It is by our engagement with one another's difference—and by putting private thought into personal action—that we see analogues in our respective worlds…We are the Arabs, and they are us. Almost.(186)
With a few exceptions, US public discourse on the Arab world is fraught with misunderstanding. A history of tensions and the flexing of political and economic muscle, combined with the attacks of September 11, 2001, have conspired to limit mainstream media representations of Arabs to a discrete set of relatively shallow images that tend to erase cross-cultural diversity, so that the social-cultural matrices that actually help to explain newsworthy events in the Middle East remain almost invisible. The media consumer therefore enjoys the luxury of believing that everyone in the world is either "like us" (and so "we" can easily understand "them"), or fundamentally "different from us" (in which case there is no hope of "really" [End Page 331] understanding "them"). With regard to Arabs, many Americans tend to hope for the former but suspect the latter.
Reducing the world to "like" and "not-like," to Self and Other, is facilitated in many cases by the convenient pronoun they, as in, "Why do they hate us?" When there is no effective public discussion of cultural distinctions between, say, Iran and Iraq, or between the Palestinians and the Israelis, it becomes possible—even likely—that people will accept the most facile of stereotypes stated or implied in media discourses as actual explanations. A most interesting example was Donald Rumsfeld's statement on the PBS program NewsHour in February of 2003 that "there is no question but that [US troops] would be welcomed" by Iraqis. This curious statement went unchallenged in the press ("they" are like "us," right?) until events on the ground showed otherwise, when, of course, it was far too late to do anything about it (it turns out "they" are not like "us," right?). As bewildering as the world can be, when it comes to the Middle East, ultimately the answers are only two: either "we" can figure "them" out more-or-less on our terms, or not. Such a view provides comfort by shouldering aside all the messy, complicated, culturally-grounded considerations necessary for a proper understanding of another society or group of people.
So the arrival of a scholarly work that promises a more nuanced understanding of the "Islamic Other" is very welcome indeed. Although not without its problems, Lawrence Rosen's eloquent new book, Varieties of Muslim Experience does offer the well-read reader a fascinating perspective on what Rosen sees as the central themes of "Arab culture," woven together from stories, anecdotes, and closely observed examples from anthropological and other literature. In just 186 pages (plus notes), Rosen seeks to present a coherent interpretation that he argues helps to explain and clarify much of the misunderstanding that causes "Western" observers to scratch their heads when encountering Arabs, whether in person or in the press. It is an impressive work with a great deal to recommend it, no matter how one feels about the interpretive school of anthropology within which Rosen writes.
A caveat: despite its title, this book is not really about Islam, nor even about Muslims per se. Certainly Islam is present and dealt with in several ways throughout the book. But its subtitle is more accurate: the book examines "Arab political and cultural life" through a series of issues that for Rosen illustrate significant points where the "Arab" perspective departs significantly from that of the "West." I have put "Arab," "West," [End Page 332] and "Muslim" in quotes here because of the many problems in defining these terms from a cultural point of view. Rosen himself is at pains in several places to qualify his use of these words and to point out the significant diversity that careless use tends to obscure.
Still, this is an interpretation, and one can easily suppose that particular Arab Muslims may or may not recognize themselves in it. First of all, it is...