May 09, 2011

Beyond Bin Laden: A Readers’ Guide

As some of you may know, I spent several days last week chained to a chair at my local coffee shop producing a chapter for a new e-book Random House is publishing on what the death of Osama bin Laden means for the War on Terror. My chapter, “How Al Qaeda Lost the Arabs,” is the first chapter in the collection after Jon Meacham ('87)'s introduction, and you can buy it for your iPad, Nook, or Kindle.* I was honored to have been asked to contribute a chapter to this volume on account of the other, much-more-distinguished-than-me contributors: James Baker, Bing West, Karen Hughes, Evan Thomas, Dan Markey and Richard Haass.

Writing a book chapter in two days is difficult, to say the least, and my chapter reflects the speed with which it was written. It also reflects the challenge of describing complicated events and phenomena in less than 5,000 words. So for those of you who are going to buy the book -- and at $1.99, you all better buy the damn book -- I am writing this short readers' guide to my chapter. Some of what follows will only make sense if you actually buy and read the chapter.

1. You will note that my chapter has more end notes than any other chapter in the book. Indeed, my chapter has more end notes than all of the other chapters in the book combined. In part this is due to the fact that I'm trying to describe some pretty complex phenomena, and thankfully, quite a few scholars and journalists have gone before me. So I basically pulled all the relevant books I could find off my shelves at home and in my office and did my best with what was available. (Which was quite a lot, happily.) All of the secondary sources I cited were in English, though often written by Arab scholars, while about half of the newspaper articles I cited or from which I quoted were in English with the other half in Arabic. If you read this blog or anything else I write, you'll note that I usually try to write for a general audience while at the same time nodding toward serious scholars and their work in my notes. Part of this is to keep my own work honest, while part of this is intended to direct the reader to more serious scholarly work that I think supports my own work but which does a better job of explaining what, again, are phenomena to which a 5,000-word essay cannot do justice.

2. I horrified Will McCants and Afshan Ostovar -- unlike me, two serious scholars of Islamic history -- last week as I described over dinner the way in which I had managed to reduce roughly a century and a half of Arab intellectual history into less than a single page of text. (And, on a dare, into less than 140 characters.) Obviously, Albert Hourani did a better job in 400 pages
than I did in 500 words. Later, I reference the explosion of European capital and the development of non-monarchical systems of government in the 19th century while nodding my head toward Eric Hobsbawm's three volumes on a historical period I summarize in <cough> a paragraph.

3. In the same way, I make a reference to those like Ibn Taymiyya who relied on fiqh as their basis for political thought but didn't really mention the alternatives, which Tarif Khalidi gets into in one of the last chapters his Classical Arab Islam.** The first few chapters of Hourani
are also good for this.

4. I do not really have the time to describe all the ways in which the public discourse in the Arabic-speaking world has been transformed over the past two decades. I do not mention, for example, Twitter, Facebook or even cell phones. But the overall point is the same: what had previously been whispered speech or transgressive jokes told in taxis or in coffee shops was now out there in public, challenging regimes as never before.

5. I make a reference, in my essay, to Muslim-Christian unity in Egypt. Ahem. So apparently that time has now passed! In all seriousness, I have been as horrified as anyone by the scenes from the past few days in Cairo. Sectarianism in Egypt is real, as are Salafists hell-bent on stirring up trouble. But since I make a reference to what I see as a still-unresolved conflict between the heirs of Muhamed 'Abduh, I do not think the broader point I am making here is rendered false by events. 

6. In short, I hope you enjoy my essay and think you will, but read it with an understanding of the author's time constraints and an appreciation for the fact that I at least make an attempt to acknowledge the broad, deep body of scholarly literature out there.

*Although the book is already available for both the iPad and the Nook, for some reason it going on sale through Amazon the day after tomorrow. You can pre-order it here, though, and buy it everywhere else here Oh, look, you can buy it now
on Amazon.

**Tarif Khalidi
was one of my professors at the American University of Beirut, and he caught me reading Classical Arab Islam one afternoon in 2005. He immediately started flipping through it, wincing at all the things in it he now disagreed with, and signed the book, "To Exum, from the author who no longer believes it." I'm pretty sure his last chapter on political thought escaped his winces, but if not, I apologize.