In This Review

Muslim Politics
Muslim Politics
By Dale F. Eickelman and James P. Piscatori
Princeton University Press, 1996, 235 pp

This pairing of an anthropologist and a political scientist has produced a novel perspective reflecting the special concerns of the former for symbols and language as opposed to power and force. The bottom-up view of political reality -- what political symbols mean to ordinary folks, the prevalence of Islamic symbolism in the bargaining that goes on in everyday life -- is a useful corrective to the more common focus on self-proclaimed Muslim leaders. But it also has the effect of complexifying everything to the point where no judgments or conclusions are possible. This approach suggests that Muslim political life is no more violent or authoritarian than that of any other society. Well, maybe, but I wouldn't want to try to make that case to anyone who had tried to stand up to Khomeini, or to a southern Sudanese, or an Iraqi Kurd, just to take a few examples of victims of the peculiarly harsh form of bargaining that often goes on in the Middle East. True, Islam per se is not to blame. And it is certainly valuable to be reminded that most Muslims are peaceful, law-abiding people most of the time. But one still has to acknowledge the political realities that dominate the lives of many Muslims -- a reality of repression, fear, and actual or potential violence.