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Shattering the Myth: Islam beyond Violence
Jan 1, 2002

Bruce B. Lawrence

According to the author, Islams response to modernity has passed through three stages: revivalism, reform (including nationalism), and fundamentalism. Each has emerged from the former ones failure: the inability to achieve true independence, self-sustaining economic and scientific infrastructures, and a realistic alternative to a now-globalized system that marginalizes and ignores the Muslim world.

Lawrence builds his book around several arguments. First, Islam and being Muslim are not synonymous with being Middle Eastern Arabs, who are a minority within the fold of Islam. Second, the Islamic world is not a unified bloc, as shown by failures at attempts to unify individual countries or even to agree on what constitutes real Islam. Thus there is no basis for the Wests fear of a so-called clash of civilizations. Lawrence maintains that the likelihood of this happening is as remote as Canada, the United States, and Mexico uniting because they profess Christianity.

Third, fundamentalism has surged since the 1970s because of the failure of Arab nationalism, the use of oil money to create dependent rentier states, and the success of the Iranian revolution (1979). Other reasons include an omnipresent nation-state structure that blocks all outlets of legitimate protest, as well as the practices of every party trying to justify itself in terms of Islam because that is the most effective rallying cry.

Fourth, fundamentalists are mainly educated urban or newly urbanized young men who have little hope of finding a job after graduation, instead of the stereotypical types often presented in the media. Frustrated and angry, yes; but far from being uneducated, illiterate, and easily swayed by demagogues. What attracts them to fundamentalism is its black-and-white nature and its promises of a better and more just future. Unfortunately, fundamentalism preaches idealism and utopia, is destructive instead of constructive, and offers no viable alternative (Iran being the sole exception).

Throughout this book, Lawrence maintains that Iran is worth watching, for it is the social laboratory in which Islam is grappling with modernity on a daily basis. Another Muslim country worth watching is Malaysia, which has moved jihad from the battlefield to the economic and development plane by striving to become a fully modern industrialized nation by 2020. It appears to be the first Muslim country actively trying to disprove the assertion that Islam precludes such a transformation.

The author also discusses the role of women, a favorite media topic. Basing himself on several geographically distinct Muslim countries, he concludes that attempts to restrict women to the home, while often justified in Islamic terms by a patriarchal sociopolitical order, reflect the fact that there are not enough jobs to go around even for men. As long as the army remains one of the few ways of social and economic advancement, economies do not develop and expand, modern technical education remains beyond reach for most young people, and skilled foreign workers are hired because there are not enough trained local workers, this problem will persist.

Lawrence has done the reading public a great service by reaching beyond stereotypes and lazy scholarship to give us a much more realistic view of the Muslim world and its inhabitants.