Understanding Arabs: A Guide for Westerners.


SOME PHENOMENON is at work behind the plethora of books on the Arab mind and society. Has any other group of people been so highly analysed, defended and explained, and at the same time so misunderstood? When described in stark terms, the Arabs are rendered as museum pieces, or the sensitive child who needs to be flattered and led by fantasy, whose repressive familial and social institutions offer a discipline throughout his life, while encouraging his dependence.

The books under review make reference to this image, but in a rich context that presents a way of thinking and doing at times entirely in contradiction to Western ways. Whether these inherent differences lead to conflict or to appreciation of alternate approaches to shared problems remains to be seen. Probably both. Each book offers something unique and noteworthy and for that reason makes for worthwhile reading.

Fuad Khuri, an accomplished Lebanese social anthropologist who has taught for many years in the United States, wrote Imams and Emirs as a comprehensive and orderly examination of the role of minorities and sects in the Middle East. A sect is distinguished from a religious minority by its isolation and regional specificity. Among the enclaves he considers are the Alawis, Druzes, Ibadis, Yazidis and Maronites.

The title stems from the perhaps irreconcilable conflict between the religious authorities, the ulama, and the emirs, whose power stems from coalition-building, persuasion and coercion. The author sees sectarianism as a force to be reckoned with in all Middle East countries - not just in Lebanon where sectarian divisions have most obviously comprised the formal political order. In focussing on the formation of religious ideology - those factors that bind together a religious community - and on religious organisation, or the training and functioning of the religious elite, Khuri sets up a system that works well in the analysis of community and sect. The interplay between imam and emir varies from state to state, according to the ideology and organisational differences. But the constant factor seems to be their definition to some degree as rebellious, chiefly in terms of a challenge to state authority.

Tents and Pyramids looks at less formal institutions in Arab society to draw some telling images of power structures and social norms. The title derives from two paradigms of organisation, that of identical tents scattered across a campground, where no hierarchy is...

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