Charles Lindholm's The Islamic Middle East: Tradition and Change, Revised Edition, was published in 2002 in response to the West's reaction to the September 11 attacks on the US. While the US government and mainstream Western political scientists now view militant Islam as having taken the place of communism as the West's main enemy, and view the future between the two as a contest between a progressive and technocratic West versus an irrational, anti-technological and zealous Islam, Lindholm's book seeks essentially to take issue with such a perspective. "For me," he states, "such simplistic divisions of us against them ignore the fundamental values that the West in general, and, as I argue, the United States in particular, share with Middle Eastern culture; values that have often fueled dispute, but could and should also provide a basis for dialogue and reconciliation."
According to Lindholm, these central values of the Islamic Middle East which are shared with the West are "egalitarianism, competitive individualism, and the quest for personal autonomy." Indeed, the main argument of Lindholm's work is that "simplistic notions of the clash between the rational West and a monolithic and irrational Islamdom do nothing except contribute to hostility and aggression between 'us and them.' Such one-sided notions fail to do justice to the actual issues at stake, and ignore the shared values that provide a language for argument and agreement."
Lindholm's book is essentially an anthropological study of the Islamic Middle East. The region he demarcates as being the Middle East stretches from the western edges of the Moroccan and Mauritanian Atlantic coast eastwards throughout North Africa, Arabia, Iran, and into central and south Asia ending in northern Pakistan and southern Afghanistan. The southern most point of the region is in the Sudan, while its northern apex is Turkey's coast on the Black Sea. The region incorporates Arabs, Persians, Turks, Kurds, Pukhtus, and Berbers, as well as other smaller ethnic groups.
Lindholm argues that the cultural values of the Middle East have been shaped primarily by its ecology of desert and aridity, as well as its sparse population. These conditions, he asserts, gave rise to perpetual tensions between "unstable urban civilizations" and "armed peripheries."
Lindholm's book is divided into four main parts. The first section examines the preconditions for egalitarian individualism. The second section surveys the political history of the Middle East throughout the centuries since the beginnings of Islam. It argues that "the pervasive ethos of egalitarianism and competitive individualism tends to fragment secular and sacred empires alike." The third section explores the issue of sacred power. It focuses on the major aspects of Islam in general, and argues that Islam and Islamic practice affirm the ethos of egalitarian individualism. More broadly, this section examines Islam more fully by exploring how the values of egalitarianism and individualism relate to the scholarly and legal worlds of Islam, to Shi'ism, Sufiism and to the roles of charisma and saintly authority. Finally, in the last main section of the book, Lindholm examines how the values of egalitarianism and competitive individualism created subordinate sub-groups within the Middle East, including women, slaves, eunuchs, and Blacks.
In some respects, Lindholm's book is a very worthwhile piece of work. The book is written for readers with no prior knowledge of the basics of Islam, and it examines these topics comprehensively indeed. Specifically, his examination of the essential rituals of the faith, the issue of charisma, and the significance of Sufiism and Shi'ism are all very well executed. The style of writing is accessible for any beginner, and the book is a very good starting point for anyone seeking to learn about these issues in general.
However, the book's strengths are unfortunately undermined by a major shortfall. In its attempt to elucidate the main cultural values of the Middle East, one gets the glaring impression that Lindholm has oversimplified the long and complex political history of the Middle East in general. In a book of only 270 pages or so that spends much time covering other major topics, entire empires (beginning with the rise of ancient Sumer around 5000 BC), are summarised in brief, and rise and fall in quick succession.
More importantly, even Lindholm concedes that the Ottoman empire (1300-1918) existed as "an exception" to his schema of egalitarianism and competitive individualism as being responsible for the rapid turnover of Middle Eastern states. His treatment of this exception is dealt with over 7 pages in total, and while it is identified as an "exception" it highlights the fact that other regimes that have not been examined by Lindholm, might not fit into his thesis.
While Lindholm makes a number of critical insights throughout his work, and although one has to admire the importance of what he has set out to do, the reader does not escape the overall impression that the book is a basic survey.
The Islamic Middle East: Tradition and Change
• By: Charles Lindholm
• Publisher: Malden, MA : Blackwell Pub., 2002.
Reviewer: Theo Tsalamandris