- Islam in the Balance: Ideational Threats in Arab Politics by Lawrence Rubin
The issue of security threats to incumbent regimes in the Arab countries of the Middle East has been a hot topic since the onset of the “Arab Spring” four years ago. [End Page 660] To be sure, those security threats are usually seen as coming from domestic sources. This is surprising given the past histories of political quiescence in many of those countries, especially since the advent of regional dictatorships in past decades.
Islam in the Balance is unusual in that it focuses on transnational, “ideational” challenges to incumbent regimes from two “Islamist” governments, those of Iran and Sudan. The case of post-1979 Iran is well-known, especially in the way that the Islamist government sought to export its revolution to the “Muslim world,” apparently undeterred by the fact that Shi‘a constitute a minority of Muslims, which consequently has made it very difficult to project a message of “Islamist revolution” to Sunni Muslims.
Like Iran, Sudan is not a clear-cut “Arab” country, given that its people are a mix of Arab and non-Arab. Also like Iran this gives Sudan a weakness when seeking to project its “revolution” to neighboring countries. In short, both Iran and Sudan have undergone something which the author identifies as an “Islamist revolution” whose impact on “Arab politics” is unclear and worthy of investigation and analysis.
Author Lawrence Rubin is not interested in the nature and import of those “revolutions” in terms of their domestic impact but is instead focused on what they have meant for the foreign policies of both Iran and Sudan. Rubin’s main argument is that in terms of foreign policy, the “revolutions” have been an unwelcome input into the region’s primarily conservative Arab regimes and their activities. These regimes have regarded these upheavals — based on revolutionary ideology and not on Islamist thinking or theorizing — as an existential threat. As a result, they have found themselves blowing hot and cold at various times in relation to the postrevolutionary governments of Iran and Sudan, with the temperature of the relationship linked to their perceptions of threat to the status quo.
Overall, this is an interesting book as it focuses on a foreign policy dimension not usually given much attention, especially in “realist” treatments of international relations. The author does, however, make some rather grandiose claims about the importance of the book, whose focus on the impact of transnational ideas on security of incumbent regimes is not quite as unique as he seems to think. Not only is there a huge literature on the role of ideas during the Cold War in helping mould interactions between the United States and the Soviet Union but, more recently, there is the impact of the September 11 attacks and competing sets of ideas — from al Qa‘ida and the US government and “conservative” Muslim governments — which have rivaled each other in seeking to affect how the “ordinary” Muslim sees the post-9/11 world. Finally, the author repeatedly refers to the “Organization of Islamic Conferences” (OIC). The correct title is Organization of Islamic Conference, before the OIC changed its name to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in 2011. This is only a small detail but an easy to check one and the consistent use of the wrong term in the book is irritating.
In sum, Islam in the Balance is interesting for the way it seeks to take ideas seriously in foreign policy. Those interested in foreign interactions between the governments of Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan, especially in the ways that “Islam” can form a component of such interactions, would find this book useful.