Category Archives: Literature

21 “Best” Books in Middle East Studies, a survey

The survey was compiled at the MES Center at the American University in Cairo using selections sent in by fifty-two professors in the field of Middle East studies. Concerning background information, the goal of the survey was to find the Middle East studies books most highly recommended by professors in the field. All told, fifty-two professors sent their lists to us and from these recommendations the MES Center compiled the following list of the 21 “Best” Books in Middle East studies:

1. Orientalism
Edward Said, 1978

2. The Old Social Classes and the Revoltionary Movements of Iraq
Hanna Batatu, 1978

3. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age
Albert Hourani, 1962

4. A History of the Arab Peoples
Albert Hourani, 1991

5. The Venture of Islam
Marshall Hodgson, 1975

6. Colonising Egypt
Timothy Mitchell, 1988

7. The Mantle of the Prophet
Roy Mottahedeh, 1986 

8. Contending Visions of the Middle East
Zachary Lockman, 2004

9. Women and Gender in Islam
Leila Ahmed, 1992

10. The Emergence of Modern Turkey
Bernard Lewis, 1961

11. Over-stating the Arab State: Politics and Society in the Middle East
Nazih Ayubi, 1995

12. A Political Economy of the Middle East
Alan Richards & John Waterbury, 1990

13. A History of Islamic Societies
Ira Lapidus, 1988

14. Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity
Timothy Mitchell, 2002

15. Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria
Lisa Wedeen, 1999 

16. The Muqaddimah
Ibn Khaldun, 1377 (Rosenthal transl.)

17. A Peace to End All Peace
David Fromkin, 1989

18. Armed Struggle & the Search for State
Yezid Sayigh, 1997

19. State, Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East
Roger Owen, 1992

20. Society of the Muslim Brothers
Richard Mitchell, 1969

21. Arab Politics: The Search for Legitimacy
Michael Hudson, 1977


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Cyber Jihad

LRB | Vol. 28 No. 5 dated 9 March 2006 | Charles Glass


Charles Glass

The Secret History of al-Qaida by Abdel Bari Atwan [ Buy from the London Review Bookshop ] · Saqi, 256 pp, £16.99

Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror by Michael Scheuer [ Buy from the London Review Bookshop ] · Potomac, 307 pp, £11.95

Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden ed. Bruce Lawrence trans. James Howarth [ Buy from the London Review Bookshop ] · Verso, 292 pp, £10.99

Osama: The Making of a Terrorist by Jonathan Randal [ Buy from the London Review Bookshop ] · Tauris, 346 pp, £9.99

When I was five years old, the first secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev, threatened to bury me. That was in 1956, when he buried the Hungarian Revolution. In California we welcomed Hungarian victims of Soviet brutality while finding no room for the Guatemalans whose democracy the CIA had crushed two years earlier. We were trained to ignore our victims and to fear our enemy. After all, Khrushchev could have buried us, even if he did not mean to do so literally, so much as to attend the funeral of capitalism. His formidable arsenal, we were told by Senator Kennedy, when he ran for president in 1960, contained more intercontinental ballistic missiles than ours. Soviet scientists propelled the first satellite and the first man into space. The Soviets had more manpower, more tanks and more dedication than we would ever have, somnolent as we were in our material comfort. ‘Monolithic Communism’ ruled most of the Eurasian landmass. J. Edgar Hoover, America’s chief law enforcer, warned us about ‘godless Communists’ and their designs on our liberties in his bestselling Masters of Deceit. Other titles in the red-baiting crusade – yes, they called it a crusade – were You Can Trust the Communists (to Be Communists) and None Dare Call It Treason. Under banners proclaiming that ‘The only ism for me is Americanism’, and ‘Better Dead than Red’, Dr Fred Schwarz’s Christian Anti-Communist Crusade held rallies that were guaranteed to fill the Hollywood Bowl.

Every morning at my parochial school, we pledged allegiance to the flag, sang the national anthem and prayed for the conversion of Russia. The otherwise thoughtful Sisters of the Immaculate Heart sometimes asked us – a kind of moral quiz – what we would do if the Communists burst into the classroom ‘right now’, levelled guns at our heads and demanded that we renounce Christ. When we got home from school, our flickering black and white televisions escalated the Communophobic barrage. The FBI Story, a weekly drama, competed in unmasking disloyalty with the real House Un-American Activities Committee and its Senate equivalent under Joe McCarthy. Commies, loners and eggheads were undermining the American way of life with foreign ideas like socialised medicine, racial mixing and unemployment insurance. The most compelling TV series was I Led Three Lives, based on the autobiography of Herbert Philbrick. Normal, God-fearing Americans shunned Communist cadre Philbrick; but we viewers knew he was secretly – and patriotically – working for good old J. Edgar at the FBI to send his comrades to the slammer. I understand now why Dalton Trumbo and Larry Adler hightailed it to England. Bad as those days were, brother, we never had it so good.

Now, the kids are terrified of some guy in a cave. The successors of McCarthy, Hoover and the 1950s television network bosses teach them that the madman Osama bin Laden can kill them at any minute, that he hates their freedom (perhaps not so much as their parents do) and is out to get them just because they are free. Unlike Khrushchev, Osama bin Laden has neither ICBMs nor nuclear warheads capable of destroying mankind ten times over. He does not even have a country. Yet he scares more than Khrushchev did. As every American schoolchild saw, bin Laden attacked the homeland on 11 September 2001 – burying a few thousand of us. He may yet bury more. We, of course, are sending his kind to their graves in Afghanistan, Iraq and other corners of the Islamic patrimony.

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The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Weapons Program

The Samson Option
The story behind one of the world’s worst-kept secrets: the Jewish state’s atomic arsenal.

Reviewed by George Perkovich
Sunday, February 19, 2006; BW03
The Washington Post


How Israel Went Nuclear and What That

Means for the World

By Michael Karpin

Simon & Schuster. 404 pp. $26

In 1958, an American U-2 spy plane flying over Israel spotted an unusual construction site near the small Negev Desert town of Dimona. The facility featured a long perimeter fence, building activity and several roads. Israeli officials initially called the facility a textile plant; they later changed their minds and described it as a “metallurgical research installation.” In September 1960, according to Israeli accounts, the United States got a better look at Dimona from a Corona reconnaissance satellite. By December, CIA Director Allen Dulles felt sure enough of what was going on to tell President Eisenhower that Israel was secretly constructing a nuclear reactor that would allow it to build the bomb.

Israel has never admitted that it has nuclear weapons, though it does not deny having them. As the Israeli journalist Michael Karpin suggests in his aptly titled The Bomb in the Basement , the United States has gone along with this charade because acknowledging the existence of Israel’s nuclear arsenal would incite futile demands by Arabs and Iranians to get rid of it. Still, this worldly winking rankles at a time when the United States and Israel are leading the charge to make Iran, North Korea and other threatening actors come clean about their own nuclear activities. Many developing countries resist the idea of holding Iran to account for breaking nonproliferation rules when Israel is given a pass. But there’s another way to think of the issue. Rather than pretend that Israel’s nuclear posture is irrelevant, perhaps it’s time to use Israel’s muted approach to its atomic arsenal as an example for the United States, Russia and other nuclear powers to follow.

Unlike its adversaries, Israel has a deep-rooted democratic government and does not threaten the existence of other states. It also has an obvious goad; David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, began the Jewish state’s nuclear quest in the 1950s with harrowing images of Dachau and Belsen still fresh in his mind. For him, the bomb was the ultimate guarantor of “never again.”

In scale and expense, however, a nuclear-arms program seemed out of reach for a tiny, poor and often friendless nation. Ben-Gurion and a handful of technical optimists quietly trained scientists, imported nuclear technology and solicited the aid of France. French cooperation was less a matter of state policy than of the determination of key individuals within the French nuclear establishment — many of them non-Jews — to rectify Vichy France’s complicity in the Holocaust. President Charles de Gaulle twice ordered a stop to French assistance between 1958 and 1960, but key nuclear officials ignored him. Finally a deal was struck: The French government would cease construction work on the Dimona reactor, but contracts with private French companies would remain in force. Meanwhile, President John F. Kennedy leaned hard on Ben-Gurion and his successor, Levi Eshkol, not to build the bomb, even sending U.S. inspectors into Israel’s Dimona reactor starting in 1961. But Israeli nuclear leaders outfoxed the inspectors, and Washington’s resolve faded with Kennedy’s death. By Nov. 1966, Israel had the capability to detonate a nuclear device.

Karpin tells this intriguing story through pithy accounts of the major events and profiles of the key actors, with the scene shifting from Israel to France to Egypt to Washington. His rendition is more entertaining than Avner Cohen’s seminal Israel and the Bomb (1998), even if it’s less cogent concerning the implications of the Israeli atomic project. As Cohen pointed out, something about the bomb invites opacity — not only to keep foreign adversaries from mobilizing but also to keep one’s own citizens from raising questions. Even among themselves, Israeli leaders did not refer to building nuclear weapons but to “Dimona,” “it” and “the big thing.” One of Kennedy’s advisers called it “the delicate matter.” As would happen in India, another democracy aspiring to get nuclear arms, many key decisions and activities went unrecorded. Costs were neither tallied nor debated seriously. Iran is probably doing much the same thing now.

Ironies abound here for today’s reader. Shimon Peres, who is now sometimes ridiculed for dovish flights of fancy, was the hard-driving CEO of the bomb project. Lyndon B. Johnson, a member of the Disciples of Christ, blessed the enterprise at least in part out of biblical appreciation of the covenant between God and the children of Israel. Karpin writes that Johnson was influenced by an inscription his grandfather wrote in the family photo album: “Take care of the Jews, God’s chosen people . . . help them any way you can.”

As it did in other countries, the Israeli pursuit of the bomb assumed sacred dimensions. “In Ben-Gurion’s eyes,” Karpin writes, “the nuclear project was holy.” Those who donated to it were “consecrators,” helping to build the Holy of Holies for modern Israel. According to Karpin, from 1958-60, the American businessman Abraham Feinberg led a secret fundraising campaign for the nuclear project that garnered about $40 million ($250 million in today’s terms) from “some twenty-five millionaires.” Karpin describes in new detail how Edward Teller, the monomaniacal father of the H-bomb, visited Israel six times between 1964 and 1967 — the period when Israel passed the atomic threshold — and unabashedly urged his friends there to build the bomb. All the while, Teller’s government was negotiating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which Israel has never signed. Karpin intimates that Teller assisted Israel in designing sophisticated nuclear weapons. For the many people who want to equate Iran or Pakistan’s nuclear aspirations with Israel’s, the cooperation of Teller and French scientists and engineers with Israel will invite defensive equation with the notorious A.Q. Khan network, which helped spread bomb designs and know-how from Pakistan to Libya and Iran.

Meanwhile, the CIA and other agencies missed telltale signs of what Israel was up to. In 1967, shortly after the Six-Day War, Teller told a key CIA official that Israel probably had the bomb; the CIA relayed this information to President Johnson, but the secretaries of defense and state were kept out of the loop. Karpin also argues that domestic politics influenced the management of intelligence and nonproliferation policy. For instance, he shows how Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s ambassador to Washington, angrily outflanked Pentagon and State Department negotiators who insisted in 1968 that U.S. sales of Phantom fighter jets to Israel be conditioned on Israel’s signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and allowing American inspectors to visit every site in Israel associated with strategic weapons. Rabin “got Abe Feinberg and Arthur Goldberg, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to go and talk to Johnson.” In another channel, Rabin “peppered the heads of the Democratic Party with messages to the effect that it was worth their while before the [1968] elections to present the Jewish voter with a show of support for Israel.” Defense Secretary Clark Clifford and Secretary of State Dean Rusk did not know that Israel already had the bomb and that Feinberg and Goldberg already had the president.

Interesting as all this is, some flaws lurk in The Bomb in the Basement . Karpin badly botches his description of how nuclear bombs work. The difficulty of controlling nuclear reactions does not arise because “the uranium-235 and the plutonium isotopes are very sensitive to movement.” “A simple bomb” does not consist “of a container holding two pellets of fissile material that are pressed together by two springs and separated by a wedge.” Nor does Karpin prove his claim that, “if the Eisenhower administration had proposed that Israel swap Dimona for a security alliance, there can be no doubt that Israel would have happily accepted.” (Israel might well have preferred its own nukes to promises from Eisenhower and his anti-Israel State Department.) Most important, Karpin is so enthralled with the Israeli nuclear project that he avoids exploring its ramifications. He doesn’t ask how or whether nuclear weapons can be confined only to the “good guys” and kept forever away from the “bad guys.”

Even so, this is a worthwhile book, and it arrives when new thinking is needed about the global nuclear order. Here’s one heretical suggestion: Israel’s restrained management of its bomb could actually point the way toward abating global nuclear dangers. After all, Israel has never claimed to possess nuclear weapons and has never used them to enhance its prestige or browbeat its neighbors. For Israel, the bomb has never been something to brandish, never a shield behind which to hide while it annexes territory or undermines domestic or regional rivals — as was feared the bomb would be for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and, perhaps, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Iran. It is a shield against annihilation.

Today the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, China, France, India and Pakistan are known to possess atomic arsenals. By treaty or declaration, these countries are formally committed to pursuing nuclear disarmament. But much of the world feels that, because these declared nuclear-armed powers refuse to take this objective seriously, they have no right to enforce nonproliferation rules on other countries. One way the Nuclear Eight could begin to show they are serious about disarmament would be to follow Israel’s example and lower the salience of their weapons — putting them at the bottom of their national arsenals, refraining from pointing to them during crises and declining to pull international rank because of them. Since such forbearance has not threatened the small, beleaguered Jewish state’s security, the United States, Russia, Pakistan, France and, increasingly, China have no excuse for relying as prominently as they do on nuclear arsenals. Karpin stops short of offering this implication, but the world might be a bit safer if all the nuclear powers put their bombs in the basement. ·

George Perkovich is vice president for studies of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of “India’s Nuclear Bomb.”

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‘Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden’ Reviewed by Noah Feldman

Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden
Becoming bin Laden

Published: February 12, 2006
NY Times

There is something obscene about reading the self-justifications of an acknowledged mass murderer. But what makes the collected speeches, interviews, Web postings and other public statements of Osama bin Laden different from, say, “Helter Skelter,” is that bin Laden is not clinically mad. He gives reasons for his actions that, while morally outrageous and religiously irresponsible, could be accepted by otherwise logical people who shared his premises. This makes him more, not less, dangerous than the Charles Mansons among us. Bin Laden has an audience, of which he is acutely aware — a fact made particularly clear by his recent offer of a “truce” with America. His words, as much as his deeds, aim to convince others to embrace his view of the world and act accordingly.

Without words, in fact, bin Laden’s violence could not achieve its stated goals. By his own account, bin Laden is neither a nihilist nor a millenarian. He does not claim to embrace violence for its own sake or in the hope of hastening the apocalypse. Rather, he purports to fulfill the twin duties of calling nonbelievers to Islam and defending the Muslim community from attack.

The goal of jihad (presented by bin Laden as a matter of self-defense) needs words because bin Laden has no sizable army at his back. Unable to subjugate the West, bin Laden thinks his best bet is to inflict harm — human and economic — and then blackmail his target. For bin Laden, then, actual violence is instrumental. It is the interpretation of violence that is the very essence of his religious and political program. To hold his explanation in one’s hands is to confront his reason for being.

“Messages to the World” is almost too well produced. Bound in an attractive orange wrapper and printed on excellent paper, it comes decorated with a thumbnail painting of the man himself, garbed in one of his allusive, carefully constructed outfits. The peaks of the Hindu Kush loom in the background, reminders of the Tora Bora debacle. James Howarth’s English translation is idiomatic and creditable. Bruce Lawrence’s notes are occasionally idiosyncratic — why refute the claim that the United States created the AIDS virus but not the argument that “Rumsfeld, the butcher of Vietnam,” is responsible for two million deaths? And Lawrence’s introduction could have done without the puzzling comparison to Che Guevara. For the most part, though, the contextual explanations provided in the volume will be helpful to those uninitiated in the discourses of contemporary Islamic radicalism.

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The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy

An excellent resource for those occasions when you need to find the obscure literary reference.

“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!?

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy
E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Joseph F. Kett, James Trefil

Third Edition: Completely Revised and Updated

The manifestation of one of the most influential modern educational theories, the 6,900 entries in this major new reference work form the touchstone of what it means to be not only just a literate American but an active citizen in our multicultural democracy

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The Truth About Jihad

The New York Review of Books covers five recent works on Islamism.

“We say outright: these are madmen, yet these madmen have their own logic, their teaching, their code, their God even, and it’s as deepset as could be.”

—Fyodor Dostoevsky

Ed: Full article below

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Muslim Identity in the West

I’ve seen and heard a lot of this:

By the same token some converts or born-again Muslims wear a very visible form of attire to express their newly chosen identity (white cap, long white shirts and sometimes turbans). They use in Western language coded Arabic expressions such assalamu alaikam, bismillah, and jazakallah, which are never so frequently heard in any “native” Muslim language. THey are staging their own selves, often to the verge of exhibitionism, which is also part of the expression of an exacerbated individualism.

From Olivier Roy, Globalized Islam, pg 193.


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