This is the fifth annual iteration of the Abu Aardvark Awards, by which I honor the best Middle East political science books I read over the course of the year. As always, a few caveats. The selected books of the year are for the most part works of political science, broadly defined, which means that I do not include a number of outstanding works of history, anthropology, religion and history. For a broader disciplinary sweep, be sure to go see my summer beach week reading list. I also typically focus on books from university presses rather than trade books. These are my personal choices, and while I try to read widely, the books do tend to skew towards my own interests in the Arab world, Islamist movements and Iran. Overall this year, I read about 40 books that I considered to be plausible candidates.
The books are presented here in alphabetical order rather than by rank.
Jason Brownlee, Tarek Masoud and Andrew Reynolds, “The Arab Spring: Pathways of Repression and Reform”(Oxford University Press)
This systematic assessment of the trajectory of the Arab uprising lays down a marker in an evolving political science literature. The parsimonious, rigorous and theoretically informed analysis will challenge readers from all vantage points, while inviting the kind of argument that productively advances the discipline. Watch the authors discuss the book here.
Charles Lister, “The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Evolution of an Insurgency” (Hurst/Oxford University Press)
A deeply researched book that puts the Islamic State in the context of the Syrian insurgency’s evolution. Rather than narrowly focusing on the Islamic State, Lister presents a comprehensive survey of the broader spectrum of Syrian Islamist fighting groups. Lister shows better than any other existing book how Islamist and jihadist trends came to dominate the uprising against Bashar al-Assad.
Negar Mottahedeh,“#IranElection: Hashtag Solidarity and the Transformation of Online Life” (Stanford University Press)
A fascinating portrait of the online and offline activism that consumed Iran in the aftermath of the fraudulent 2009 presidential election. Mottahedeh offers not only a rich and engaging narrative, but also a broader comparative and theoretical lens for understanding a turning point in the use of online social media in protest mobilization.
Madawi al-Rasheed, “Muted Modernists: The Struggle over Divine Politics in Saudi Arabia” (Hurst/Oxford University Press)
Rasheed, who also made the list in 2013 for “A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics, and Religion in Saudi Arabia,” has written another essential book. This book spotlights a diverse group of intellectuals, human rights activists and Islamists who developed new forms of critique of the Saudi state before and after the Arab uprising. While this will not be released in the United States until March 2016, be sure to check it out then.
Avi Spiegel, “Young Islam: The New Politics of Islam in Morocco and the Arab World” (Princeton University Press)
A wonderfully written ethnographic analysis of the competing stands of Islamist organization and mobilization in Morocco. Spiegel shows brilliantly how Islamist ideas play out in the social and political lives of Moroccan youth and the striking variation in the approaches of different types of Islamist organizations. Watch the author discuss the book here.
Sean Yom, “From Resilience to Revolution: How Foreign Interventions Destabilize the Middle East” (Columbia University Press)
Yom presents a sweeping macro-historical analysis of the local effects of foreign intervention in the organization of Middle Eastern states. This outstanding work of comparative political history shows the complex interaction between the global and the local and the enduring effects of choices made during constitutive moments in state formation.
While I am closing out the year, I’d like to shout out to all the contributors to The Project on Middle East Political Science, and especially its consistently excellent POMEPS team (and Monkey Cage editors): a fond farewell to Mary Casey and Cortni Kerr, and a hearty welcome to Lauren Baker and Stephanie Dahle! Once again this year, POMEPS offered more than 300 unique opportunities to scholars, including Monkey Cage publications, workshops, panel presentations, book launches, book and article workshops, and small research grants.
Like the Monkey Cage more broadly, the enthusiastic and deeply informed public engagement of the POMEPS community of scholars decisively disproves the popular stereotype of academics retreating from the public realm. For a sample of the work POMEPS scholars have been doing this year, I would recommend downloading all the volumes in the POMEPS Studies series. Two especially outstanding examples are “International Relations Theory and a Changing Middle East” (based on a workshop at Aarhus University in Denmark for a workshop co-hosted by Morten Valbjorn with two dozen scholars from the United States, Europe and the Middle East assembled) and “Islamism in the IS Age” (based on a workshop at George Washington University).
Note: This year’s awardees join an illustrious list of past honorees: Stéphane Lacroix’s “Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia” and Wendy Pearlman’s “Violence, Non-Violence and the Palestinian National Movement” in 2011. The 2012 list featured Nathan Brown’s “When Victory is Not an Option,” Laurence Louer’s “Shiism and Politics in the Middle East,” Joseph Sassoon’s “Saddam Hussein’s Ba’th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime,” and Bassam Haddad’s “Business Networks in Syria.” In 2013, the winners were Adria Lawrence’s “Imperial Rule and the Politics of Nationalism: Anti-Colonial Protest in the French Empire,” Raphaël Lefèvre’s “Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria,” Madawi al-Rasheed’s “A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics, and Religion in Saudi Arabia,” Frederic Wehrey’s “Sectarian Politics in the Gulf,” and Carrie Rosefsky Wickham’s “The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement.” In 2014, the awardees were Zaid al-Ali, “The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy,” Melani Cammett, “Compassionate Communalism: Welfare and Sectarianism in Lebanon,” Michael Herb, “The Wages of Oil: Parliaments and Economic Development in Kuwait and the UAE,” Tarek Masoud, “Counting Islam: Religion, Class and Elections in Egypt,” and Toby Matthiesen, “The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism.”
Congratulations to all the authors!