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Reviewed by:
  • The Age of Jihad: Islamic State and the Great War for the Middle East by Patrick Cockburn
  • Michael Christopher Low (bio)
The Age of Jihad: Islamic State and the Great War for the Middle East, by Patrick Cockburn. London and New York: Verso, 2016. 464pages. $29.95.

Patrick Cockburn, the much-acclaimed Middle East correspondent for the British on-line newspaper, The Independent, is among the most seasoned veterans of the region and its conflicts. Cockburn has been covering the region since the Lebanese Civil War in the 1970s, but he has spent much of the last decade and a half documenting the disastrous consequences of American and European foreign interventions in the greater Middle East following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan. In this volume, he offers up what might be best described as a collection of “greatest hits,” taking readers on an episodic journey from Afghanistan and Iraq to the “Arab Spring” in Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen, culminating with the Syrian Civil War and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. [End Page 329]

Cockburn argues that while “the roots of these conflicts are longstanding,” spasms of violence “have become more frequent and destructive since 2001.” As he explains, the planes crashing into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on 9/11 acted as

the starting pistol for a series of calamitous events which destroyed the old status quo. The attack provoked — as it was probably intended to do — US military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, actions which transformed the political, sectarian, and ethnic landscape of the region and released forces, the power of which went beyond anything imagined at the time

(p. 2).

As Cockburn acknowledges, there were already fault lines and fissures tearing at the fabric of the Arab societies and wider Islamic world, but nothing binding them all together so tightly. In the wake of the US-led invasion of Iraq, however, all of the region’s existing conflicts were both intensified and increasingly interwoven. The shattering of Iraq placed that country’s Shi‘i, Sunni, and Kurdish communities into a permanent state of conflict. As a result, Iraq’s sectarian civil war “swiftly became internationalised” (p. 3). In turn, this fueled a metastasizing sectarian rift, drawing Iran and Saudi Arabia into an ever-expanding series of proxy wars from Iraq and Syria to Yemen.

The invasion of Iraq deeply destabilized an already ossified Arab state system. As Cockburn rightly points out, less attention has been paid to the absolute sea change in the balance of power among Arab states over the last forty or so years. In the 1960s and 1970s leadership in the Arab world was largely held by secular nationalist states like Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, Libya, and Yemen. Today, the exact opposite is true. The vast oil wealth of the Gulf’s Sunni monarchies (i.e., Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar) has translated into political and ideological influence across the region. Although Cockburn never fully articulates this point, this role reversal partially explains the widely divergent outcomes experienced during the so-called Arab Spring. While the presidents-for-life ruling in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria all found themselves toppled by revolution or engulfed in civil war, the monarchs of the Arabian Peninsula (with the partial exception of Bahrain) managed to weather the revolutionary storms of the Arab Spring largely unscathed.

As Cockburn makes clear, the so-called Arab Spring was always a dangerously misleading turn of phrase. The very term itself has been “at the root of many misconceptions about what happened in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 and in subsequent years. … It evokes memories of the Prague Spring … [or even] the fall of Communism.” Arab Spring was a term that led to “expectations of fresh flowers of democracy, tolerance, and peace replacing brutal and dictatorial regimes.” At the same time, however, images of young revolutionaries from Egypt and Tunisia were “deceptive . . . for Western audiences and governments,” who deeply wanted to believe “that they were seeing the most ‘bourgeois’ of revolutions led by people comfortingly familiar...