The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East by Olivier Roy

It is reading time again here at AFOE. I am happy to invite you to read The politics of Chaos in the Middle East by Olivier Roy. If you like the world to be simple and easy to understand then you will hate The Politics of Chaos.

Olivier Roy offers his readers a descriptive overview of the many and ever moving social and political currents and dynamics in the Middle East. Understanding these will give a clearer insight into many of the conflicts in the region. Roy places the conflicts within their own context and separates them from the idea of ‘a clash of civilizations’. As the title of the book suggests, there is no single formula, or a ‘geostrategy of Islam’ as he calls it, that would explain everything that currently goes on in the Middle East. In the rather provocative introduction to the book, which you can read at the Columbia University Press website (pdf), Roy States:

Far from bearing out the prevailing theory that there is “a clash of civilizations” and a confrontation between the Muslim world and the West, the conflicts and realignments affect primarily the Muslim world itself and operate along fault lines that have very little to do with ideology.

It is true that some people, in their discussions about Islam, tend to forget the actual social and political ‘realities on the ground’ and see the Muslim World as a huge monolith. Olivier Roy addresses this issue in the first chapter of the book called Who is the enemy? Where is the enemy?, in which he describes how current Western, and notably American, Middle East policy was shaped and why it failed. Talking about the failure of the democratization of Iraq he writes:

Why then, is there talk of failure? Fundamentally because, for the neoconservatives and international institutions alike, democracy is a simple question of building institutions and electoral mechanisms. (…) What is lacking in this theory of democratization is the entire political dimension of a modern society (state), and the entire anthropological depth of a traditional society.

In short, the West looked at the problems in the Middle East from a purely Western perspective that largely ignored ‘the reality on the ground’.

Olivier Roy then goes on to describe ‘this reality on the ground’ in a second chapter called The Middle East: Fragmentation of Conflicts and New Fault Lines. It would be impossible to give a decent summary of all the different actors and complex dynamics Roy describes at length in this most fascinating part of the book. To give you an idea, consider this quote:

A major problem in the Middle East is that of political legitimacy. Local nationalisms generally develop around states, not regimes, but the political ideologies on the market are supra-nationalist while the political “grammar” (the game of individual alliances and loyalties) is inter-state (all that is contained in the term asabiyya or “solidarity group”: clannism, tribalism, sectarianism). (…) And yet nationalisms remain the key to conflicts, but are undermined by internal divisions (…) which can be linked to ideologies and transnational networks.

It is in this chapter that we discover the true political, social and ideological kaleidoscope that is the Middle East. If there is one thing that does unite the countries of the Middle East, it is not a desire to bring down Western civilization but rather an ongoing search for identity (based on nationalism or religion) in a globalised world. And this search is very much influenced by the role the West has played and continues to play in the internal affairs of this region.

The complexity continues in a third chapter that is dedicated to Iran and in which Roy sheds some light on the internal dynamics of that country, its ambitions as a regional power, its nuclear programme and the Ahmadinejad phenomenon. And in the fourth and last chapter of the book Olivier Roy discusses Al-Qaeda and explains why this organization, potentially lethal as it may be, has no real future and that its activism is increasingly detached from actual political developments. As Roy states, “Al-Qaeda’s recruitment map in no way reflects the flashpoints in the Middle East” and, one of many surprising facts in this chapter, “10 to 25% of activists are converts”.

With this short summary, which does no justice to the wealth of insights and information this new book by Olivier Roy provides, I can highly recommend The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East as an excellent introduction to the diverse political and social realities in the Middle East. If you are interested in the subject, you can use this book as a primer to get a better understanding of the Middle Eastern Zeitgeist, its contemporary history and sensibilities with regards to Western influence in the region.

For more information you can visit the book’s webpages of Columbia University Press and Hurst & Co.

And, as a bonus, go have a quick browse through the books on offer in Columbia University Press’ White Sale. Today (Monday June 2nd) is the last day of the sale.

I would also like to take this opportunity to recommend two other books that I received from Hurst & Co: Iran in World Politics, The Question of the Islamic Republic by Arshin Adib-Moghaddam and Hamas in Politics by Jeroen Gunning.