The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 1

Somehow I Can't Sympathize
New books dissected over email.
Nov. 8 2001 12:09 PM

The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 1

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Dear Chris and Ted,

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You guys have nobler souls than I do because I can't find a single nice thing to say about Armstrong's Islam. Well, no, I take that back: I am pleased to report that for the most part the book is a bore because at the end, it turns into a menace. But luckily no one's ever going to get that far, unless (like us) they've been paid to.

To break the book's badness into parts: The first 138 pages is a term-paperish assemblage of undigested political and military facts, artlessly and uninformatively strung together, leavened by the occasional astute observation about Islamic theology. I'm guessing that Armstrong has never studied history. The only thing the blurbs tell you is that she spent seven years in a convent, and I'd bet she supplemented that experience with formal training in religion and maybe literature, but not history. I say this not to be a snob (I mean, I am a snob, but that's only partly relevant here) but because she seems ignorant of all the fabulous literary tools the discipline puts in the hands of writers these days, even writers writing little introductions to big subjects.

Let's indulge in one of those deeply unfair reviewers' exercises and imagine what could have been. Using the techniques of social and material history, Armstrong could have broken up the monotony with short, elegant interludes on life as it was lived by ordinary Muslims during the glory days of Islamic empire. She could have filtered its disintegration through comparative theories of warfare, explaining the supremacy of this weapon over that one or this structure of decision-making over some other one. Even in the one area she relentlessly insists upon—political history—she could have been less naive.

Chris notes the scary theme running through her book: that the history of Islam is that of one benighted effort after another to construct "an ideal form of Muslim government." Why have these attempts always failed? Armstrong, never squarely addressing the question, never gives us an answer. Bernard Lewis, in The Middle East, dissects the problem handily. He shows that Islam's long-standing obsession with religious purity and authenticity (battles over this started in Mohammed's lifetime and continue to this day), combined with its ingrained distrust of higher authorities (the desert tribes from which Islam sprang instinctively hated centralization) makes governing the Muslim polity an exceedingly difficult task. Every time a workable system arises, some sect feels compelled to secede. Religious leaders who collaborate with political leaders are automatically suspected of corruption, so they steer clear of positions of responsibility that would moderate their theological fervor.

Armstrong hints at this problem when she writes: "The Shariah [Islamic law] had begun as a protest movement, and much of its dynamism derived from its oppositional stance." Trying to hold a bunch of oppositionalists together leads inevitably to frustration and authoritarianism and ultimately anarchy. Islamic governments tend only to cohere when they can unite their people against an external enemy, which gives us new insight into the importance of jihad as a religious and political concept.

Like Chris, I'm kept up at night by this stuff. All religions have these problems to some degree, but as Chris points out, Islam's emphasis on holy war and politics as a religious enterprise makes the Muslims' seem much more threatening.

Armstrong certainly doesn't provide solace. In the last 49 pages of her book, the part in which she becomes a menace, she also becomes interesting, in a horrifying way. She delivers a series of apologetics for Islam and its well-meaning, long-suffering way of life, in the process inadvertently providing great insight into Arab self-pity. Have Arab nations never had a successful experience of democracy? That turns out to be the Western powers' fault because they tainted the model with colonialism. (Lewis points out that that the Arabs have at least one reason to be grateful toward America and Britain—they saved the Middle East from the Axis powers, with whom most Arab countries had foolishly and anti-Semitically allied themselves.) Armstrong sings the praises of the Muslim Brotherhood for its role in combating secularism (which she hates), even as she minimizes its role in generating and exporting terrorism. Her two sentences on Israel uncritically reproduce the Arab party line on the country—that it is an unbearable humiliation to the Arab world and a heinous act of cruelty to Palestinians.

The passage that made me hoot, though, was this one, in which she appears to flirt with becoming a publicist for Bin Laden. (Admittedly she wrote this last year, when terrorists had tried and failed to blow up the World Trade Center, having only managed to do in an American embassy, a military base or two, and a warship.) It turns out that the "intrusion of the West" was "a sign that something had gone gravely awry in Islamic history. … How could Islamdom be falling more and more under the domination of the secular, Godless West? From this point, a growing number of Muslims would wrestle with these questions, and their attempts to put Muslim history back on the straight path would sometimes appear desperate and even despairing. The suicide bomber … shows that some Muslims are convinced that they are pitted against hopeless odds."

I'm sorry, but I just can't summon up the requisite degree of sympathy.