PALESTINE AND PALESTINIANS: Identity and Religion in Palestine: The Struggle between Islamism and Secularism in the Occupied Territories

By Bowman, Glenn | The Middle East Journal, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

PALESTINE AND PALESTINIANS: Identity and Religion in Palestine: The Struggle between Islamism and Secularism in the Occupied Territories


Bowman, Glenn, The Middle East Journal


PALESTINE AND PALESTINIANS: Identity and Religion in Palestine: The Struggle between Islamism and Secularism in the Occupied Territories, by Loren Lybarger. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007. xxiv + 246 pages. Bibl. to p. 255. Index to p. 265. $39.50.

Reviewed by Glenn Bowman

There is a tendency in popular discourse to reify Palestinians in various ways, and this tendency has, with a few exceptions, infiltrated academic studies. Whether Palestinians are depicted as victims or as terrorists, the images often presented of them are of "a people" stabilized within a dialectical opposition to the similarly fixed "Israelis." More nuanced readings, which divide those blocs into secularists and "fundamentalists" (whether Islamist or Jewish), nonetheless still produce broad-brush portraits of collectivities aligned around the "Arab-Israeli" conflict.

Loren Lybarger's Identity and Religion in Palestine is a welcome exception to this tendency. The book, which Lybarger describes as "a sustained attempt to listen carefully to Palestinians and interpret their choices within a framework informed by historical context, ethnographic observation, and sociological theory" (p. xv), examines the impact on Palestinian individuals and families of two intifadas, the Oslo Accords, the faltering hegemony of the Palestine National Authority, and the humiliations and deprivations generated by Israel's policies of "de-development." Through close analysis of interviews and events, interwoven with analysis of social constraints and determinants, Lybarger shows how what had previously appeared as a collective Palestinian narrative has, since Oslo, unraveled into a multitude of new identity narratives "not easily reducible to the simple dichotomy of Islamist versus secular nationalist" (p. 236). In exposing this fragmentation and analyzing the strategies of liberation variously sited within those fragments, Lybarger shows not only the complexity of politics within the contemporary Palestinian community but also the numerous and divergent pathways future politics might follow.

Lybarger taught English in Bayt Jala in the West Bank between 1986 and 1989; in 1999, after training as an anthropologist, she returned to Palestine for a year's fieldwork in two refugee camps (one near Bethlehem and the other in Gaza). This sustained involvement in the region allowed him intimate access to a sampling of individuals representative of a range of political and religious persuasions as well as of different generations and locales of significant experience (the "insider"/ "outsider" distinctions are particularly salient). Lybarger extends the concept of "socio-historical generations" (drawn from Karl Mannheim) to investigate how the rapid and traumatic changes of that period shaped the identities and politics not only of different age groups but also of religious and political cadres:

[T]he shared experience of a moment of social destabilization stamped a generation with its particular sense of "fate"... All later experiences of this group would be filtered through the memory of the originating trauma and meanings attached to it (p. …

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