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The Islamic Threat, Myth or Reality?

THIS AMBITIOUS AND timely book attempts an overview of a vast and complex subject as well as providing an incisive commentary and analysis of the contemporary Islamic scene. "In an increasingly interdependent world," affirms John Esposito, "it becomes even more imperative to deal with political realities dispassionately and constructively and to transcend stereotypes."

That it succeeds is a tribute to the insight and skill of the author, a professor of Middle East Studies in the United States and a prolific writer on the contemporary Islamic world. The sweep of the book's range is truly impressive. It takes in all the major Muslim countries and governments across the Middle East, Africa and Asia, with shrewd, succinct assessments offered.

Esposito shows convincingly the great diversity of the political movements which go up to form resurgent Islam. He warns against the generalisations from ignorance and prejudice which often pass in the Western media - and notoriously in the United States - as sober analysis. The idea of a monolithic Islam or unified bloc of states which is set to confront the United States and West in general is exploded. Monolithic Islam is, he maintains, a recurrent Western myth, not a reality. Instead, the writer illustrates the great diversity within the world of Islam.

The shockwaves of the Iranian revolution reached far and wide. Ayatollah Khomeini, like Colonel Gaddafi before him, was a natural bogeyman for the West, and for America something more. "From presidential statements to popular music and billboards, Khomeini soon became the man many Americans loved to hate." Iran's effort to export a revolutionary creed of Islam has arguably had very limited success. But Iran's image, especially in the US, is still as a major terrorist state constituting a menace to the world.

Fear of Islam as a potential political force goes back many centuries in Europe. As Esposito points out, Pan-Islam was seen as a global threat to Western colonial rule in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, after the peace treaties allocating many Arab lands of the Ottoman empire to British and French rule under League of Nations mandates.

In fact, such visions of a Pan-Islamic menace to Western dominance have older roots, and can be usefully compared to late nineteenth century Western concerns about the so-called "Yellow Peril", or immigration by Chinese and other Asian peoples. They can also be compared to the American obsession with Communism as a world force or plot to destroy civilisation as we know it.

American perceptions of the phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism have naturally enough been coloured and distorted by the dominant Protestant culture. Esposito prefers to use instead the terms Islamic revivalism and activism. This book points out that for many Muslims, activism takes the form of membership in a social movement rather than political activism as such. But the goal of capturing political power and eventually heading governments is of course there.

Democracy is not only a powerful symbol of legitimacy in many Muslim countries but, Esposito maintains "has become an integral part of modern Islamic political thought and practice." He goes on to identify a major issue facing Islamic movements as being their willingness, once in power, to tolerate diversity of views.

The indictment that Islam is intolerant and undemocratic is often made. It is true there has been a failure to give freedom of speech - as well as a lowering of status of minorities - under numerous Islamic regimes. "The record of Islamic experiments in Pakistan, Iran and the Sudan," Esposito says, "raises serious questions about the rights of women and minorities under Islamically oriented governments."

This lucid, often provocative, study is intended to reach not only students or specialists but a wider general public. It always remains objective and can only help spread mutual understanding instead of the alienation, fear and mutual resentment which are too commonly found.
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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