Muhammad Abduh and the AKP in Dialogue at Wolf Hall: Book Reviews

Muhammad Abduh

A couple weeks ago TBE added a Reading Material tab to our masthead, but additions to it don’t show up in Google Reader and maybe other RSS readers, and the tab’s contents have the potential to become quite unruly, so we’ve decided to publish occasional book reviews on the main page as well as adding them to the reading material section. In this edition: A new biography of Muhammad Abduh, Wolf Hall, Dialogues in Arab Politics and the effects of Turkish Islamists’ governance on women’s educational and professional attainment.

We’ve also added the “subscribe via email” button for which those who have not yet accommodated themselves to the brave new world of RSS have long been clamoring. It’s below the links.

Muhammad Abduh by Mark Sedgwick

We haven’t read this book. The AUC Press version hasn’t even come out yet. According to their calendar it is supposed to come out this month, but an employee at the bookstore told TBE she thinks it’s been delayed.

At any rate it’s the first book-length biography of Abduh in English that we know of, though he has of course received a lot of attention in Hourani’s Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age and elsewhere, and the Oxford UP website says that it draws on new sources and the latest research, so you might learn something new.

Some enterprising scholar or aspiring Ph.D. student should be shopping a Rashid Rida project.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Aside from the usual things, TBE is thankful to the Booker Prize Committee (and the Ice Cream Paint Job beat, for other reasons) for making us consider reading a historical novel, which we probably wouldn’t have otherwise. We’re only about 100 pages into the book but we’ve already concluded that the hype is justified.

The story is incredibly engaging, the prose is for the most part workwomanlike (used here as a compliment) with occasional forays into court wit. As an act of authorial imagination the book is pretty amazing.

One last note: Don’t be threatened by the length, if you’re the type to hate long books. The typeface used is exceedingly large.

Dialogues in Arab Politics by Michael N. Barnett

This is an oldie-but-goodie that has been on our minds, in our hearts and on our lips a lot recently, what with the ongoing Algerian-Egyptian imbroglio and the Saudi-Yemen-Iran tripartite d(is)alliance still unresolved. Because we don’t have the book in front of us, or even in this country with us, we’re not able to comment with any real authority, so we decided to reprint a musty old response paper we wrote about it back in the olden days… Please don’t take our criticisms to mean you shouldn’t read it, though. It’s the best Middle East IR book we’ve read.

As is often the case in political science books, Barnett seems eager to stake out more explanatory power for his preferred constructivist interpretation than it can logically bear. But the maximalism of Barnett’s constructivism can only be understood in dialogue with Realism. Just as the currently ascendant conservative Arab regimes were shaped by radical nationalism, so one hopes that someone will convincingly synthesize realism and constructivism, rather than positing them in opposition, as though only one could be right about everything.

This scholarly brinksmanship leads to some excesses on Barnett’s part, in failing to examine or glossing over events that would tend to support a realist view. One example of this is the treatment of the Yemeni civil war. Barnett claims that “Nasser’s decision to support the [Revolutionary Command Council] had little to do with military politics and everything to do with symbolic politics.”[1] Yet the previous sentence outlines Saudi fears of an Egyptian “foothold on the Arabian penninsula.” One can plausibly state that Nasser’s support for a radical interpretation of Arab nationalism forced him into the role of supporting the Yemeni revolutionaries, but Egypt’s involvement in Yemen was, at base, a classic instance of Offensive Realism, with Egypt attempting to achieve regional hegemony through territorial expansion or the creation of satellites. While Barnett’s reading of constructivism has many interesting things to say about the process of competitive bidding in bringing various Arab states to the brink of war and beyond, there are instances like Yemen’s civil war or Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, that are much better understood under the rubric of realism.

Another flaw in Barnett’s argument is his on-again, off-again relationship with using domestic and international public opinion as an explanatory variable, and a relative lack of discussion about the role of aggrieved state elites, as opposed to broad publics, in fomenting unrest in those Arab states with high regime turnover rates. One finds, early in the book, the contention that the main goal of Arab regimes was regime survival, a perfectly legitimate claim, and that they used interactions with other states to bolster their domestic status, another uncontestable claim.[2] Two inconvenient facts present themselves, however. First is that challenges to internal regime stability were far more likely to come from state elites than broad-based uprisings. This could be a failing of the regime’s themselves, rather than Barnett, though more discussion is warranted. Second is that public opinion is utterly disregarded, both by Barnett and, apparently, the regimes themselves, in instances when it would be expected to be highly mobilized, such as during the Jordanian civil war. In this instance, many regimes, including Egypt, sided with the Jordanians against the Palestinians, despite deep public sympathy for the latter.[3] In summary, Barnett initially theorizes that regime survival depends on domestic public support, but does not explore what happens when the regimes pursue a course contrary to public opinion.

[1] Barnett: 139.

[2] Ibid: 35.

[3] Ibid: 178-9.

Islamic Rule and the Emancipation of the Poor and Pious by Erik Meyersson

This paper, about the effects of “Islamic rule” in Turkish towns and cities on women’s educational attainment, ended up being far more stats-heavy than we expected. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it suffers from the same faults as much quant-based political science: the numbers are interesting, but the discussion “beyond the regressions” is simplistic. For some reason very few people produce work that does a good job synthesizing quantitative and qualitative approaches. We guess because the two approaches’ acolytes face very different incentive structures.

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