Modern History and Politics -- Bitter Legacy: Ideology and Politics in the Arab World by Paul Salem

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Bitter Legacy: Ideology and Politics in the Arab World, by Paul Salem. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994. xii + 276 pages. Bibl. to p. 288. Index to p. 299. $39.95.

Reviewed by Antony T. Sullivan

In this volume, Paul Salem analyzes the political ideologies that have confronted or succeeded one another throughout the 20th century in Egypt, Iraq, and the Levant. Bitter Legacy is aptly titled. Liberal constitutionalism, Arab nationalism, and contemporary Islamism have all failed to create any consensus concerning the nature of political legitimacy, Salem argues, or to establish any recognized locus of political or social authority. He maintains that, especially in recent decades, ideological utopianism has disfigured society everywhere in the Arab Middle East, and has plunged the region into a crisis from which it has yet to emerge.

Good news, however, there is. Salem believes that Islamist extremism may now have reached its zenith, and suggests that popular disillusionment with all political nostrums may well usher in a post-ideological age characterized by political pragmatism beginning early in the new century. This book constitutes an excellent intellectual and social history of the 20th-century Mashriq, and should be considered required reading by anyone seriously interested in the contemporary Arab world.

Salem draws heavily on the seminal work of the late Edward Shils concerning the nature of culture, ideology, and religion.(1) He posits psychological strain relating to matters of identity and self-understanding, in combination with a need to vent frustration, to explain the Arab world's susceptibility to the blandishments of ideologues. He argues that regionalism and liberal constitutionalism were the ideologies of choice for the merchant and landowning elite of the 1920s and 1930s; pan-Arabism, the ideological option of a new middle class of bureaucrats, technocrats, and senior officials during the 1950s and 1960s; and political Islamism, the preferred ideology for a newly urbanized lower class from the 1970s to the present. In the Arab world, ideology has proven to be specific to both generation and class, Salem maintains, and can best be understood in chronological components of approximately a quarter century. He observes that ideological systems have always proven to be especially attractive to non-Sunni minorities, serving as useful vehicles to enhance their status and power. The author discusses Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid and Muhammad 'Abduh as forerunners or exemplars of liberal constitutionalism; Sati' al-Husri, Antun Sa'adeh, and Michel 'Aflaq as influential theoreticians of radical Arabism, totalitarianism, and political violence; and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Hassan al-Banna, and Sayyid Qutb as key advocates of Islamic gnosticism. …