Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Mephistopheles would have us believe “gray, dear friend, is all theory, and green the golden tree of life.” In this case the devil is right. Charles Tripp’s survey of the politics of resistance in the modern Middle East is both green and gray.
Tripp is a leading scholar of Iraq, with his one-volume history of the country in its third edition (2007). His 2006 study of Islamic economic thought, Islam and the Moral Economy, is a lucid reflection on how successive generations of Muslim intellectuals regarded and reacted to an expanding capitalist world economy. The anticapitalist, avowedly authentic Islamic economics of one decade could transform into the market-friendly, avowedly authentic Islamic finance of the next. The historical variation within religiously justified injunctions towards capitalism is so wide that any definition of an Islamic economics, Tripp showed, collapses in on itself. Yet no serious accounting of the 20th century Middle East could be conducted without looking to such ideas, as the diversity of claims emanating about capitalism revealed much about the region’s social transformations and political struggles over the longue durée. Or, as Barrington Moore, Jr. might put it: no capitalism, no Islamic economics.
The Power and the People aims to make a similar type of argument about political contention in the Middle East: “resistance shadows power” (p. 18). At one level, this is an [End Page 660] explicit nod to Michel Foucault, whose bald presence looms over this book. At a more workable level, Tripp draws from the theoretical apparatus of James Scott (“everyday forms of resistance”) and Asef Bayat (“quiet encroachment of the ordinary”) to make the case that underneath the carapace of authoritarian domination in the 20th century Middle East, resistance has been ongoing.
The substantive chapters are green indeed, examining the role of violence in resistance and revolution, the politics of urban space, battles over economic liberalization, gender struggles in state and society, historical revisions of nationalist shibboleths, and the function of high and mass art in political critique. Tripp moves widely through space and time for illustrations of resistance to material and symbolic structures of (mostly) state domination: the Palestinian intifadas, the Moroccan women’s rights movement, or the 1979 Iranian and 2011 Egyptian revolutions. Even more episodes, however, Tripp resurrects from lesser known sources: Syria’s Islamist upsurge in the late 1970s, the Shi‘i Safar uprising in Iraq in 1977, the evasive evolution of hawala banking, or the controversies in Israeli historiography during the 1990s.
The grayness, however, is a consequence of the theoretical scaffolding. While the book’s subtitle indicates that different “paths of resistance” will be analyzed, the substantive chapters discuss social fields of conflict with a narrative method tailored to show solely that such fields can be conflictual. The variation of the vignettes chosen does not call forth an attempt to examine when and where such forms of resistance are more or less likely to occur. Instead, a Foucault-tinged functionalism stands in place of a historical argument, wherein “systems of power provoke their own resistance” (p. 18) and these forms “follow the contours of domination itself” (p. 9). This is mostly true but not groundbreaking, since nation-states have been the main creators and enforcers of categorical exclusion in the modern world, and social movements from below have in turn largely aimed at including themselves into such categories (e.g., citizen, voter, formalized worker) or rearranging the categories themselves (e.g., independence, secession, revolution). But unlike, say, Charles Tilly’s work on durable inequality, or Immanuel Wallerstein’s account of the global emergence of liberalism, Tripp’s study does not provide meso-level mechanisms of political contention or historicize the concepts of power and resistance that he puts into play. All we learn is that people can resist, and that they do resist.
This approach gets a bit tricky, as Tripp himself shows in his chapter on gender politics, when the state itself provides a path...