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Book Review April 17, 2003
 
Islamic Studies: Faculty Only
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
 

Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (2nd Edition)
by Fred Halliday
Taurus 2003
Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (2nd Edition) by Fred Halliday Taurus 2003

At the New Zealand university where I used to teach there was a stern British academic who was famous for his way of reacting to generalizations he considered overly broad. He would sit up very straight, furrow his brow, and say, "Hang on a minute!" Reading Fred Halliday's Islam and the Myth of Confrontation was like listening to that phrase repeated for more than two hundred pages. Over and over, Halliday sets up and knocks down "myths" which attempt to offer a comprehensive explanation for contemporary Middle Eastern strife, demonstrating at great length that these explanations are facile, overly broad, ahistorical or otherwise lacking in rigor.

Is there, for example, a "Conflict of Civilizations" between "the West" and "Islam"? Halliday's response is the inevitable "hang on a minute!" followed by many pages of evidence that no such conflict actually exists. First he shows that the bloodiest conflicts of the past century have not been inter-civilizational, then he grumbles at length over the vagueness of the very concepts involved.

The trouble is that Halliday seems much less interested in helping the reader understand what really is happening in the Middle East than in discrediting the theories of non-academic writers who have tried to explain the region. You finish the book very much aware of what can't be said about Islam and Middle Eastern conflict, but without any very clear sense of what can be.

At times Halliday's hostility to generalization becomes almost comic. Reading this book was like watching an outraged professor encounter a blackboard full of a rival's lecture notes. He becomes absorbed in reading, criticizing and erasing them, one by one. At the end of the hour, he looks proudly at the now-blank blackboard and turns to his students, puzzled by the fact they seem less than satisfied.

The clearest assertion in the book is Halliday's summing up of his negative conclusion: "There cannot be a great 'Islamic challenge' [to the West], not only because the Islamic states are, and will remain, much weaker than those of the West, but also because they do not represent a coherent, internationally constituted alliance." There. That's it: the whole content of this book. One sentence-and it doesn't arrive until p. 119, after more than a hundred pages of obfuscation.

Pedantry like this might seem harmless or endearing in scholars of more arcane fields. But I actually wanted to learn something about Islam from this book. And all I learned was that Fred Halliday is an academic whose only real interest is in policing his precious field of study.

It's always the social scientists who make the most noise about maintaining the purity of their precious fields, because they know no one takes them seriously any more. Researchers in real sciences love coming up with accessible ways of explaining their work, while pillars of pseudo-sciences like "International Relations" snarl like rottweilers at the thought that mere civilians might presume to understand their arcana.

That's why Halliday's favorite figure of speech is the antithesis. On nearly every page of this book you'll read antitheses between the way Middle Eastern issues strike mere amateurs and the reality, as seen by true IR specialists. Thus Halliday's prose is full of forms of the verb "to appear." It shows up, in Italics no less, in the first sentence of the book: "In the postwar period the Middle East has consistently appeared to be the most unstable...region in the whole world." And again, a few pages later: "For all its apparent eccentricity, the Middle East ...." and yet again: "the apparent particularities of the Middle East..."


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dolan@exile.ru
 
 
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