Neil MacFarquhar's Unusual Perspectives on the Middle East

Birthday Greetings from Hizbollah

The popular adage that the most concise book title is also the most attention grabbing isn't always true. A title like "The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday" is guaranteed to excite the interest of readers following events in the Middle East. A review by Angela Schader

Supporters of Hizbullah during a rally in Beirut (photo: AP)
"The path to salvation is not as difficult as one might think": In Neil MacFarquhar's book, popular conceptions of the Middle East and its people are often put right

​​The recipient of this birthday greeting and author of the book presented here is none other than Neil MacFarquhar, Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and subsequently for the New York Times. He has collected his reminiscences in a book that, on the one hand, successfully combines expert knowledge and honest, down to earth observations aimed at an interested general public, and, on the other hand, offers tips to those steering American foreign policy.

Over the course of several essays, MacFarquhar frequently points out more effective alternatives to the measures undertaken under President George W. Bush, and, in his final chapter, sums these up in a few comprehensive reflections.

The first part of this volume, which has so far only appeared in English, is devoted to various topics ranging from the nature of "jihad" to how one organizes a proper Thanksgiving dinner in the Arab world. The second part provides an analysis of fundamental problems in the Arab world on the basis of examples from six countries.

Dialogue on an equal footing

"Unexpected Encounters", as the subtitle reads, are the book's main agenda. MacFarquhar aims to break preconceived notions not by offering his own theses, but rather, whenever possible, by introducing the reader to his Arab partners in dialogue on an equal footing. In the process, popular conceptions are often put right.

The author, for instance, casts a critical gaze on the "Cedar Revolution" in Lebanon, which is frequently perceived in the West as a sign of change. MacFarquhar refuses to regard it as a revolution in so far as the existing power structures were in no way altered or even questioned.

​​The multi-facetted exposition of fatwas in the first part of the book is simply brilliant. Readers of this sort of book probably already know that fatwas are not to be understood solely as death sentences spewed out by sinister ayatollahs, but are primarily religious expert opinions on everyday questions as to how Muslims should live their lives. They might not know, however, that many of these pronouncements are improperly referred to as fatwas, as the concept in its strictest sense is only applicable to truly innovative decisions.

The fact that religious institutions such as the Cairo Dar al-Iftaa is literally swamped with inquiries concerning spiritual and everyday practical advice reflects the growing social and political frustration of those interviewed by MacFarquhar.

Those in the Arab world have lost hope in this life and instead, with the help of a pious lifestyle, want to at least ensure a place in paradise. Apparently, the path to salvation is not as difficult as one might think. "Fatwa shopping" among various imams allows the faithful to find a blessing even for dubious behaviour.

In sole possession of the "true" faith

While this chapter widens and loosens up the understanding of the concept of the fatwa for the Western reader, in his chapter on jihad, the author hesitates to concur with arguments often brought forth by moderate Muslims that the concept should be understood primarily in terms of a spiritual struggle and leading an ethical lifestyle.

Although it is the case that of the four Sunni schools of Islamic law, only Saudi Wahhabism adheres to the Habalite tradition of thought that supports an offensive jihad.

Yet, it is practically impossible to convince radical fundamentalists to adopt the more moderate interpretation, as they imagine themselves to be in sole possession of the "true" faith. That such a mindset is taken for granted to such a formidable degree, even among the highly educated, is highlighted by a comment from a Saudi history professor whom MacFarquhar interviewed. Of course, he hates MacFarquhar, the professor says, because he is a Christian, but that doesn't necessarily means he wants to kill him.

Religious fervour reduced to pure appearances

In the second part of the book, the author looks to Jordan and Syria to examine the secular police and surveillance state. Not only do both countries exhibit similar characteristics with respect to regulations on public gatherings, which in Jordan apply to everything from protest marches to tributes to the royal family, but each also experienced a short period of opening up immediately followed by renewed suppression.

Jordan's King Abdullah (photo: AP)
Renewed suppression: MacFarquhar critically examines Jordan's King Abdullah's political achievements

​​At first glance, the achievements of the young Moroccan King Mohammed VI appear to be somewhat better, yet even here the monolithic power of the royal family and its dependents leaves the ordinary citizens feeling as if their fate is not in their own hands.

In contrast to actual conditions, the second part of the book highlights opposition figures instead of those holding the reigns of power. In Morocco, the author meets with Ahmed Marzouki, who has unforgettably described his gruesome imprisonment under King Hassan II in "Tazmamart, Cellule 10."

We read of a woman professor in Saudi Arabia, who demonstrates how an excessive religious fervour can be reduced to pure appearances. In Egypt, the reader encounters a candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood, whose energetic social commitment offers a plausible explanation for the support the Islamists receive from the poor. His religious slogans and enigmatic positions, however, cast him in disrepute even without any effort on the part of the author.

Support for civil society movements

The conclusions reached by MacFarquhar from his experiences and encounters are all quite similar. Instead of the desire to spread the spirit of modernity in the Arab-Islamic world, whether through supposed good deeds or by force, we would do far better to focus our gaze on the region's existing structures. The still fragile movements promoting civil society have to be supported with a necessary degree of restraint and discretion.

In addition, the West could engage powerful local players such as the television broadcaster al Jazeera, which would disseminate its positions far more effectively than "al-Hurra," the largely unsuccessful American launched Arab-language channel.

Even when the author risks formulating such concrete suggestions, he in no way engages in lecturing, does not assume a know-it-all attitude, nor does he simplify the hellishly complex realities of the Middle East. Herein lies not only the value of his account, but also its special charm.

Angela Schader

© Neue Züricher Zeitung/Qantara.de 2010

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Neil MacFarquhar: The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday. PublicAffairs, New York 2009.

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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