- The Middle East: A Beginner's Guide
This excellent introduction to the Middle East is concise and thorough. Combining narrative and analysis, the book is structured according to topic and region. To counter the Western image of the Middle East as an area with a single identity, Professor Robins demonstrates the "multiple identities" (p. xvi) at every level in the region's history and society, revealing its "complexity and illogicality" (p. xvii). He compares it to other developing countries, "not untypical of the world, which socially and politically is not at peace with itself" (p. xvii). The book's thematic structure —subjugation, resistance, independence, conflict, leadership, society, religion, and gender —highlight historical development while simultaneously delineating the distinct elements [End Page 154] that establish each country with its own history. Interspersed amongst the chapters are concise political portraits, humorous anecdotes, Middle East jokes, and targeted explanations of social customs and incidents. He succeeds brilliantly!
Robins' analytical narrative commences appropriately with the modern engagement between Europe and the Middle East, as France and England intrude in the early 19th century. The narrative extends through the first four chapters and the Gulf Wars. In two pages, Robins succinctly critiques these recent wars and their difficult aftermath. The final six chapters complete the author's complex goal, including a discussion of economic development contrasted with Algerian corruption, Saudi Arabia's reliance on oil, and Kuwait's progressive investment strategy. Tunisia's economic reforms aim at European markets, and Dubai gambles to break from a reliance on oil and turn into a regional economic and tourist center. These examples allow readers to understand the range of economics beyond the simplistic oil economy normally associated with the Middle East.
Most Westerners retain an older view of Middle Eastern society gained from books, movies, and television. Robins contrasts the effects of a high birthrate and increased education in urban areas with the tribal culture prevalent in the countryside. A growing sport movement and younger population contribute to a diversified society in states that are inflexible and rigid. The reality is much more diverse than some readers might expect.
The chapter on religion offers a primer for the West on Islam. It moves swiftly to distinguish Islam as a political force, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Four pages condense Iran's overthrow of the Shah and Iran's contemporary support for Hamas and Hizbullah. Robins concludes by comparing Middle East terrorism as, in many ways, no different than other terrorist groups in the world. The region has no patent on terrorist groups or authoritarian regimes. In the Middle East, regional authoritarian regimes' resistance to change has driven political Islam to radical terrorist activities. He does not excuse such violence, but would have readers understand the historical forces driving terrorists.
Robins saves the West's most contentious misconception for the last —gender. Admittedly, Middle Eastern societies remain patriarchal, but their social conservatism was shaped by the region's economic and social realities. For the West, Saudi Arabia is the traditional example of gender discrimination, though as Robins points out, women in states such as Jordan, Syria, Kuwait, and Qatar have exhibited marginal increases in political participation. Women's status, he suggests, resembles that of Western women in the 19th century. Change is occurring but with distinct social class distinctions for women. Despite his deep understanding of the region, Robins harbors few illusions that the Middle East will overcome its historical or present difficulties with gender.
An annotated bibliography concludes this excellent text. Robins' suggested reading list reflects his concern to present lucid analyses of the culture.
The Middle East can be read either as a "Beginners Guide" or as a well composed careful analysis. The brevity of its prose and analytical style might be problematic for readers accustomed to more discursive explanations. Sophisticated upper level students, however, will have no trouble and will embrace its brevity compared to other introductory texts. Others will find it...