Modern History and Politics: The Arabs Face the Modern World: Religious, Cultural and Political Responses to the West

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The Arabs Face the Modern World: Religious, Cultural and Political Responses to the West, by Nissim Rejwan. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998. x + 233 pages. Notes to p. 244. Index to p. 250. $39.95.

Reviewed by Milton Viorst

For more than a century, the Arabs have been asking what has gone wrong with their civilization. Few among them deny that this civilization, once the envy of the known world, has fallen into economic, political, and social disarray. The gap between the Arabs and the West has long been apparent; a fresh embarrassment is East Asia's newly found dynamism. Arab thinkers have built a large body of literature trying to come to grips with the lamentable state in which their society finds itself.

Nissim Rejwan, an Arabic speaker born in Baghdad, has drawn liberally from this literature to produce The Arabs Face the Modern World.

Though now an Israeli, he is by no means a hostile observer. With admirable detachment, he has examined a wide selection of the works of major philosophers and theologians, novelists and journalists. His book is not easy reading. But, more discouraging, its pages force a reader to conclude that the Arabs have made little headway in defining a course that will make them competitive with the West, much less in embarking on it, since they began their intellectual quest more than a century ago.

Rejwan is too circumspect to speculate on why that is so. It would have been helpful had he given us a critical overview of the body of work he presents. But, in letting Arab thinkers speak for themselves, he paints what becomes a dispiriting picture.

The Arabs clearly want to be players in the modern world. But this objective requires radical change in social values, and the only radical proposals one encounters come not from the modernizers but from the reactionaries, who would bring Arab civilization back to the Prophet Muhammad's era. The criticism that Arab thinkers have contributed to the culture is, for the most part, superficial. Rejwan makes a convincing case that even such celebrated innovators as Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida, to say nothing of many who are lesser known, barely stray from the Islamic mainstream. One is led to conclude that the Arabs have been poorly served by their intellectuals, few of whom have been more daring than the conservative society to which they belong.

I looked in vain in Rejwan's index, for example, for talk of Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, the leader of the nation that, while not Arab, was linked to the Arabs for more than four centuries. …


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