Brown, emeritus professor at Princeton University, is one of the giants of Middle Eastern studies and his books get better and better. Here he applies an historian's eye to the Islamist phenomenon in a well-written and lucid study. He devotes nearly half the book to premodern times (i.e., before 1800) with an eye to establishing what Islam in politics has meant through the centuries. His most important conclusion: "Muslim history has been marked by a de facto separation of state and religious community." Politicians left their subjects alone if the latter did not rebel and did pay taxes; the subjects responded by staying as far from their rulers as possible and pursuing politically quietest lives.
Brown notes how utterly inapt this description is of the present and sets himself the goal of explaining "how events in modern times have produced such a radical break." The point of looking at premodern times is to appreciate "the extent to which present-day Islamists are not recovering but rewriting that past" and to see what, should liberal Islam someday return, sources it will have to draw on.
The author argues that Muslims had never previously faced a material and cultural challenge such as the West presented them during the last two centuries; and that this modern-times challenge has been more severe for Muslims than for any other peoples. "Islam and the West, it can be argued, is a special case." From this base, he sketches the Muslim leaders' generally accommodationist responses to the West and the concurrent decline in Islamic influence. The leaders imbued the public sphere with an activist spirit and educated much larger numbers of students. But these "secularizing, centralizing, nationalizing" states also created impossible expectations of themselves that they completely failed to deliver on. This failure provided an opening for the shunted-aside Islamists to have their say. And the rest, as they say, is history.