Lybarger's worthy book ties together rich ethnographic material and interviews during the 1990s with individuals in three locales—Bethlehem, a neighboring refugee camp, and a refugee camp in Gaza. The interviews reveal the perpetual fluidity of individuals in crisis situations in identifying who they are and where they are going.
Lybarger, assistant professor of classics and world religions at Ohio University-Athens, captures much of the complexity of social and political life, even given the small size of his sample. He is a master of prose with true insight. We meet the leftist activist turned nongovernmental organization professional worried about the rise of Islamism; the Palestine Liberation Organization bureaucratic type who is convinced that nationalist and fundamentalist revolutionaries are both derailing Palestinian state-building; two unmarried women, one clinging to a relatively liberal life, the other moving with the wave into a life of Islamic piety; an Islamist and his wife in the Gaza refugee camp increasingly and mutually estranged from his older brother who belongs to one of the Palestinian Authority's security services; and other less decisive and sure-footed souls who are trying to make the most of the quicksand reality around them.
Perhaps the best compliment to make to such an author is that one finishes the book with a burning desire to know what happened to these people in the decade that followed. Will he write Identity and Religion II? Yet, this question also reveals to the political scientist the weakness of his anthropological approach. For all the fluidity and soul-searching among rank and file individuals and the interest their lives arouse, they do not make history. It was the committed elements that propelled their forces to fight a losing war against Israel in 2000 and then engage in an even more destructive internal war, which has divided the Palestinians.
One wonders, then, whether tying the micro-story to macro events is like squaring the circle, and whether it is better, though more prosaic, to focus on those leaders of organizations who clearly know what they want yet fail to comprehend the unintended, often dire, consequences of their desires.