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by John McHugo

Pub Date: Sept. 3rd, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-59558-946-0
Publisher: New Press

A sympathetic, methodical distillation of Arab history that tries to get at the roots of the current East-West dysfunction.

British Arabist, lawyer and researcher McHugo refutes Bernard Lewis’ claim of a “clash of civilizations,” bemoaning the notion as emerging from prejudice and misunderstanding of the original meanings of the terms jihad and crusade. As Islam gained followers, creating a large empire, the intermingling of Muslim, Latin and Greek cultures was rich and diverse, not antithetical, he writes; in centers of learning like Baghdad and Cordoba, Arabic scholars worked alongside Christians and Jews to translate and interpret Aristotle and others. McHugo traces several factors that spelled the end of this golden age and led to dire future consequences: Northern Spain and Sicily were reconquered by Christian kingdoms; Turkish tribes gathered strength and numbers as they moved down from the steppes of Central Asia, followed by the Mongol hordes; sites held holy by both Latin Christendom and Islam were looted and destroyed. These traumatic events provoked defensiveness and a turning inward in the Muslims of Greater Syria, where mutually respectful convivencia was supplanted by a restrictive interpretation of Sharia, “the rigid and literalist streak in Islam with which we are so [currently] familiar.” Hence, the West took off, with Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1789 as the beginning of a souring procession of deceptions of and humiliations for the Arabic people. McHugo moves briskly, delving into the political evolution of a remarkable number of Arab states, the growth of nationalism, debates between secularists and Islamists, the ideas of important reformers, the embittering results of the Six-Day War and, especially, the coming of the “age of autocrats,” which hardened Western hearts against the Arabs and goaded the rise of Islamism. He closes, however, with expressions of enormous hope for tolerance and reconciliation. The author includes maps and a glossary of Arabic terms.

Purposeful, insightful and tremendously useful, complete with an excellent bibliographic essay.