up posts in which I discuss multiple books. Even though it feels like I’m “cheating, it’s a great way to recover lost ground. Plus, it allows me to utilize the gallery feature, which it always fun to use and ideal when spotlighting a series of books.

Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now by Ayaan Hirsi Ali – Back in December when I did my year-end catch-up post, one of the many books I briefly featured was Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel. While I didn’t say a lot about her book, I did mention in my post my wish to read more of her stuff in the coming year. Not long after I wrote those words, I discovered Hirsi Ali had written another book. Much to my joy, I was soon able to secure a copy from my public library.

Seen by many as a controversial figure because of her highly critical views of the Islamic world, her latest book in my opinion doesn’t come off as being anti-Muslim per se, even though she is quite critical when it comes to many of the religion’s core beliefs and practices . Her call to reform is similar to that of Anouar Majid as outlined in his 2007 book A Call for Heresy: Why Dissent Is Vital to Islam and America.

Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World by Thomas Cahill. Cahill has been a personal favorite of mine for years, ever since I read his  How the Irish Saved Civilization way back in 1995 . Since then, I’ve tried to read everything of his I can get my hands on, including his short biography of Pope John XXIII.

Honestly, I did not feel confident about Heretics and Heroes, since his last book in his Hinges of History series Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe left me a bit disappointed. So, with no small bit of trepidation, I grabbed a copy of Heretics and Heroes from my public library and gave it a shot. This time, much to my relief there was no disappointment.

Heretics and Heroes covers the Renaissance and Reformation eras from the late fourteenth to the early seventeenth century. Just as expected, Cahill hits all the pivotal events and major personalities. Much to my joy, he also takes time to discuss more than a few vital but overlooked historical contributions. I like Cahill because he makes history entertaining and accessible to readers who are not historians. It’s like having a lengthy but entertaining discussion about history over coffee with friendly and knowledgeable college professor. In so many ways reminded me of Tamin Ansary in his book  Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes.

How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist by Andrew Newberg M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman – This was my book group’s selection for the month of February and honestly, when the decision was announced I wasn’t excited to read it. But with a week to go until our meeting I said what the heck and a bought a copy from Amazon. Fortunately for me, it was a quick read. Even more fortunate for me, it was not the super new age/woo/misuse of neuroscience book I feared. How God Changes Your Brain could be seen as a kind of self-improvement book and touts the benefits of meditation and meditation-like practices to lower stress to improve physical and mental health. Instead of being turned off by the book it left me wanting to adopt some of its recommended practices. It also left me wanting to read Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell.

In an earlier post in which I discussed three different books, I briefly touched on some of the similarities I saw between the three books. When looking at these particular three, both Hirsi Ali and Cahill in their respective books discuss religious reformations and how they’ve been initiated by “heretical” individuals. Newberg and Waldman in their book, extol spiritual exercises as form of healthy meditation, and gave the example of Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises as one example among many such exercises one could use to achieve greater health and well-being. Once again, I love finding commonalities in my reading material.

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Filed under Agnostic/Atheist/Skeptic, Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Christianity, Current Affairs, History, Iran, Islam, Middle East/North Africa, Science

About Time I Read It: A Sultan in Palermo by Tariq Ali

A Sultan in PalermoUneasy lies the head that wears a crown.- Henry IV Part II

My goodness how time flies. I can’t believe it’s been over three years when I featured a little paperback entitled Speaking of Empire and Resistance: Conversations with Tariq Ali. In that post, I called Ali a bit of a renaissance man, thanks to his decades of political activism, but also his works of fiction and nonfiction. While I’ve explored a couple of his nonfiction offerings, his fiction has escaped me. Until now.

Recently, thanks to my public library, I was able to secure a copy of his 2005 novel A Sultan in Palermo. I’d been wanting to read it for years, not just based on Ali’s literary reputation but the historical reputation of King Roger of Sicily. One of history’s rare “enlightened despots” during most of his reign he treated his subjects be they Christian or Muslim with equal respect. Enamored with the island’s culture, he quickly “went native” referring to himself as Sultan Rujari of Siqilliya (Sicily) and keeping a harem of lovelies. But I qualify everything by saying “most” because towards the end of his reign things went a bit downhill – and quickly. Like predators surrounding an aged, infirm or wounded animal Sicily’s Christian nobles and knights sensed the elderly Roger was not only physically weak but politically as well. Realizing he was in the twilight of his life and his son’s reign just around the corner, Roger needed longterm Christian support from the power brokers on Sicily as well as abroad. Tragically, the only way to do that was to sellout the island’s Muslim inhabitants who for years benefitted from Roger’s friendly rule. In doing so he would also betray his most trusted confidant and lifelong friend, his royal cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi.

I found A Sultan in Palermo to be an enjoyable read. Ali writes well and the pace of his novel never slackened. Even though he’s an atheist, who was raised by atheist parents, in A Sultan in Palermo the Muslims are the “good guys” and the Christians, for the most part, are the villains. But for me to say that is an oversimplification. It’s really a novel about power and the abuses of power. And how decent people, when caught in the middle, always seem to suffer.

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Virgins, Crime, and Florence of Arabia

Sorry folks, I just haven’t been in the mood to blog. Honestly, I’m not sure why I’ve been slacking off so much. Maybe after doing this blog for six years I’m starting to feel burned-out. Maybe age is catching up with me and I no longer possess the intellectual vigor I once had. Or maybe after working a long day at the office all I care to do during my free hours is just unwind and unplug. What I do know is I haven’t stopped reading. And that means regardless of any reluctance to blog, I need to do some writing. So, just as I’ve done in the recent past, let me do a little catch-up and get you all up to speed on what I’ve been reading, thanks to my local public library.

The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay – McKay’s 2012 novel has been on my radar for a few years, ever since I read a favorable review on another book blog. It tells the story of Moth, an impoverished  young girl who winds up being sold into domestic servitude by her alcohol and drug addicted mother. After escaping the clutches of her employer, a physically abusive and emotionally unstable housewife trapped in a troubled marriage, she naively falls in with a group of girls residing in a local “infant school” or relatively upscale brothel specializing in providing fresh young girls (“near whores” as they call themselves) to older, well-healed men. While living in the brothel, she’s befriended by a crusading woman doctor who warns her of the “virgin cure”: the mistaken belief held by some syphilitic men that sex with a virgin girl will cleanse them of their diseased blood and thus cure them of the disease.

The Virgin Cure did not disappoint and like any good book that took me a few years to get around reading, I wished I’d read it sooner. I enjoyed McKay’s writing and especially enjoyed her depiction of New York City in 1871 with all its grinding poverty, violence and wide gap between rich and poor. So much did I enjoy The Virgin Cure I think I’d also like to read her 2006 multiple award-winning novel The Birth House.

The Best American Crime Reporting 2009 edited by Jeffrey Toobin – I used to totally dig on anthologies. I loved reading stuff like The Best American Science and Nature Writing, The Best American Essays and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. I have fond memories of sitting on the porch of a local brewpub one crisp early winter evening with a pint of beer in one hand and copy of The Best American Crime Writing: 2004 Edition: The Year’s Best True Crime Reporting in the other. And while I don’t consider myself a fan of true crime writing (or maybe I am and I just won’t admit it) I had an utterly enjoyable evening drinking great beer and reading engaging and well-written accounts of the human condition’s less savory manifestations. Therefore, with pleasant memories like these, I guess it’s no wonder when my public library offered me the opportunity to read The Best American Crime Reporting 2009 I seized it.

Even though the online reviews for The Best American Crime Reporting 2009 look a bit on the lukewarm side, I liked the book. Kudos to Toobin for choosing an interesting collection of diverse pieces covering a variety of stories, everything from Somali gang activity in Minneapolis-St. Paul to a Polish deconstructionist author who’s been accused of committing a murder that resembles something straight out of his own novel to the latest efforts in combating the ubiquitous scourge of shoplifting. While most anthologies tend to be uneven offerings, I enjoyed every one of Toobin’s selections.

Florence of Arabia by Christopher Buckley – I’ve been itching to read this one for close to a decade and just like with The Virgin Cure, I kicked myself for not reading it sooner. I expected great things from the man who wrote Thank You For Smoking and Buckley did not let me down. His 2004 novel is smart, fast-paced and funny as hell. When our heroine is sent to a Middle East emirate to start the region’s first Arabic language satellite TV station for women chaos and hilarity ensues. If you have any interest in the Arab world this novel is for you. If you’ve been closely following events in this part of the world for a long time then this novel is definitely for you.

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Filed under Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Fiction, History, International Crime, Islam, Middle East/North Africa