on 4 September 2011
Whitaker's book is a well-researched analysis of the Arab world, relying heavily on interviews to bring an intimate feel to the discussion. Though some countries such as Egypt and Lebanon draw greater focus than others, Whitaker tries to keep it relevant to the entire Arab world, from Morocco to Iraq. I make the distinction between the Arab world and the middle east, as Whitaker only discusses other nations - Israel, Turkey and Iran - in their relationship to the Arabs (e.g. Israel's use as a scapegoat by the regimes).
Written in 2008, this edition comes with an introduction written February of this year. He acknowledges the Arab Spring and that with it has comea chamge in perspective such as he concluded would be necessary to change in the region, but the second edition of his book has no other differences with the first. This isn't a criticism, but it means that readers cannot take his book at face value but must keep the Arab Spring and the cultural change of the last year in mind, putting Whitaker's analysis in perspective.
It also cannot be read on its own. Whitaker's interviewees are from all over the Middle East, and while may of the basic criticisms can be used on most or all of the Arab countries, Arab culture isn't monlithic, changing vastly as you move from Morocco in the west to Iraq in the east. The reader should keep an open mind and keep from generalising the entire Middle East based on region specific anecdotes and extreme examples. As the book's focus jumps between countries often, I felt I had to remind myself of this fact.
on 11 December 2009
I really enjoyed this book - it was very readable. It has a pretty ambitious scope - a discussion of Arab society and politics taking in the whole region both contemporaneously and with historical insight. The chapters address in turn
1. the influence of Islam on society, its conservative influence on social values and the effect this has on the political system.
2. the influence of corruption and "favours" on limiting the development of a meritocratic state,
3. the political repression of Arab leaders and the political hypocrisy of western governments, happy to turn a blind eye to it for "allies."
4. the double standards in speaking out against human rights abuses abroad (eg Guantanamo) but staying silent on those occurring at home,
5. the concept of society as a much more cohesive force than in the west - where people forgo personal happiness for the good of their family or to prevent shame being brought upon their family name.
6. the failure of the Arab bloc to organise in any serious political or economic manner like seen with the EU....
it contains a wide range of quotes from a selection of Arabic thinkers, writers and residents, which do offer an interesting insight into how such ideas are debated in the region
and like any good book which offers up criticisms, it finishes with suggestions for how the middle east can reform into a more democratic and less repressive region....which crucially must happen from within, and won't happen simply from external western pressure.
overall i would recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about the middle east and Arabic society....
Brian Whittaker is a long standing observer of the Middle East and wants to get beyond the usual explanations for the region’s malaise. Therefore, denunciations of Israel and the invasion of Iraq are scarce here. Plenty has been said about these topics already. The problems go beyond external interference. It might be summed up in a phrase that the problem is Egypt was not because there was a Mubarak, the deposed dictator, but there are a million Mubaraks. Political authoritarianism has deep roots., rooted in patriarchal culture, cemented by conservative understandings of Islam and reinforced by education systems that promote conformity and rote learning at the expense of critical thinking. Authoritarian regimes are hard to shake because authoritarian thinking is hard to shake in the Middle East generally. What does that mean in practice? It means, among other things, intolerance of pluralism, in religion, in lifestyles, in respect for minority rights, in politics, for fear that diversity and equality – especially sexual inequality - will undermine social solidarity. Many Arabs are able to grasp these problems and indeed much of this is written from the perspective of Arab critics who, sadly, are a minority. The human consequences of this are documented in the Arab Human Development Report. The most recent of which was produced in 2009, before the advent of the Arab Spring. This book, likewise, was written before the dramatic events of 2011. Sadly, as we have seen, the demands for dignity and equality are nowhere near being met. Read this book to find out why.
on 4 August 2010
I've worked in he M.E. for a few years and often wondered what was wrong with these people who one on one are so kind and thoughtful but as a society a bit ignorant and off putting.
Where's the initiative? Why are their opinions so narrow? Whats with all the praying?
This book gives some answers:
1. The eduction that only encourages "inside the box" thinking.
2. The paternal, tribal, and governmental power structures.
3. The disconnect between the leaders and the citizens
4. The politicization of religion.
5. Corruption culture.
6. The massive state intrusion and control
An easy read, plenty of anecdotes told by the locals, a good book that I enjoyed.