22 July, 2008

Book: "100 Myths About the Middle East" by Fred Halliday

Are you the kind of person who likes to begin everything you say with "Actually, I think you'll find…"? Then this is the book for you, because in it Fred Halliday takes and repudiates a hundred widely held propositions about the Middle East. Halliday does all this with an acerbic writing style that displays a contempt for lazy formulas or uncritical thought processes, but he does this without drifting into the kind of facile contrarianism of someone like Christopher Hitchens. Halliday seems less to be saying that stupid people believe his 100 myths, but that anyone who pays attention and applies thought to these questions should be able to see through them. This book is very critical of the kind of duckspeak that masquerades for analysis on the part of the War on Terror's supporters, but he is equally dismissive of the knee-jerk positions of many Islamists and those on the political left. I would still nevertheless class this book as belonging in broad terms to the world of the left, if only because of its evisceration of arguments and propositions advanced by Bush and the neo-cons.

One thing that is striking in this book is Halliday's dismissal of arguments based on the claimed essential natures of the various Middle Eastern religions, or on the idea of peoples in the Middle East having fixed national characters or their being locked into permanent and timeless conflicts. Rather, Halliday sees the nature of a religion or a "national character" as being moulded and shaped by contemporary circumstances and objective conditions. This kind of analysis is broadly Marxist, in the sense of seeing culture as being a dependent variable rather than the other way round. It seems nevertheless to fit well with any kind of serious analysis of the region and the religions that came from there, given that one can see how all of these have changed and behaved differently in separate historical periods. Perhaps arising from this kind of viewpoint, Halliday seems especially hostile to the idea that a solution to the problems of the world is for the leaders of the middle-eastern religions to engage in some kind of interfaith dialogue. While this kind of ecumenical get together sounds entirely laudable (and is not without its merits), seeing it as the main way forward is to give a load of self-appointed bearded fuckwits* the right to speak for everyone else, excluding the voices of the secular or those of heterodox religious ideas.

The book also comes with a useful and somewhat ironic list of terms used to discuss either the Middle East or the War on Terror. And just in case you are wondering who this Fred Halliday chap is, he is an International Relations academic who focuses on stuff to do with the Cold War, the Middle East, and International Relations theory.

This is not the third in my troika of books about the Middle East, but it can be approached as one of the other useful books about that region.

*OK, so not all leaders of the three great monotheistic faiths are bearded or fuckwits, but you get the idea.

1 comment:

Paul said...

Nice review Mr...

Although I don't think that a contextual analysis is necessarily restricted to being a 'Marxist' thing.

But nice review - I like it.

See ya - failed an Arabic exam Saturday btw - yella!!