For years I’ve a had soft spot for Reza Aslan, ever since I read his 2005 book No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. Five years ago I read another of his books Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and while I didn’t enjoy it much as No God but God nevertheless I found it satisfying and thought-provoking. Not counting his recently published God: A Human History there was one more of his books out there I’d yet to read. His 2009 book How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror had eluded me for close to a decade. That is until I spotted a copy on the shelf at the library and decided to give it a try.
Aslan’s argues in How to Win a Cosmic War (when released in paperback the next year it was retitled Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in the Age of Globalization) that Jihadist groups, when attacking Western targets and other perceived enemies are not fighting a holy war but instead a cosmic war, one that’s like “a ritual drama in which participants act out on earth a battle they believe is actually taking place in the heavens.” With no distinctions between sacred and profane or secular and spiritual the goals aren’t material like the conquest of territory or control of scarce resources. One could think of it as an earthy reflection of a greater metaphysical struggle, and with no middle ground or neutral parties making it Manichean in nature. (Which also makes negotiation impossible.) Like a verse lifted from the Lord’s Prayer, these holy warriors are killing and dying for God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
How then should Western nations like America successfully respond to groups like these? According to Aslan, it’s not by using terms like “crusade” or religiously charged rhetoric since this just validates their cosmic world view. The best solution Aslan recommends is to encourage democratic reforms in Islamic world. “Throughout the Middle East, whenever moderate Islamist parties have been allowed to participate in the political process, popular support for more extremist groups has diminished.”
Understandably, since How to Win a Cosmic War was published almost a decade ago it doesn’t feel fresh. But that’s OK. Aslan writes well and makes many a compelling point. If nothing else, his book, no matter when it was published provides greater depth and commentary to the ongoing conflict between armed Islamic groups and the West.
If you’re a longtime reader of my blog you probably know I enjoy books about the Middle East, especially Israel and Iran. In past posts I’ve elaborated on my fascination with these two countries, wondering if it’s because they’re outliers when compared to their neighbors in the region. (Israel, a Western-oriented democracy is the world’s only majority Jewish country. Iran, while overwhelming Muslim, is nevertheless roughly 80 percent Shia, a minority religion when compared to the rest of the Muslim world. In addition, it’s the only Persian majority country in the Middle East.) But if I had to choose a runner-up as far as my interests go when it comes to the countries of the Middle East it would have to be Saudi Arabia. Maybe because it’s home to not only massive oil deposits but also Islam’s holiest places. Or maybe because for decades it’s enjoyed a close relationship, politically and economically with the United States despite its puritanical interpretation of Islam, animosity towards America’s ally Israel, and over the last 20 years the birthplace of radical Islam’s most dangerous individuals, from Osama bin Laden to 15 of the 19 9-11 hijackers. All I know is it’s hard for me to resist a good book on Saudi Arabia when one comes my way.
I’ve known of Robert Lacey’s 2009 book Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists, and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia for several years but oddly enough I never made any effort to read it. Then recently my curiosity got the better of me so I borrowed an e-book version courtesy of my public library. Not only am I happy to report I wasn’t disappointed, so pleasantly surprised I was with Lacey’s book there’s a good chance it might wind up on my year-end Best Nonfiction List.
After reading Inside the Kingdom it’s impossible to walk away from this book without gaining a deeper understanding of Saudi Arabia. As hoped, Lacey hits all the pivotal historical events in Saudi history, like the 1979 siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca (Yaroslav Trofimov’s 2007 book The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam’s Holiest Shrine is a must read if you wanna learn more), Gulf Wars I and II, America and Pakistan’s enlistment of Saudi Arabia in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the rise of bin Laden and al-Qaeda, 9-11, and lastly all various palace coups and power struggles within the country’s massive royal family. (Keep in mind Lacey’s book was published in 2009 so it won’t cover the more recent happenings. For that I’d strongly encourage you to read Time magazine’s interview with current Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as well as Karl Vick’s companion piece.) Impressive as this is, what impressed me more was Lacey’s inclusion of developments previously unknown to me, especially the Saudi’s secret acquisition of Chinese nuclear warhead capable medium-range missiles, a bold move that alarmed American and Israeli officials alike.
Inside the Kingdom is great. Let’s just say if I had to recommend just one book to someone wanting to understand Saudi Arabia this is the one.
A book entitled The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts has got to be a bibliophile’s dream. About a year after seeing reviews of Joshua Hammer’s book flood the Internet I spotted an available copy at my public library. So, with a title like that of course I grabbed it.
For those of you who might not be familiar with the story, 500 hundred years ago the North African city of Timbuktu was the Oxford or Cambridge of the medieval Islamic world. Scholars, clerics, jurists and doctors from across the Muslim realms came to Timbuktu to do research and exchange ideas. This was made possible in no small part by the city’s extensive collection of manuscripts covering a diverse array of subjects including philosophy, religion, science and medicine. Over time, even though Timbuktu slipped into obscurity, the manuscripts nevertheless remained hidden away in places like mosques and privates homes. Until about 10 years ago, Abdul Kader Haidara, a forward thinking Malian realized it was high time to gather the countless manuscripts spread throughout the city and place them in one climate controlled library. This would not only make the aged texts easily accessible for the world’s scholars, but more importantly it would protect them from the ravages of time and the elements.
But as the old saying goes, no good plan survives contact. In 2012 when Islamist fighters conquered the area and began imposing their interpretation of Sharia law, the city’s new rulers took a dim view of the manuscripts. Fearing for good reason the Muslim extremists saw the texts as religiously impure, Haidara made sure the library’s manuscripts were secretly extracted and hidden away throughout the area. With out saying too much, had it not been for Haidara and a number of ordinary Malian citizens who risked their lives to hide the manuscripts countless irreplaceable writings would have went up in smoke.
One of the cool surprises of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is Hammer devotes a significant amount of time showing how Mali found itself in such a dire situation. In only a few years Mali went from West African backwater to a hip, up and coming cultural Mecca, once the world discovered the nation’s vibrant indigenous music scene. But once Mali’s ethnic rivalries were amplified by larger geopolitical struggles the country became a battleground. Therefore, when the Islamists do come to Timbuktu, you the reader are able to understand the conflict in its fuller context.
Combining elements of travelogue, battlefield reporting and historical writing The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu did not leave this bibliophile disappointed.
I was no stranger to The Places in Between, or its author Rory Stewart when I decided to grab a copy from my public library. You see, years ago, a dear friend of mine after returning from a shopping trip to Powell’s Books informed me she’d bought a copy and asked if I’d heard of it. (At the time I’d hadn’t. But I was vaguely familiar with one of his other books, The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq.) As for Rory Stewart, I was introduced to his writing when I read the foreword he wrote to Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East. Since I thought it was one of the best forwards I’d ever read, I welcomed any opportunity to read more of Stewart’s stuff. Needless to say, when a copy of The Places in Between came available, I grabbed a copy.
You gotta admire a guy like Stewart. Mere months after the US has toppled the Taliban, he arrives in Afghanistan. Alone and in the middle of winter, this fearless (or crazy, depending on how you look at it) Scotsman sets out to walk across the country, from Herat to Kabul. The locals think he’s either insane, or worse some sort of spy. At the start of his trek, he’s confronted by several “government” agents, probably with Iranian connections. After explaining his intended mission, one of his interrogators responds incredulously “there are no tourists.” Reminding him it’s winter and the high mountain passes are covered with tons of snow he adds “you will die, I can guarantee. Do you want to die?” Undeterred, Stewart proceeds to hike across north-central Afghanistan usually accompanied by a few Afghans. But always on foot. And always at the mercy of the hostile elements, both natural and human.
Reading The Places in Between you learn quickly Afghanistan is one hell of a rough place. Think of it as wall to wall grinding poverty. There’s no infrastructure worth speaking of and thanks to the country’s mountainous terrain most population centers are terribly isolated and thus insulated from the reach of any central government. Instead warlords and chieftains rule individual pieces of the country. Theses are the men Stewart must win over if he’s going to make it across Afghanistan alive.
My only knock on The Places in Between is a slight one. Stewart’s habit of including so many passages of medieval travelogue might have gone a bit too far. But alas my complaint is a minor one, and should not defer anyone from reading this very good piece of travel writing.
If I may for a moment, channel The Most Interesting Man in the World and say I don’t always read young adult books, but when I do, I prefer something that’s socially and politically relevant. When I saw my public library had an available copy of Malala Yousafzai’s 2014 memoir I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World I decided to grab it lest someone beat me to it. I mean, it’s not everyday you get to read something authored by history’s youngest Nobel laureate. Plus, with my interest in the history and politics of South Asia, I’d be fool to pass up a chance to read I Am Malala. Lastly, considering she spoke in town about six months ago it might be wise to read Yousafzai’s memoir in the event I find myself in a conversation with someone who saw her speak that night in my hometown of Portland. (Remember, one of the keys to being a great conversationist is knowing your audience. And that requires preparation, possibly even research.)
But I was hesitant to read it because the edition I’d selection was billed as the Young Reader Edition. Was this some dumbed-down, Dick and Jane Reader version of what I assumed was a powerful memoir? So, like any decent American who needs to know something, I went running to the Internet. Luckily for me, I came across Kasey’s blog PhDs and Pigtails. Back in March of 2015 she posted an outstanding piece in which she weighed in on the pros and cons of both the original version of I Am Malala and its Young Reader Edition. In the end, while she suggested it’s best to read both versions, she preferred the Young Reader Edition. Feeling enlightened by Kasey’s recommendation I began reading I Am Malala. After whipping through it in mere days I’m happy to report Kasey did not lead my astray. I Am Malala did not disappoint me.
If you’re a half-way intelligent person who’s spent even a modicum of time reading or watching the news over the last few years, you’re probably familiar with Malala’s story. After surviving being shot three times in the head by militants who found her views on female education an affront to Islam, the Pakistani teen became an international human rights celebrity and eventual co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. That’s about I knew about her before reading this book.
Thanks to I Am Malala I learned there’s a lot more to her story. For one, I had no idea prior to her assassination attempt she was such a vocal proponent of female eduction, doing interviews and meeting with officials. I also didn’t know how close she came to either dying or suffering major brain damage. (Or that she sought treatment in a series of four hospitals, with the last one in the United Kingdom.) But what will really stick with me after reading I am Malala is this young woman’s sense of purpose and belief in the importance of her cause, aided in no small part by her vast reservoir of self-confidence.
Not only did I enjoy this memoir, there’s a good chance at the end of the year when I look back on all the books I’ve read that I Am Malala could earn an honorable mention. This is a great book for young readers, as well as the not so young like myself.
At 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.
After 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.