Political Islam from Muhammad to Ahmadinejad

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Political Islam from Muhammad to Ahmadinejad REVIEW OF JOSEPH M. SKELLY, ED. Political Islam from Muhammad to Ahmadinejad (Santa Barbara: Praeger Security International, 2009) 281 pages, $50 hardcover

In 2001, Martin Kramer published a book that generated intense debate among Middle East experts. Suggestively entitled Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, the book condemned what the author saw as the politicization-either by Third World biases or apologists for radical ideologies from the region-and decline in expertise in the field. Kramer, a Princeton-educated expert on medieval Islam who has divided his career between Israel and the United States, identified the beginning of the decline with the 1978 publication of Edward Said's much-celebrated book, Orientalism. Said's main thesis was that much of Western scholarship on the region was tarnished by a deep-seated prejudice against the East and that this ethnocentric bias skewed the objectivity of most analyses.

Said's writings have had an enormous impact. Several scholars opposed his views, accusing him of making politically motivated and poorly evidenced charges. But many others found Said's critique convincing and inspiring. The field of Middle East studies soon became divided between "Orientalists" and "Saidians." The latter slowly outnumbered the former and managed to control the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the national organization that unites experts on the region. As Said himself wrote, following the publication of Orientalism "the formerly conservative Middle East Studies Association underwent an important ideological transformation," and Said's positions slowly became mainstream among American experts on the Middle East.1

Kramer's book condensed the accusations that critics leveled against Said and the course taken by MESA, whether publicly or, more often than not, privately. Orientalism, according to Kramer, "made it acceptable, even expected, for scholars to spell out their own political commitments as a preface to anything they wrote or did."2 Moreover, he charged, the dogma to follow was to see the people of the region as victims of the "three legs of the orientalist stool:" Western racism, American imperialism, and Israeli Zionism.3

Orientalists and Saidians quarrel on many issues, but in recent years no subject has divided them more than Islamism. Saidians charge Orientalists with erroneously lumping all Islamist groupings in one category, failing to see that there are reformist and democracy-prone Islamist movements that have little to do with al-Qaeda and other fringe groups. Orientalists respond by accusing Said's disciples of whitewashing Islamism, and ignoring ample evidence pointing to the undemocratic and intolerant nature of all Islamist groups, even those embraced by the Saidians. In his book, Kramer complained that the Saidian-dominated American academia's failure to understand Islamism had left a vacuum in the field and wondered what would fill it.4

The answer to this question came in 2007, six years after the publication of Kramer's book, when two of America's most senior Middle East experts, Bernard Lewis (Kramer's mentor at Princeton) and Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University, founded a new organization with the not-so-hidden goal of creating a viable alternative to MESA. Since its foundation, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) has attempted both to create a network of professionals who hold views that are distinct from those espoused by MESA and to coalesce those views to counterbalance MESA's influence. The inaugural conference of ASMEA was held in Washington in 2008, and some of the papers presented during the event have been collected in the organization's first book.

Edited by Joseph Morrison Skelly, a professor of history at New York City's College of Mount Saint Vincent and ASMEA's Treasurer, Political Islam from Muhammad to Ahmadinejad is an interesting collection of a very heterogeneous assortment of articles. …