Philip Yancey and John Wilson
A Conversation on Books About Islam and the Middle East
Why don't I start with Karen Armstrong's book Islam, which appeared on The New York Times bestseller list for many weeks after September 11. I imagine more Americans are learning about Islam from this book than from any other single source.
Armstrong has lived a life of diverse spirituality, one that well qualifies her as a guide to other religions. She spent seven years as a nun—frustrating years, as it turns out, since upon reflection she realized that "nothing had actually happened to me from a source beyond myself." While her belief in God slipped away, her interest in religion did not. Recognizing the human being as an incurably spiritual animal, she studied both Buddhism and Islam and then began teaching Christianity at a Jewish school in London. Her writing primarily centers on the great monotheistic religions, as seen in her books A History of God, The Battle for God, and Jerusalem.
Armstrong has written a biography of Muhammad (Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet), and more recently Islam: A Short History, part of the Modern Library Chronicles series. Although I know of no better 200-page introduction to Islam, the book does not measure up to Armstrong's other writings. It sparkles in the early pages, as she keeps the spotlight on the prophet Muhammad himself, and the last chapter offers important perspectives on modern Islam. The middle chapters, however, wane into a catalogue of conflicts and theological controversies that no doubt require a longer treatment for real comprehension. (I must say, though, that reading Armstrong's history of Islam gave me sympathy for those outside the Christian faith who attempt to wade through the thicket of our theological controversies and the issues that divide Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians to this day.)
In her writings, Armstrong bends over backwards to portray Muhammad and his religion in the best possible light. She skips over some of the more violent scenes, and does not dwell on the role of women in Islamic society. Indeed, Muhammad comes across as a sort of open-minded Victorian gentleman who might be found in the parlor wearing a lounging jacket and discussing the meaning of life—after helping with the dishes, of course.
Nevertheless, Armstrong performs an important service by giving a more balanced picture of Islam than is usually found in the Western press. A good historian, she gives fascinating insights into the development of one of the world's great religions, noting especially its early interaction with Judaism and Christianity. (For example, Muslims copied from Greek Christians the practice of veiling their women, and likewise adopted the Christians' posture of praying in a prostrate position.) As she points out, Muhammad himself never asked Jews or Christians to accept Islam because he believed they had their own valid revelations of God.
Another post-9/11 bestseller is Bernard Lewis's What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response. Lewis, who celebrated his 86th birthday earlier this year, is perhaps the foremost living Western scholar of Islam and the Middle East, the author of more than 30 books. He's a deeply sympathetic guide, yet his love for his subject doesn't blind him. This new book was completed before September 11, but it offers a concise, authoritative account of the historical context of the attacks.
"What went wrong?" could be the title of a book looking at recent events from the perspective of the United States, and no doubt many such books are being written right now. But Lewis's book takes us inside the Islamic world, where the resonance of the question is quite different. It requires us to set aside our familiar narratives of world history, where Islam appears on the margins.
Instead, Lewis describes a period of almost a millennium—from the early ascendancy of the conquering religion Muhammad founded to the late eighteenth century, when a series of defeats signaled the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the triumph of the West—during which Islam was the dominant world civilization: dominant militarily, dominant economically, but also the most advanced by almost every measure, having "achieved the highest level so far in human history in the arts and sciences." In comparison, Lewis says, Europe for much of this period "was still a relatively primitive place with little to offer." In Muslim eyes, the best hope for the "barabarians" of Europe "was to be incorporated in the empire of the caliphs, and thus attain the benefits of religion and civilization."
And indeed, in "the first thousand years or so after the advent of Islam, this seemed not unlikely." Lewis particularly emphasizes Islam's character as the first "universal" civilization. Christianity's reach, he says, was much more modest:
For more than a thousand years, Islam provided the only universally acceptable set of rules and principles for the regulation of public life and social life. Even during the period of maximum European influence, in the countries ruled or dominated by European imperial powers as well as those that remained independent, Islamic political notions and attitudes remained a profound and pervasive influence.
This isn't the way the story was told in History of Western Civ! Now Lewis may be guilty of a little exaggeration here. And the feel-good histories we've all been bombarded with over the last few months, assuring us that Islam is a Great Civilization, have made it harder to attend to his story. But once into the book, the reader will immediately sense the difference between such propaganda and Lewis's deeply learned yet marvelously accessible and persuasive account.
If we have any hope of understanding the various viewpoints represented in the Islamic world today, we have to be able to enter imaginatively into this sense of a disastrous fall from a great eminence. For most Westerners, the golden age of Islam is not even a historical datum, let alone a fundamental truth they feel in their bones. Many in fact regard the cultures of the Middle East and of Islam globally with unconscious condescension. But for hundreds of millions of Muslims, the current order of things, with the West clearly superior, is a terrible anomaly.
So what did go wrong? A typical bestseller would provide the answer with bullet points. Lewis's approach is quite different. Again, he tells the story from within the Islamic world, recounting the evolving answers proposed by Muslims over a period of two centuries. No definitive diagnosis emerges but rather a range of answers.
For example, some within the Islamic world saw that the role of women was one crucial difference between Islam and the West, which might account in part for the latter's superiority in the modern era. Such was the view of the reformist leader of Turkey, Kemal Ataturk. Yet many contemporary Islamists—most notoriously the Taliban—see the emancipation of women as the most conspicuous evidence of Western decadence. (In a lecture and conversation at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., in May of this year, Lewis himself gave considerable weight to the crippling effect of traditionalist Islamic beliefs concerning women.)
Occasionally Lewis steps outside the frame of Islamic responses. Unexpectedly he stops to reflect that Western music has been far less readily accepted in the Middle East than have many other cultural influences. He suggests that there are analogies between the polyphony that distinguishes Western music and other characteristic features of Western culture, such as "democratic politcs and team games, both of which require the cooperation, in harmony if not in unison, of different performers playing different parts for a common purpose." And he adds that polyphony "requires precise synchronization" and thus an orientation to time that is still alien to the Middle East, despite the adoption of the clock and the timetable.
Lewis also discusses the separation of church and state as fundamental to the modernization of the West. His perspective on Christianity is rather jaded. While it is now a clichÉ in many quarters that secularization began with Protestantism, Lewis goes further, seeing secularization as incipient in Christianity from the very beginning.
As Lewis's account of Middle Eastern responses to the impact of the West approaches the present, he observes that those responses tend to fall under two profoundly contrasting headings: Who did this to us? and What did we do wrong? The first leads to pathologies such as the anti-Semitism that is now so entrenched in the Arab world especially. The second gives hope for an Islamic equivalent to the Reformation.
Bernard Lewis asks the excellent question of what went wrong in Muslim countries. Frankly, I'm just as interested in what went wrong among the Christians. A person who reads the New Testament faces the stark fact that most places where our faith took root—the cities Paul addressed in his epistles and John addressed in his letters in Revelation 2 and 3—are virtual wastelands of the Christian faith today. You would have to hire a Muslim archeologist guide to locate many of the sites where churches once thrived. What went wrong? Why did churches in the heart of Christianity succumb so utterly to Islamic pressures?
To answer that question, I can think of no better resource than From the Holy Mountain by the British travel writer William Dalrymple. Virginia Stem Owens has already reviewed this book in the pages of Books & Culture, but it is worth another mention here.
Dalrymple had the ingenious notion to retrace the steps of two monks who set off in the spring of a.d. 587 to visit the spiritual hotspots in the Byzantine world. The monks, John Moschos and his pupil Sophronius, visited bustling monasteries and remote hermitages which were keeping alive the spirit of the radical stylites and desert fathers. Fortunately, Moschos kept a diary, for a few centuries later Muslim conquerors swept across this region and destroyed many of the institutions and their traditions.
By the time Dalrymple makes his twentieth-century journey, the landscape has changed forever. A few grizzled monks hole up behind thick walls in monasteries that once housed hundreds. Christians in places like Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt hunker down so as not to attract the ire of their Muslim overlords. In a region that was once overwhelmingly Christian, only 14 million Christians remain out of a population of 180 million, and each year that proportion declines further.
The Middle East is a powder keg today because of the dramatic shifts of population and allegiance that have been occurring there for the last hundred years. At the beginning of the last century, some four million Armenian Christians lived in Turkey; after the 1915 Armenian genocide and forced emigration, only a few thousand Christians remained. Travel with Dalrymple, and you hear one wrenching story after another.
The travail continues, and not just because of Muslim opposition. When Israel became an independent nation in 1948, Jews formed a distinct minority in the land, especially in Jerusalem. In time, the Israelis expelled almost half the Palestinian population, many of whom were Christians and immigrated to the United States and other Western countries. (Three times as many Palestinian Christians now live abroad as live in Israel and the West Bank.) As Dalrymple notes, "In 1922, 52 percent of the population of the Old City of Jerusalem had been Christian; now they made up just under 2.5 per cent of the population of the municipality. There were now more Jerusalem-born Christians in Sydney than in Jerusalem." He adds, "the remaining Christians in Jerusalem could be flown out in just nine jumbo jets."
Most people interviewed by Dalrymple doubt whether Jerusalem will be able to sustain any permanent Christian presence at all. The Israeli government confiscates land, refuses to grant building permits for Christian buildings, and makes it difficult for their owners to connect to city utilities. Yet these annoyances pale beside the violent opposition Christians sometimes face in places like Egypt, Lebanon, and Iran.
Dalrymple finds startling differences between his own Roman Catholic faith tradition and that of Eastern Orthodoxy—and also startling similarities between Orthodox and Islamic traditions. At one point he muses that if John Moschos came back today he would find more in common with Islamic practices—fasting, prostration, prayer niches and open prayer halls, wandering holy men—than with those of modern Western Christendom. He would, in fact, "find much more that was familiar in the practices of a modern Muslim Sufi than he would with those of, say, a contemporary American Evangelical. Yet this simple truth has been lost by our tendency to think of Christianity as a Western religion rather than the Oriental faith it actually is."
In his journeys, Dalrymple often encounters ruins and other visual reminders of the Crusades, that sustained effort on the part of Europe to recapture lands lost to Muslims—an area encompassing three-fourths of the Christian world at one point. For many of us, the Crusades represent a great embarrassment of Christian History, something mentioned in the same breath as the Holy Inquisition or the trial of Galileo. Not long ago, in fact, at the turn of the millennium, a courageous group of young Christians marched along Crusade routes through Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria as an act of public repentance for the church's past behavior. And when President George W. Bush simply used the word ("crusade against terrorism"), his aides gave him a quick lesson in Muslim sensitivities.
After reading Dalrymple, I picked up A Concise History of the Crusades by Thomas F. Madden. In just over 200 pages, Madden gives thumbnail sketches of each of the major crusades, spanning more than four centuries. He acknowledges some of the more pragmatic motives behind them—European rulers saw the crusades as a convenient way to employ hundreds of "free-lance" knights roaming the roads—but also stresses the sacrifices involved. Kings and lords sold their estates and traveled 2,000 miles, risking plague and other diseases, in an effort to reclaim the Holy Land for the cross. In a day when the faithful honored relics and the geography of faith in a manner scarcely imaginable to us moderns, the occupation of Jesus' homeland by "infidels" stood as a monumental insult. (To understand the emotions involved, simply recall Osama bin Laden's rage at the presence of American soldiers in the Islamic holy land of Saudi Arabia.)
Despite a few remarkable successes, the Crusades ended as a dismal failure. Returning crusaders bore diseases such as leprosy and bubonic plague back to their homelands. A tradition of peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East tragically foundered. In perhaps the worst consequence, Christians cannibalized each other, as Catholic crusaders found it easier to attack their Orthodox cousins in places like Constantinople than the better-armed Muslim armies. This diversion, of course, weakened the Christian presence in the Middle East and opened the door for yet more Muslim conquest.
In the Crusades, the church learned an enduring lesson about the limitations of "holy war,"one that merits further reflection by certain Muslim factions today.
Dalrymple looks at Christianity and the history of the church from the East—and suddenly what we thought we knew appears in a different light. Something similar happens with Gelareh Asayesh's memoir, Saffron Sky: A Life Between Iran and America. On the one hand, Asayesh—an Iranian-born journalist who has worked at The Boston Globe, The Miami Herald, and The Baltimore Sun—offers intimate glimpses of life in Iran, revising impressions that American readers may have formed during decades of coverage focused almost entirely on political events. On the other hand, she shows American readers how their country looks both from the vantage of Iran and from the perspective of an Iranian immigrant.
Asayesh begins her story in the middle. The year is 1990; she's in her late twenties, enjoying her work and married happily to an American. And yet she also feels a sense of disquiet, cut off from members of her extended family in Iran, alienated from the girl she once was. So it is that, for the first time since she left the country more ten years earlier, she is flying back to Iran.
Thus begins a series of visits, in the course of which she gradually reconnects with her Iranian identity. (She teaches her daughter Farsi off and on, despairing at times at what seems like a token gesture yet holding on; she speaks Farsi to her son, too, when he is born.) As that connection is being slowly restored, she must endure a time in which she feels like a divided soul, not quite belonging anywhere.
The outline of her story, in other words, resembles countless other contemporary memoirs. But the details are fresh—the rich variety of family members, so rich that many readers will wish for a list of the cast; the tastes and textures and smells that make her pages come alive—recalling the Iranian films that have been among the most memorable of the last decade.
Asayesh first came to the United States when she was eight years old; her parents were studying at the University of North Carolina. After two years, they returned to Iran, but in 1977, when she was 15, the family came back to the United States again. Theoretically it wasn't a permanent move.
Under the Shah, Asayesh's father—who had been active in opposition politics in his youth—had a position of high status. Although he celebrated when the Shah was deposed by Khomeini and the Revolution, it wouldn't have been prudent to move back to Iran, where many others in comparable positions were being executed. Still, looking back, Asayesh speculates that the family would have stayed in America even if there had been no revolution.
The Iran into which she was born was utterly preoccupied with the West, as she recalls, and the "unquestioned belief in the superiority of Americans and Europeans was an insidious, disturbing thread wound through the fabric of my childhood." From America c. 2002 this seems overstated, but Asayesh presents it as indisputable fact—and perhaps it was.
Perhaps this accounts in part for her ambivalence about Khomeini and his legacy. She dislikes many of the restrictions imposed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, especially the restrictions on women, yet she is reluctant finally to pass judgment. Reading her account in conjunction with current news from Iran, one wonders if the pendulum, which swung from an unhealthy obsession with the West to "Death to the USA," is about to swing back in the other direction.
She's ambivalent, too, about the religious character of the Islamic state. Shi'ites make up less than 15 percent of the world's more than one billion Muslims, but they constitute an overwhelming majority in Iran. For Christian readers in particular, one of the virtues of this memoir is its many-sided look at Shi'ite piety, by a writer who is an insider and an outsider at the same time. The picture one gets here of Islam in Iran is considerably more nuanced than some popular images might suggest, with a good deal of barely concealed secularism.
Raised by a moderately observant mother whose extremely devout sister—Asayesh's aunt—is also a considerable presence in her life, the young woman drifts away from the practice of her faith in America. But as she recovers her Iranian self, she begins however hesitantly to practice some of the rituals of Islam. She seems not to believe in what she is doing, except as a means of sustaining her cultural heritage, but she does it anyway.
Her perceptions of America are frequently quite acute, sometimes less so—as in the anecdote about the colleague's husband:
"I had a friend once who was Iranian," he says with a smile. "He was really nice."
He sounds surprised.
Yeah, people don't realize how much they are revealing to the trained observer. But certainly many readers will be wincing with recognition when she describes her first trip back to Iran, with Pretty Woman as the in-flight film:
This airplane hull is a floating fragment of the West, traveling farther and farther east in ever-growing incongruity. As the captain announces our approach to the Islamic Republic of Iran, Richard Gere is untying the prostitute's robe, preparing to make love on the piano.
Is Asayesh's story ultimately a disturbing testimony of divided loyalty, or is it encouraging in its shuttle diplomacy of the heart? It would be a mistake in any case to read too much into one person's experience. Individual lives are routinely ground up in the friction between lurching Powers, and it may be that no rapprochement between the Great Satan and the Iranian leg of the Axis of Evil is forthcoming. Nevertheless, Asayesh's story of a life that is both Iranian and American is modestly hopeful.
We need hopeful stories. As my reading moves into modern times, I find myself feeling more burdened, not less. How easily we pass judgment on the church that launched the Crusades, or on the Muslim restrictions on women. Yet are we doing any better at making good and just decisions today? Most of what I read about the modern Middle East leaves me with a feeling of helplessness if not hopelessness.
Take the wonderful book From Beirut to Jerusalem, for example. For a crackling good read, I would place this one and Dalrymple's at the top of my list. It dates from 1989, and much has changed in the intervening years. Yet this account of Middle East conflict by a New York Times bureau chief, Thomas L. Friedman, has garnered praise from Israelis, Muslims, and Western Christians as a fair and balanced treatment. It gives insight into the relations between Jews in the United States and in Israel, explores some of the sources of Palestinian rage, and touches on the diminishing Christian presence in that part of the world.
I have good friends, Christian missionaries, who at great personal risk stayed in Beirut throughout the civil war there. As Friedman notes, they may well be dead today were it not for Christian militias who fought against Muslim adversaries. Lebanon is one of the few parts of the Middle East with a viable Christian population still. Yet the militias hardly express the spirit of Jesus—and, in fact, come across in most accounts as cruel and ruthless. Can the three great religions who trace their lineage to Abraham ever live together in peace?
The world has moved a long way since Anwar Sadat's historic journey to Jerusalem and the Camp David peace accords, most of it in the wrong direction. Hard-liners now lead most factions in the Middle East, and a new breed of fundamentalists carries the toxin of terror to the entire world.
Until recently, Islamic leaders held up the ideal of secular states, as in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Egypt. Radicals gained a hearing only after a series of Muslim humiliations in wars against Israel—in turn a consequence, say the radicals, of unjust and impure societies. They conclude, "If we purify ourselves and follow Allah's law in every particular, then Allah will bless us and at last we will defeat the infidel." Now fundamentalists are attempting to impose sharia law not only in Arab countries but also in places like Nigeria and Sudan, which have large Christian populations. In the wake, more violence breaks out.
Of the books I've read recently on the "clash of civilizations," only one gives me hope. I have bought a dozen copies of At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land, by Yossi Klein Halevi. I sent one to my missionary friend in Lebanon, gave another to an Armenian whose family suffered in the genocide, another to a Pakistani Muslim, and yet another to a rabbi. Each recipient read the book, appreciated it, and wrote back to thank me.
At first glance, Halevi seems an unlikely candidate to light a candle of hope. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish community of Holocaust survivors in Brooklyn (his own father had survived detention in Hungary), he grew up dreading Christians. "As a boy, I was reluctant even to walk past a church, fearing that grasping hands might emerge from the massive doors and drag me into the basement, where priests would kidnap me and force me to become a Christian." He wrote a book titled Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, and then moved to Israel, serving in the army during the first Intifada, in the late 1980s and early '90s.
Emboldened by living as a Jew in a sovereign nation, Halevi began to consider the two main minorities in Israel, Christians and Muslims. He knew little about either faith. Acting both as a journalist and as a spiritual seeker, he began to make inquiries into his neighbors. Despite a horrific past, Jewish-Christian dialogue came easily, for the two faiths had made great strides since the Holocaust. Despite a mostly pacific past, Jewish-Muslim dialogue came with much more difficulty. Halevi began his quest in 1998, and each foray into Muslim territory placed him in harm's way. In one memorable scene, he attends a Muslim worship service in a Palestinian town where he had once been stoned as an occupying soldier.
Yet Halevi endured, and his visits with eccentric monks and Sufi mystics unfailingly brought new revelations. He learned early on that Jews and Muslims had more in common with each other than with Christians. (A not-too-well-informed sheyk told him, "We both have religious law; the Christians don't. We have fast days; they don't. We forbid the use of images; they pray to images. We believe in one God; they have three gods.") You can almost see Halevi's facial features contort as he hears firsthand reports of the Armenian massacres and realizes that Jews are not the only ethnic minority to go through a Holocaust.
A skilled journalist, Halevi knows how to weave a narrative out of small but luminous details. Yet I bought this book for my friends not because of its writing style but because he gives a model of a person of distinct faith learning to honor people who see the world very differently, without yielding to a mushy "anything goes" attitude of omnitolerance. I will give one example, Halevi's personal reflection on Jesus:
Jews need to make their peace with Jesus. We're still angry and afraid of him. My father used to blame Jesus for all our troubles. But until we welcome him back as a brother, we'll continue to treat Christianity as inauthentic. Jesus was the divine instrument for fulfilling the Jewish goal of spreading the word of God through the world. Thanks to Jesus, I have a common spiritual language with half of humanity. Now that the church is changing the old theology, I can allow myself to feel parental pride in Christianity.
Halevi goes on to say that he finds himself wishing for someone in Israel today like Jesus, a Jewish visionary who would take on the religious bureaucrats, a fervent believer who would nevertheless preach love and forgiveness. If a self-confessed "Jewish extremist" could arrive at such a place, maybe there's hope for the Middle East yet.
Sometimes hope takes odd forms. I'm thinking of the feeling that comes when we know the worst, so to speak. A certain exhilaration and a sense of purpose come with knowing where we stand. In that sense, a book edited by R. Scott Appleby, Spokesmen for the Despised: Fundamentalist Leaders of the Middle East, is hope-engendering. Knowledge is better than ignorance.
Appleby worked alongside Martin Marty editing the five-volume series produced by the Fundamentalism Project, and his credentials to preside over this collection are impeccable. There are a number of excellent pieces in this book, including Judith Miller's essay, "Global Islamic Awakening or Sudanese Nightmare? The Curious Case of Hassan Turabi"; Patrick Gaffney's "Fundamentalist Preaching and Islamic Militancy in Upper Egypt" (see Agnieszka Tennant's interview with Gaffney in the January/February issue of Books & Culture); Samuel Heilman on "Guides of the Faithful: Contemporary Religious Zionist Rabbis"; and Yaakov Ariel on "A Christian Fundamentalist Vision of the Middle East." Appleby's conclusion, "The Making of a Fundamentalist Leader," is also very helpful.
But there is one piece that stands above all the rest, Martin Kramer's "The Oracle of Hizbullah: Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah." At just under 100 pages, this essay could be published as a stand-alone volume and the reader wouldn't feel cheated.
Why is this essay so valuable? If we look at the leading Islamist thinkers side-by-side with their Western counterparts, a striking asymmetry quickly becomes apparent. In the West, only a handful of specialists are aware of main currents within Islamic thought. Only a handful can read Arabic (or Farsi, or the languages of Islam in Asia) to begin with. In contrast, the influential Islamist thinkers—men like Turabi, Fadlallah, and Rachid Ghannouchi—are deeply conversant with the main currents of Western thought and often with Western languages as well. (This is true to an extent even of a figure such as Osama bin Laden.) They have converted a disadvantage—the perceived inferiority of Islam—into an advantage. And this is an indictment of our arrogance and complacence in the West.
Kramer's essay, then, is valuable first because it opens a window into a world of which—that handful of specialists excluded—we are almost entirely ignorant. (If the name "Martin Kramer" has been ringing a bell, you may have heard him on npr or read one of his op-ed pieces or seen an article about the brouhaha stirred up by his sweeping attack on his fellow Middle East scholars. That's not relevant here, but for the record, I think his criticism is much too broad.)
Fadlallah has been known as the "spiritual leader" of Hizbullah (the Party of God) in Lebanon since its beginnings in the early 1980s, and Kramer's account takes in the intricate twists and turns of Hizbullah's policy and actions up to the mid-1990s (the Appleby volume appeared in 1997). The reference points are familiar here—the civil war in Lebanon, conflict with Israel, debate over suicide attacks long before the second Palestinian intifada, and so on—even if the details are not.
But Kramer does far more than that. He gives a concise intellectual biography of Fadlallah as well, an account of the formation of his mind. And this is valuable not only because Fadlallah himself is a both an influential leader and a fascinating man, a character worthy of Shakespeare, but also because through his story we get an introduction to that largely unknown world of Islamist thinkers, trained in classical Islamic traditions much as a distant ancestor might have been yet bearing the marks of the great rupture brought about by Islam's collision with the modern West.
Fadlallah was born in 1935 in the Shi'ite city of Najaf, in Iraq, a city of shrines and seminaries to which students came from throughout the Shi'ite world. The son of a scholar, Fadlallah was a precociously brilliant student whose mastery of poetry in the unconventional form of free verse hinted at his ability to marry tradition and innovation and at the oratorical gifts that would make him a spell-binding speaker. (By the 1980s, Kramer reports, tapes of Fadlallah's Friday sermons were the most popular items in Beirut's thriving cassette market, listened to by tens of thousands not only in Lebanon but throughout the Shi'ite diaspora, especially in the United States.) And it was in Najaf that Fadlallah was first exposed to the currents of modern Western thought as well, rebelling against the formalism of the traditional curriculum even as he mastered it.
An exceptionally learned man with an extraordinary verbal memory, a powerful speaker, Fadlallah has also proved to be a master of tactics such as Machiavelli himself might admire (see the interview with
Fadlallah at www.eastwestrecord.com/ PrintArticles.asp?ArticleId=222). To read Kramer's essay is to see the current state of play in Israel and Palestine anticipated in Lebanon to an uncanny degree. It seems that Fadlallah has not only influenced policy but has also seen the direction of the conflict long before most others.
That is particularly disturbing, given recent events in Lebanon. Beginning in January of this year, Hizbullah has periodically fired rockets across the border into Israeli territory. Fadlallah's contribution has been to throw gasoline on the fire, threatening to fire rockets into Haifa if Israel retaliates (see for example Charles Krauthammer's April 10 column, "The Danger in Lebanon," on The Washington Post's website).
Fadlallah does nothing without careful consideration. With his track record for anticipating the direction of Islamist policy in the region, this calculated belligerence is disturbing indeed. But work such as Kramer has done with this essay should keep us from being surprised, and may even enable key people in the West to do some looking ahead of their own.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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