The Arab states: a basic, inside struggle

May 04, 1994|By Jerry Moore | Jerry Moore,Orange County Register

Many Americans are confused by the world of Islam and

America's role in that world. Shaped by the news stories of the last 15 years, our shared images of the Middle East form a montage of bewilderment.

In the early 1980s, the explosive chaos of Beirut. A decade of deadly stalemate of the Iran-Iraq war. The black smoke of Kuwaiti oil. The images are sharp, but we lack connective understanding.

Milton Viorst unravels the stories behind these images and provides a welcome historical context in "Sandcastles: The Arabs in Search of the Modern World."

Mr. Viorst has written 11 books on American politics and world events. His newest book is drawn from articles on the Middle East written for the New Yorker, and it is an extraordinary piece of reportage.

Mr. Viorst provides a panorama of the Middle East, but this is no mere travelogue. The author maps the fault lines of current events in the Middle East, the cracks of tension that run deep into political bedrock.

Throughout the region, the struggle between secularism and fundamentalism is basic. The notion of the nation-state was only introduced into the Middle East on the eve of World War I.

Since then, each of the 21 Islamic states of the Middle East, Mr. Viorst writes, "embarked on its own course in its search for an accommodation with modern times. By most standards, the search has not been successful. The states have been as fragile as sandcastles."

That fragility was partly the product of British and French colonial policies, but the fundamental weakness of the Arab state has another source. Mr. Viorst writes: "The tug-of-war between secularism and religion is, perhaps, the central issue the Middle East faces today."

Islamic extremists deny the legitimacy of the secular Arab nation-state, arguing that its existence is essentially a rejection of Islam. "These extremists," Mr. Viorst points out, "have organized in every Arab country with the aim of taking control of the state."

The Arab nation-states struggle against Islamic extremists who argue that the jurisdiction of Islam is "absolute, that its laws are all-encompassing."

It is an absolutism violently implemented.

Anwar Sadat's assassins defended their actions as punishment for Sadat's apostasy -- his contention that religion and government were separate realms.

Their opponents -- Muslims who are often educated elites that support secular government "even when it is oppressive" -- are at a serious disadvantage. The struggle between secularism and extremism creates "not a class but a culture war . . ."

Mr. Viorst traces the consequences of this conflict in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. Iraq figures prominently in this book, and Mr. Viorst has written a superb account of the formation of the Iraqi state, the rise of Saddam Hussein, and the murky machinations that led to the gulf war.

That war, Mr. Viorst contends, was "a critical juncture in the history of Arab relations with the West," reorganizing alliances and dissolving the notion of pan-Arab unity. It was the first time that one Arab nation-state (Iraq) tried to conquer another (Kuwait).

Mr. Viorst outlines the processes that produced the gulf war: Saddam Hussein's territorial objectives, Kuwait's manipulation of international politics shaped by Cold War mentality and the thirst for oil, and 20 years of often ambiguous U.S. foreign policy in the Persian Gulf.

Equally insightful is Mr. Viorst's coverage of the intifada. He writes that the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza "was never a military threat to Israel. It was a political exercise, forcing Israel to recalculate whether the benefits of the occupation justified the costs."

As the Israeli government dismantles its presence in the West Bank and as Palestinian deportees return to establish a new Palestinian entity, new flash points emerge.

There are moments when the Middle East seems destined to explode, simply too volatile to contain. Yet it is a region too important to ignore.

In this fine, intelligent book, Milton Viorst explores the deep divisions and strong bonds that shaped the Arab world and the connections that link it to our own.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Sandcastles: The Arabs in Search of the Modern World"

Author: Milton Viorst

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 384 pages, $25

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