An impressive, if sometimes unwieldy, examination of Egypt’s unique religio-political climate, concentrating upon its ongoing (and, so far, nonviolent) Islamist revolution.
Foreign correspondent Abdo (The Guardian, The Economist) has set an enormous task for herself, employing a combination of journalistic and anthropological techniques to introduce lay readers to such diverse and complex subjects as the religious and political history of Egypt, the relationship between moderate and militant Islamists, the role of the state in the Islamist revival, the nature of freedom under Islamic law, questions of veiling and female circumcision, and the compatibility of Islamic and secular law. Any one of these subjects would yield ample material for a volume twice as long, and, as a result, the author’s comprehensive and admirably impartial text is sometimes reduced to a series of necessarily superficial treatments of very thorny topics. Drawing primarily on dozens of personal accounts from influential sheiks, impassioned students, and persecuted academics, Abdo offers access to a world that few, if any, Westerners ever see. However, it is the very scope and number of these personal interviews that has encumbered her main purpose—that is, to demonstrate the manner in which the Egyptian Islamic revival is a grassroots phenomenon. Chronological clarity and dedicated character development often fall by the wayside, leaving a trail of confusion in their wake. Perhaps most problematic is the author’s failure to provide either a sense of scale (representative examples are not sufficient to determine the percentage of the population that actually supports the idea of an Islamist society) or to seriously address the possibility of coercion within Islamist organizations and in society as a whole.
An ambitious and insightful work that speaks with a much-needed voice of reasoned impartiality—in a debate whose commentators often understand only the language of bigotry and ignorance.