EDWARD MORTIMER first began to write about the
Middle East for 2 The Times of London in 1973, but it was not until the autumn of 1978 that he took any specific interest in Islam. He, like so many other observers, could not fail but be impressed by the Islamic revolution that toppled the shah. Ayatollah became a household word, the beetled glower of Khomeini a red flag to American chauvinist pride, and Islam itself an adornment for the covers of Newsweek and Time.
Were it not for Iran's oil reserves, its location on the southern borders of the Soviet Union, and the U.S. hostages its Muslim revolutionaries eventually took, would this or any of a score of similar books have been written? After all, as Mortimer himself points out more than once, the question is not the rise of Islam; it had never fallen. Nor is it a rebirth, for it had never died. In this century Eygpt's Hasan al-Banna mobilized over a million fundamentalists, challenged constituted authority, indulged at least once in political assassination, and organized a voluntary army of Muslim Brethren that fought in Palestine in 1948. And the groundswells of Muslim fervor that led to the partition of India in 1947 and the birth of Pakistan were of epic proportions. Who but the specialists remember Muhammed Ali Jinnah or Abul A'la Maududi?
What then is the question? What, if anything, in all this Muslim ferment we are witnessing is really new? Unfortunately, explicit answers to these questions are not to be found in the pages of Mortimer's book. What one does find is a lucid, well-written series of case studies--Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the Arab world, Iran, Soviet Central Asia--of the shifting fortunes of Islam in the 19th and 20th centuries. It reads like a roster of all the great Islamic figures and movements of the period, but little attempt is made to draw general lessons from these disparate experiences. In this sense it is hard to see how Mortimer adds anything new to the classic survey of H.A.R. Gibb, Mohammedanism, Bernard Lewis', The Arabs in History, or W.C. Smith's, Islam in Modern History, except in his handlng of the events of the last four or five years. On that score, his analysis of the Islamic revolution in Iran is a gem and in many ways the strongest part of the book.
Mortimer has perhaps been too modest in his endeavor, for there is ample evidence scattered throughout his book that he is capable of real insight and artful synthesis. In a historical overview that somewhat needlessly goes over well-trodden ground, the author captures the dilemma of Muslim apologists in explaining the perceived decline of Islam relative to the West:
"If they found an aspect of Islam which seemed to have contributed to the political and military failures of Muslim peoples, they denounced it as not truly Islamic; if they found it desirable for Muslims to initiate some aspect of modern Western civilization, they proclaimed that aspect not only compatible with Islam but, if possible, fundamentally Islamic. The scientific method, human rights, democracy, socialism -- these and many other apparently Western phenomena were found on investigation to have Islamic origins. If something worth having was not found in contemporary Muslim society, that was either because Muslims had misguidedly abandoned it or, at worst, because Islam, having somehow lost its natural qualities of 'originality and upsurge,' had allowed another inferior civilization to get in first with something it should have been able to think of for itself."
It is precisely this sort of incisive summary that is elsewhere lacking, especially with respect to the contemporary period.
There are a number of questions about which students of Islam have long puzzled. What for instance is the place of secularism in Muslim society and to what extent are Islam and nationalism compatible? Mortimer nibbles at the edges of the first question in his treatment of Ataturk's abortive attempt to force Turkish society into a secular mode, and the second in his description of the formation of the Pakistani state. There have been only rare examples throughout Islamic history of anti-clericalism. The standard explanation is that Islam knows no church and no clergy. But that is too pat. There have always been mullahs and ulema; they have, as in Iran, owned vast amounts of property; they have often played oppressive roles especially when in a position to influence political authorities. In the modern era their ability to survive may well be rooted in the fact that, after centuries of conflict with the Christian West, Islam and national identity have become inextricably if confusedly bound in the mind of the believer and the patriot. Mortimer suggests that beyond gut feelings Islam cannot really accommodate nationalism. But the Islam that put hundreds of thousands of unarmed Iranians in the streets against the shah's troops was and is a religion of the guts. When Hasan al- Banna opposed the British military presence in Egypt did his Egyptian followers see him as defender of Islam against the infidel or as patriot? Probably both. As contemporary Zionist nationalism has shown, there comes a point when an attack on organized religion becomes an attack on the national soul, a combination of sacrilege and treason.
Resurgent Islam is thus carried in the guts of millions of believers. How do the new generations differ from those of their fathers? It is only in passing that Mortimer addresses this question with a few paragraphs on the social dislocations in contemporary Muslim societies that produce the "cultural insecurity" against which "religious traditionalism" is a natural defense mechanism. So much more than this needs to be said. Looking at the same forces of change -- rapid urbanization, spread of literacy, industrialization, etc. -- Daniel Lerner, in his The Passing of Traditional Society, wrote more than 20 years ago: "Whether from East or West, modernization poses the same basic challenge -- the infusion of a rationalist, positivist spirit against which, scholars seem agreed, Islam is absolutely defenseless."
That is what many of us wanted to believe. Yet Creationists now cut a swath through our own society, Jews and Christians bomb and butcher Muslims in Beirut, and Iranian Muslims hurl themselves against Iraqi Muslims under the banner of Jihad. How could we have been so wrong? Edward Mortimer only skirts these issues, perhaps out of deference to those of presumably greater knowledge and training. Such deference is misplaced. We need him more than he needs us.