Recent Reading: Some Good Books

The following is a list of books for which there is not enough time to review in detail but deserve praise. Some of them are in French. They are not ranked. Most were read in the last two or three months. A few notes on books that stuck out come after the list.

  1. Jack O’Connel (with Vernon Loeb): King’s Counsel: A Memoir of War, Espionage, and Diplomacy in the Middle East. W.W. Norton: New York. 2010.
  2. M. Sukru Hanioglu: Ataturk: An Intellectual Biography. Princeton: Princeton. 2011.
  3. Zeina Maasri. Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War. I.B. Taurus: New York. 2009.
  4. Stephen Sheehi. Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims. Clarity: Atlanta. 2011.
  5. John. J. Mearsheimer. Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics. Oxford: New York. 2011.
  6. Ilham Khuri-Makdisi. The Eastern Mediterranean and the Making of Global Radicalism, 1860-1914. University of California: Berkeley. 2010.
  7. Camille Tawil. Brothers in Arms: The Story of al-Qa’ida and the Arab Jihadists. Saqi: London. 2011.
  8. Gwendal Durand. L’organisation d’Al Qaïda au Maghreb islamique: Réalité ou manipulations? L’Harmattan: Paris. 2011.
  9. Abdelkader Tigha. Contre-espionnage Algérien: Notre guerre contre les Islamistes. New World Publishing. Nouveau Monde Editions: Paris. 2008.
  10. Sarah Gualtieri. Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora. University of California: Berkeley. 2009.

A few notes on a couple of the books.

  • The Hanioglu book is very serious academic writing. It manages to, for the most part, avoid the hagiographie that comes with most Ataturk biographies. It is well organized according to time and ideas and avoids the crude politicization common in western Attaurk biographies. It is dense but reads quickly for someone interested in the subject matter. This being said there is a lot to learn from in the book and the early chapters on Mustafa Kemal’s youth are most engaging in describing how class influenced his worldview to start with. The descriptions of his interactions with the evolving officiers’ culture are also deeply edifying.
  • The book on Islamophobia by Sheehi is the most current one on the subject, as far as this blogger can tell. It is also the best and least apologetic of those written recently (there are several from the last ten years or so, some of them bizarrely optimistic, if not delusional and others high specialized in their focus, such as Gottschalk and Greensberg’s very fine book which is interested in cartoons (Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers: New York. 2007). This book is the best survey of the phenomenon in America yet. It damning of the haters promoting sectarianism in the political sphere and lazy journalists and sobering for those interested in cosmopolitanism  and committed to national unity. Parts of its analysis and thesis are flawed (it groups too many narratives together all at once when arguing that Islam has replaced communism as America’s great bogeyman since the end of the Cold War, and in doing so muddles the distinction between right of center discourse communities and official policy; its description of these communities and narratives, though, is spot on, especially in his almost excessively detailed documentation of how anti-Muslim canards, stereotypes and deliberate fabrications have been spread and used by various political interest groups in the American media and government circles of late) but it covers something like twenty years of public discourse on Islam in America quite well in almost gratuitous detail, taking no prisoners and making no apologies. It is part academic part polemic. And it is especially relevant given how mainstream anti-Muslim sentiment has become (of course this has come to greater attention in the light of the tragic and savage terrorist attack in Norway; the dangerous of the anti-Muslim right were evident long before this, though).
  • The Gualtieri book on Syrian American identity is quite important, as far as Arabs in America ought to be concerned. It lays out the darker element in how Arab Americans ended up being called “caucasians” by the federal government (this has been discussed on this blog before someplace in relation to Philip Hitti, who was probably one of the greatest Arab American historians, ever and who, rather sadly, had to spend time writing semi-revisionist histories to prove that Arabs and Syrians were racially worthy of American citizenship, by the racist standards of his day); this is a point of much confusion for many Arab Americans who came to America or whose parents came to America after 1965. (As’ad Abukhalil once wrote about this contradiction when he defined his use of the term “the White Man”) The early Syrians had to form their American identity in a climate of Jim Crow and nativism. They also went to America at a time when new nationalist and ethnic identities were forming in greater Syria. Gualtieri’s book brings out the interaction between these realities in a similar to how the Khuri-Makdisi book looks at the interaction between radical ideas in the Ottoman Empire and Latin and North America (and to how Kaufman (Reviving Phoenicia, I.B. Taurus, 2004 shows the link between Lebanese emigres and the Phoenicianist and pan-Syrian ideologies in the Levant in the 1920s and 1930s) but more in terms of straightforwardly social than political history. It shows how early Syrian Americans often attempted to build vertical associations with the dominant culture by playing up their Christianity and disassociating from other minorities, such as African Americans (this contrasts to a large degree with many contemporary Arab Americans who seek horizontal links with other minorities to cope with cultural marginalization.) Gualtieri’s book is to be commended on linguistic grounds, as well: the majority of the sources, drawn from numerous archives all over the Arab region, Europe and Americas, are predominantly Arabic including many of the writings in the newspapers of the early Syrian American community. It bridges Arab and American studies artfully. It is a really important book in terms of Arab American studies, to the extent this exists.
  • With respect to Camille Tawil’s book: this is an important book that must be read by people in interested in jihadism and Islamist militancy in North Africa. Serious people should also read his al-Harakah al Islamiyyah al musallahah fi al-Jaza’ir: min al-Inqad ila “al Jama’ah” (“The Armed Islamic Movement in Algeria: from the FIS to ‘GIA’”; Dar an-Nahar: Beirut. 1998). Brothers in Arms investigates the origins and divisions and worldview of Arab jihadis, getting in deep in the way most western journalists simply cannot. It has qualities similar to Nir Rosen’s gigantic bookAftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World (Nation Books: New York. 2010) but has very obvious structural and methodological differences and focuses on different tendencies; the level of detail and understanding is comparable.

3 thoughts on “Recent Reading: Some Good Books

  1. Looking forward to a review (or comment) of Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, “The Berber Identity Movement and the Challenge to North African States”?

    • Have not been able to get a copy and read it, though I have seen some writing by Maddy-Weitzman I presume he’s based the book on. Perhaps if I get a chance to read it. I have opinions on what I’ve read from him but cannot comment without reading the book.

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