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 V.18 No.13 | March 26 - April 1, 2009 

Book Review

Starting Over

A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America's Relations with the Muslim World by Emile Nakhleh

A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America's Relations with the Muslim World

Emile Nakhleh
Princeton
$26.95

“Why won't they stop fighting?” Is one oft-unanswered question that arises in American conversations about the Middle East, usually in response to the latest headline describing another far-off tragedy. Reading Emile Nakhleh's A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America's Relations with the Muslim World does not supply a single, simple answer but instead approaches the subject from multiple vantage points.

Nakhleh has spent years helping the Central Intelligence Agency understand the pressures shaping Muslim societies as we see them. As a senior intelligence service officer, Nakhleh has interviewed policy makers, educators, activists and radicals across the Muslim world. A Necessary Engagement opens with an overview of Islamic politics then proceeds in the second half to draw a road map for U.S. public diplomacy with Middle Eastern governments and their people.

The product of Nakhleh's extensive research and travels is collected in this thin hardcover book, which the author notes is not meant to be a traditional academic text even though it often reads like one. Even hardcore political junkies might have to hop on Google to pin down some of Nakhleh's references, which might be obscure to American audiences. On the other hand, he does take time to define ideas that have taken root in our discussions about the Middle East, such as jihad, and their meanings to Middle Eastern people today.

Another is sharia law, a concept of Islamic governance desired by conservative Muslims that encourages what many of us in the West would consider a “World is Flat” approach to state rule. Among the greatest proponents of this return to traditional Islamic values are Shia Muslims, who have made strides in recent years to set themselves apart from their Sunni counterparts in the realm of politics.

Increased signs of traditional Islam have appeared in countries and societies that have been, decades prior, predominantly secular. Even in wealthier parts of Beirut, Cairo, Kuala Lumpur and Central London, the aba (a woman's full-length black garment) has become a much more common sight. Protests and rallies against Sunni-led governments are a call for sharia law to “fix” the perceived corruption and impotence of the established order.

In the U.S., we have come to associate these images with terrorism and anti-Americanism; yet for the vast majority of these groups, America doesn't fit in the equation at all. In the pursuance of its goals, the Shia movement has become pro-democratic, and Nakhleh advocates U.S. discussion and involvement with its academics and educators.

Nakhleh argues that the generalization of traditional Islam as violent and backward is keeping the U.S. from a better understanding of Islamic societies in flux. Conflict and ongoing social unrest exist in a perpetual state of friction against the rigid cultural mores taught in much of the Islamic World. Nakhleh's wide-ranging approach is balanced by specific examples and fascinating insights into a culture and world most Americans barely know.

 
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