Tuesday, June 12, 2012

From Babel to Dragomans - Bernard Lewis

Bernard Lewis is the author one must read to start having a broad idea of the Middle East. For one thing, he was the creator of the expression "clash of civilizations", later popularized by Samuel Huntington, and taken as a guidance for policy by some neo-conservative ideologues in the aftermath of 9/11.

From Babel to Dragomans collects 51 essays written by Bernard Lewis on the Middle East. The topics covered range from gastronomy to U.S. foreign policy, passing through Turkish historiography and several comparative analysis of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The book is divided in three sections: part 1 deals with   "past history"; part 2, with "current history", and part 3 collects essays on historiography and Orientalism. By construction, books that collect essays tend to be repetitive and From Babel to Dragomans is not an exception. From that perspective, part 1 is probably the best part of the book by providing a quick introduction to Middle East from a scholar perspective -part 2 is too ideologized, and part 3 is too academic.

There are a lot of remarkable quotes in this book, though there is probably one that comes out for its prescience regarding the current events in the Middle East: 

"Where the so-called fundamentalist Muslims and democrats are both in opposition, the former have an immense advantage. In the mosques and preachers, they dispose of a network for meeting and communication that no government, however tyrannical, can entirely control and no other group can rival."

This quotation comes handy now that the popular revolts in Egypt and Tunisia are getting stopped by the military or kidnapped by the Salafists. 

People were too optimistic about the prospects of these two countries to implant functioning democratic regimes. Obviously, the images of young people going out to the streets and risk their lives is shocking and moving at the same time, but any cold and fact-based analysis could see from the beginning that both the military and the Salafists had something that the protesters have lacked since they took the streets: organization and command chains. A political movement cannot be run like an assembly if it really wants to survive. 

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