In This Review

No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam
No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam
By Geneive Abdo
Oxford University Press, 2000, 240 pp
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Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran
Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran
By Elaine Sciolino
Free Press, 2000, 384 pp
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Turkey Today: A Nation Divided Over Islam's Revival
Turkey Today: A Nation Divided Over Islam's Revival
By Marvine Howe
Westview, 2000, 310 pp
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Egypt, Iran, and Turkey are the Big Three of the Middle East. Each has a population of over 60 million, and each can look back on centuries, if not millennia, of political and cultural distinctiveness. These three perceptive and up-to-date accounts offer comparative insights into a dominant issue confronting the region: relations between religion and the state. Abdo sticks most closely to this subject, whereas Sciolino and Howe range more widely. Each knows her country. Sciolino and Howe have been reporting on Iran and Turkey, respectively, since 1979; Abdo has followed events in Egypt throughout the 1990s.

Iran and Turkey emerge as mirror opposites. Iran's clerical regime faces efforts to liberalize and secularize society, while Turkey's secular regime seeks to hold the line against the expression of religion in public life. As a result, the chador in Iran and the headscarf in Turkey become battle ensigns in this ongoing struggle. Meanwhile, the Egyptian government hunts with the hounds and runs with the hares. It has accepted the shari`a as the source of legislation and has permitted outrageous legal decisions such as mandating that a scholar (Nasr Abu Zaid) charged with apostasy must be separated from his wife. At the same time, it uses heavy-handed state power against Islamists. The implicit message in all three books is that compromises between the governors and the governed could be achieved. Governments might become less uptight about beards, chadors, and scarfs and Islamists less inclined to politicize piety. Inflexible ideologies and entrenched interests, however, are not to be ignored.

Given that the Kulturkampf in these three countries often revolves around the hotly contested role of women, the fact that much of the best coverage has come from intrepid female American reporters adds an extra dimension. To this impressive roster of Abdo, Howe, and Sciolino could be added Judith Miller, Mary Ann Weaver, and Robin Wright.