L'Islamisme: une révolution avortée?
by Antoine Basbous
Paris: Hachette Littératures, 2001. 283 pp. Euro 17.38, paper.
Reviewed by Patrick Clawson
Middle East Quarterly
For a well-informed and readable account of the Islamist problem in the Middle East, L'Islamisme is about the best. Basbous, director of the Observatoire des Pays Arabes in Paris, approaches the topic via a series of case studies (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Iran) plus a short introduction and conclusion. Unlike those typically politicized American scholars who apologize for Islamist terrorism and repression, Basbous documents the reactionary and brutal nature of the Islamist agenda. His book is worth reading alone for the long account of the views of Sheikh ‘Abd al-‘Aziz bin Baz, the chief Saudi religious figure from 1970 to 1999 (a million people attended his 1999 funeral) and a man who effectively controlled a $10 billion annual budget. Among his intellectual gems are the 1982 book condemning to death anyone who claims the earth revolves around the sun and his denunciation of music and song as instruments of the devil.
Again, unlike the norm in American academic writings, Basbous explains in detail that while the authoritarian Middle Eastern governments use vicious repression, Islamists are even more indiscriminate and cruel in the use of force. Consider Algeria and the question of who was responsible for slaughtering the inhabitants of entire villages. Some self-styled human rights organizations accused Algerian soldiers of mass murder done in disguise so as to cast blame on the Islamists, but Basbous shows how the slaughters began when the most violent wing of the Islamist movement took over, due in no small part to the government's evisceration of the other parts of the Islamist movement.
Basbous' analysis is refreshingly free of the anti-Americanism so common in French (and American) intellectual circles. He makes clear that both Islamism and the repression against it are homegrown phenomena over which the United States had little influence. In other words, the author understands that in Egypt and Saudi Arabia as well as the United States, politics is local first and foremost, with foreign policy considerations secondary.
L'Islamisme has its drawbacks: Basbous is too optimistic about the pace at which globalization-cum-modernization will win out against Islamism and the authoritarian regimes. (These are the three forces he correctly identifies as shaping Middle Eastern societies.) He is overly sure that the victory is unfolding already in Iran, thereby underestimating the strength of the hardline Islamist opposition. But his overview of the Islamist phenomenon is the best around.
Related Topics: Middle East politics, Radical Islam | Patrick Clawson | Spring 2002 MEQ
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