Middle East Politics Today: Government and Civil Society, by Tareq Y. Ismael. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2001. xv + 455 pages. Appends. to p. 462. Notes to p. 482. Bibl. to p. 494. Index to p. 510. $59.95.
Reviewed by Glenn E. Perry
The volume under review, presumably intended mainly as a textbook for university classes, is the successor to surveys published by Professor Tareq Y. Ismael (as the author or coauthor) in 1970 and 1991. But although incorporating a few historical passages from its predecessors, Middle East Politics Today: Government and Civil Society is definitely a new book. Notably, it is the work of Professor Ismael himself (aside from one coauthored chapter), unlike its predecessors, which included contributions by several other scholars. Although a multiauthored volume has the virtue of bringing in the expertise of diverse specialists, the new book is clearly an improvement over the others, as the author demonstrates an admirable mastery of the politics of all the countries covered.
The author identifies his approach primarily in terms of emphasizing the importance of seeing political patterns "from the perspective of patterns over time" (p. xi). In keeping with this wise, if obvious, outlook, he begins the book with chapters on "The Burden of History" and the Islamic political heritage. He does as good a job with these subjects in such a short compass as one could expect, and I will desist from opportunities to engage in nit-picking.
Professor Ismael goes on to look at "the interaction of government and society..over time" (p. xi). Providing an excellent introduction for the novice on the recently fashionable concept of "civil society," he stresses that, unlike the state, civil society "exists in latent form in the modern Middle East and has a tremendous historical legacy," while the now-dominant state "lacks roots in the region's history" (p. xii). Chapter 3 (coauthored with Jacqueline S. Ismael) in particular focuses on "The Oppressive State and Civil Society," tracing the emergence of the state from the Ottoman period - in which rule is correctly characterized as "decentralized," as leaving much "to the nonstate sector," et cetera (pp. 61-62) - to the present-day "reli[ance] ... on the instruments of oppression" (p. 67). The decline of civil society is dealt with from the early Islamic era, when it flourished (this is apparently the first survey of Middle East politics to integrate the important contributions of scholars like Ellis Goldberg that are so much at odds with discredited images of "sultanism," Oriental despotism, and the like), to the present-day state "encroach[ment] on all aspects of civil society:' The bulk of the chapter uses reports of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to document the sorry condition of human rights on a country-by-country basis. …