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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Political Islam 101

Few if any foreign-policy challenges will command the attention of the Obama administration more than those emanating from the broader Middle East. The scars of the Bush years are deepest there, adding to a long history of mutual suspicion between America and the Muslim world. As a step toward overcoming that distrust, President Obama has said he would deliver a keynote address to the Muslim world in a Muslim capital during his first 100 days in office (though we shouldn't be surprised if that deadline slips). Among the people of the region there is a fragile sense of hope for a changed relationship because of who Barack Hussein Obama is and, perhaps even more, because of who he is not--George W. Bush.

Success in the region, or just improved relations between America and the Muslim world, will require more than a feel-good speech. It will take a fundamental re-evaluation of policies and a rediscovery of the long-dormant capacity to listen, empathize, and understand on terms other than one's own. In their new books, Robin Wright, Juan Cole, and Rashid Khalidi all begin to map out that terrain. Any re-evaluation cannot wish away, or continue trying to blast or boycott away, the most potent nongovernmental social force in the region today--Islamism. A survey course, Political Islam 101, should be compulsory for Middle East policy-makers, and they cannot be allowed to skip the class on distinguishing between the revolutionary destructive Islamists of al-Qaeda and the reformist democratic-oriented Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood (as troublesome as the latter may be across a range of issues).

Engaging the Muslim World by Juan Cole Palgrave MacMillan, 282 pages, $26.95

Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East by Rashid Khalidi, Beacon Press, 308 pages, $25.95

Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East by Robin Wright, Penguin Press, 464 pages, $26.95


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