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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 1 .

Between Memory and Desire: The Middle East in a Troubled Age
R. Stephen Humphreys

(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999)
314pp. Index. Bibl. Pb.: 0-520-21411-0. $29.95

In Between Memory and Desire, R. Stephen Humphreys, an American historian of the Islamic world, offers an introduction to contemporary Middle Eastern politics and ideology in the light of 1400 years of Islamic history. Throughout, Humpreys seeks to dispel the myths and stereotypes which inform much discussion of Islam and the Middle East, and to replace them with nuance and complexity. The first six essays cover topics as varied as the demography of Muslim societies, Arab nationalism, and foreign policy; the final four explore the relationship of Islam and politics, Islamic political theory, the concept of jihad, and the role of women in public life.

The book is directed at a literate but non-academic audience, which is not to say that academic readers would not benefit from acquaintance with Humphreys erudition and wonderful writing style. However, it is also directed largely, if unselfconsciously, at an American audience whose preconceptions are not necessarily shared elsewhere.

Humphreys offers some wonderful insights. He dismisses the "Myth of the Middel East Madman", noting that the goals of leaders such as Nasser, Saddam Hussein, and the Ayatollah Khomeini, are not impenetrable but simply "not the ones we want them to have" (p.83.). On the relationship between Islam and politics, he observes that, for most Muslims, Islam is simply what Muslims actually do and believe, and not a prescriptive set of political injunctions. Likewise, he distinguishes the early history of jihad as an aspect of the expansionist phase of early Islam, from its more recent manifestation as a defensive response to foreign incursion and domination of the Muslim world.

The very ambition and scope of this book is its main failing. In seeking to cover so much of Muslim history and Islamic theory, Humphreys time and again sacrifices complexity of analysis for broad overview, despite his avowed intention to do otherwise. Despite this, Between Memory and Desire is filled with rewards for any reader, academic and layperson alike.

Vincent Durac
Queens University, Belfast

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