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June 20 , 2008

Between Memory and Desire: The Middle East in a Troubled Age


Middle Easterners today are caught between memories of the past and frustrated hopes for the future. They struggle to find solutions to crises of economic stagnation, political gridlock, and cultural identity. In recent decades Islam has become central to this struggle, and almost every issue involves fierce, sometimes violent debates over the role of religion in public life. R. Stephen Humphreys's new book presents a much-needed and thoughtful analysis of Islam's place in today's Middle East. In clear, accessible language, he integrates the medieval and modern history of the region to show how the sacred and secular are tightly interwoven in its political and intellectual life.Humphreys discusses the conflicts over power and resources that engage Middle Eastern politicians and looks at the major ideologies that have shaped these conflicts. He focuses on the impact of Islam on public life and examines Muslim ways of thinking about the "secular" versus the "religious." What values does Islam put into play? What challenges does it pose to "ordinary" politics? What resources does it bring to the struggle for social justice?Humphreys recognizes the Western tendency to dismiss Middle Eastern politics as an incoherent tale of violence and fanaticism, and his book is especially valuable for its analysis of the deeper issues behind the headlines. These issues include the region's apparent inability to evolve democratic institutions, conflicts rooted in the peace settlements after World War I, and the unresolved debates over which cultural and moral values should drive Middle Eastern policy.Between Memory and Desire reminds us that Middle Easterners remember the past in specific ways: the shame of the colonial era; the disappointments since independence; and the glory of the Middle Ages, when Muslim achievements were respected throughout the world. Even if these memories are only partially true, in defining the past, they also define what the future ought to be.
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