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Readings On The Middle East: For Those Craving Nuance

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Readings On The Middle East: For Those Craving Nuance

Youssef Aboul-Enein

Never has it been more important to go beyond simple sound-bites and truly delve into the history and evolution of the Middle East.  Searching for fresh ideas and thoughtful analysis has been my own lifelong passion, and I attempt to have my students look not only at the pages of a book, but also assess the meaning, intent, and views of the author.  This review will feature three books I read over the summer in preparation for the graduate level class I teach at the National Defense University.  All three books were published in 2013 and take readers into the past and present of the Syrian uprising, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and revolutionary Iran. 

Emile Hokayem – a Senior Fellow at the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies and a Middle East analyst at the Stimson Center in Washington D.C. – has written a finely detailed yet approachable book on Syria.  The book is titled, Syria’s Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant (New York: Routledge, 2013).  The book opens with a poignant sentence on the decay of the Syrian state: “Regardless of the fate of the House of Assad, Syria as the world has known it for the last four decades no longer exists.”  It is this kind of opening that draws the reader. The first chapter dissects the various pressures that led to uprising; it was not just economic issues, weather, political repression, and regional events, but also how the Assad regime has reacted to them which has been a catalyst for escalation.  Hokayem explores what he terms are five fault lines that Syria finds itself: (1) the breakdown of the social contract between the regime and its people; (2) the intensifying struggle of regional powers between Iran and the Arab states, chiefly Saudi Arabia; (3) a widening Shia-Sunni divide in places like Iraq that have had a ripple effect in Lebanon and Syria (4)  the rise of Islamist political movements in a post-Arab Spring world: and finally (5) an Arab-Sunni majority wanting to assert its identity after years of marginalization.  Hokayem takes you inside Assad’s inner circle and the difference between him and his father. The former surrounded himself with a narrower clique of immediate family and friends, and the latter balanced a broad section of loyalists.  Examples include Bashar’s first cousins, brothers Rami and Hafez Makhlouf. The first is a notoriously corrupt businessman who has built a financial empire with fraudulent licenses, by appropriating state assets, and by forcing anyone doing business to associate with him.  The other brother runs the Damacsus branch of the feared internal security service. 

The events of Der’aa in 2011, where a teenagers were murdered by the regime for painting anti-Assad graffiti, is an example of the heavy hand which makes things worse.  The book refreshingly discusses incidents that would outrage the wider Muslim world, such as conducting military operations in mosques and the Assad strategy of giving Kurds citizenship after decades of appeals, when it gave it the attitude was it was never his to give in the first place.  You will read of key battles like the 2013 fight for Aleppo, which the author analyzes to understand the dynamics of the Syrian opposition under fire. The city was never taken because of Kurds and Christians arming themselves to throw back such formations as the Tawheed and Suqoor al-Sham (Falcons of the Levant) Brigades.  These last two Islamist based formations joined a coalition that included Ahrar al-Sham (Freedom Fighters of the Levant) to form the Syrian Islamic Front.  Of note in the volume is that the al-Qaida in Iraq created Jabhat al-Nusrah (JN) refused to join these Islamist brigades, which demonstrated an unwillingness to compromise or restrict itself with other Islamist militias.  Can the Shiite group Hizbulllah retain its regional reputation as a resistance movement while fighting against Sunnis in Syria?  Hokayem’s new book is an excellent primer of the internal, external, and international problems besieging Syria.

Michael Axworthy is Director of the Institute of Persian and Iranian Studies at the University of Exeter.  His new book, Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic (New York: Allen Lane, 2013), provides a deep look into the ideas of the very founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  What really attracted me is the debates, factions, and schisms that formed among Khomeini’s revolutionary founders over the definition of an Islamic state, coupled with real issues of executive, legislative, and judicial powers.  It is one of the few books that provide readers a ring-side seat into the drafting of the Islamic Republic’s constitution.  Axworthy attempts to cut through misconceptions to reveal the logic behind decision among Iran’s leadership, but the author does not give the regime a free pass and clearly writes: “None of this should permit a whitewash of the current regime ruling Iran.  It is a repressive, autocratic regime run in the interests of a narrow clique that systematically denies political freedoms and natural rights to the Iranian people.”  However, despite Axworthy’s statement, he comprehends that uncovering the logic of the ruling elite is vital in an effort to manage international relations.  The book opens with an exposé of the origins of Shiism and how it evolved to distinguish itself in orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and interpretation from Sunnis.  But he goes further by explaining the nuances within Shiism that developed during the Safavid and Qajar dynasties.  He then turns to key events that defined modern Iran’s political psychology and include the Tobacco Revolt (1890), the Constitutional Debates and Promulgation (1906),which includes how Americans participated in an attempt to gain Iran’s constitutional freedom from the dominance of Russia and Britain, the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadeq (1953), and the Iranian Revolution (1979).  Axworthy links these events to key players credits the 1906 constitution with influencing the drafting of Iran’s current constitution.  In reading this book, you will also gain an appreciation for how the composition of the constitutional convention influenced the document today.  Egypt’s deposed President Mohammed Morsi could have learned a thing or two when he forced an unpopular constitution upon a diverse Egyptian population.  There is a chapter on the scars and political evolution brought about by the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), which even includes a discussion of tactics with surprising analyses deduced by Axworthy from an Iranian military perspective.  Debates between the Supreme Leader Khameini, the late Ayatollah Montazeri (d. 2009), Ayatollah Rasfanjani and many more over the direction of Khomeini’s revolution are a highlight of the volume.  As I was reading Axworthy’s book, the influential journal Foreign Affairs featured an article that can be described as an intellectual biography of the current Supreme Leader.  He has a taste for western thinkers who are critical of capitalism and the West, like Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, which according to the article, is one of Khameini’s favorites.  The Supreme Leader is pragmatic and, while offering a critique of western society, admires science and the Western work ethic. The article, by Akbar Ganji, is entitled, “Who is Ali Khameini?”  and appears in the September/October edition of Foreign Affairs. Take time to read Axworthy’s book and Ganji’s article.    

The final book is by Emory University’s Carrie Rosefsky Wickham and titled, The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2013). It traces the changes in political thinking within the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood from its founding in 1928 to its ascendancy to the presidency of Egypt in 2012.  This, however, is not without twists and turns; the book does not cover the populist-military ousting of the Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.  What the book does offer, however, is a serious look into how the organization has operated under Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak.  It delves into how violent splinter groups emerged in the 1980s and how pragmatic political compromisers developed, forming splinter parties such as al-Wasatiyah (Moderation) Party in the mid-1990s.  Later chapters are really worth reading, as they discuss Wickham’s research on the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2011 revolution that ousted Mubarak.  There were internal debates among the old guard of the Muslim Brotherhood and the youth, and it is not an exaggeration to say that the youth brought the old guard kicking and screaming into Tahrir Square in 2011.  However, the author does acknowledge that once the Muslim Brotherhood made its appearance in Tahrir Square, three days into revolt, it changed the dynamics of the street and added further pressure on the collapse of Egypt’s 1st Republican Experiment (1952-2011).  You may wish to supplement your readings on Egypt with Hazem Kandil’s Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt (New York: Verso, 2012). It is an extraordinary look into Egyptian politics of an illiberal controlled democracy achieved through the state security organs. These are serious books for people wanting realism without hysteria.

The Views expressed are those of the author alone, and do not represent the official position of the Department of Defense or U.S. Government.

SWJ Editor’s Note:  Commander Aboul-Enein teaches part-time at the National Defense University and National Intelligence University.  His third book co-authored with his brother, The Secret War for the Middle East: The Influence of Axis and Allied Intelligence Operations During World War II, was published in October 2013 by Naval Institute Press.  His first book, Militant Islamist Ideology, also by Naval Institute and published in 2010 went paperback this year.  Commander Aboul-Enein wishes to thank his National Defense University Intern and Teaching Assistant, Ms. Tamara D’Amico, a graduate student at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs for her edits and discussion that enhanced this review of books.

About the Author(s)

CDR Aboul-Enein teaches part-time at the National Intelligence University and National Defense University.  He is the author of “Militant Islamist Ideology,” and “Iraq in Turmoil,” both published by Naval Institute Press. His first book goes paperback this September and was named among the top 150 most influential titles on terrorism and counter-terrorism by the journal, Perspectives on Terrorism.