The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday by Neil MacFarquhar

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The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday by Neil MacFarquhar

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: Well-researched and informative overview of the likelihood of change in the Middle East. Anecdotal and case study format by an American reporter. An influential contribution to our understanding of Islam in the Middle East today, suitable for students and general interest readers.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 388 Date: April 2010
Publisher: PublicAffairs
ISBN: 978-1586488116

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What are the chances of change in the Middle East? is the question central to this book. Since Neil MacFarquhar spent thirteen years wandering the length and breadth of the Islamic stronghold of the Middle East, I feel inclined to believe his in-depth assessment. In descriptive and reasoned terms, he identifies conservative forces which predominate in the region, primarily the religious and political machinery which condemns liberalization and modernization. This discussion of attempts to promote change, for example by individual dissidents or the media, is strengthened in the second half of the book by detailed case studies of six nations with particular reference to their readiness and motivation for change.

Realistic to the point of pessimism, this book will hopefully promote better understanding of the region. It was useful to have such simple explanations as the differences between Sunni and Shiite factions (which hark back to 8th century conflicts) and the broader definitions of terms like fatwa and jihad. I didn't know before that the prophet Muhammed was spiritual, political and military leader, which explains why state and religion are so often combined in the region: an alien notion to us here in Britain. At the very least, we can try to understand.

The first chapters are anecdotal and deal with Neil MacFarquhar's early life in Libya as part of an expatriate American family living in an oil refinery compound. He returns to Tripoli in 2001 as Bureau Chief for Associated Press in Cairo. Describing the shenanigans surrounding a lengthy press conference with the 'wacky' Qadhafi, in a Libya where ordinary people's stories are 'hidden from the West', minions scramble to accede to every whim of the ruler. The impression is of chaos, a scene similar to some extent in other Arab countries described in this book. The media relations department of Hizbollah is astonishingly and uniquely efficient, thus provoking that intriguing headline title.

Until recently, sheikhs ruled over impoverished tribes. It is only in the last fifty or sixty years that oil has brought spectacular wealth to the Middle East, and given autocratic families the ability to buy power by buying off opposition. According to MacFarquhar, ruling families number thousands of males, so that every important religious, military and political role in the state can be held by kinsfolk of the ruler. Jockeying for inheritance ensures loyalty and a fierce crackdown on any dissidents. A ruthless secret political cum religious police, the mukhabarat, enforces the regime. In the author's view, the ruling family in most states pays only lip service to change and the creep towards democracy is very slow. Elections may be held, even so, it's debatable if democracy is an Arab aspiration. Most dissidents are campaigning first and foremost for basic human rights.

The invasion of Iraq provides evidence to the average Arab that the USA is pursuing a Western democratic agenda of little value to Middle Eastern states. American aid has not been as altruistic as might be expected, since it is nearly always tied to US economic interests. Usefully, the author points out to his American audience that at best, the Islamic population distrusts the decadence of the USA and at worst, hates an infidel enemy. He suggests that the US will need to be considerably more discreet in its future support of local political groups as it attempts to re-establish its credibility in the region.

Religion – Islam – dictates every aspect of life in the Middle East for the majority of inhabitants. Only very rich, ruling classes are able to flout Islamic law without fierce sanctions resulting for transgressions. The minutae of life are dealt with in numerous fatwas, which are interpretations of the Koran by sheiks. Some pronouncements come from highly dubious sources, some are contradictory, none are ever rescinded. This provides an emotional stranglehold over the Islamic faithful and, for the disenchanted, an apologia for extremism. The author comments that the man in the street is focused more on the after-life and life as it was lived in the eighth century than the here and now.

It doesn't seem possible that in most Middle Eastern states, women can still be beaten by their husband, or evicted from their home if their husband decides to take another wife, let alone the covering of the female body which has recently attracted so much public attention in the west.

Universal education can often be an agent of change, although the goal of education in Saudi Arabia is to promote Islamic civilization. In his case study, the author quotes an informant's calculation that 30% of a child's timetable at school is spent in religious education and, when its overspill into all other areas is accounted for, makes up as much as 70% of teaching time. With rote learning as the principle teaching method, there is a huge onus on conformity and adherence to traditional answers. In consequence he claims, the Middle East produces virtually no investigative scientists and Saudi Arabian higher education graduates lack the necessary skills for the workplace.

The media might provide dispassionate sources of information, but the indigenous press lacks freedom and international correspondents' work is highly circumscribed. Media is subject to censorship; it's not unusual for non-conforming editiorial staff to be imprisoned. Television companies are usually owned by a scion of the ruling family. Most stations are overtly or implicitly religious in content. Nevertheless, there is a huge popular thirst for information, as shown by the success of on-line political sites. Al-Jazeera, based in Qatar, is unique in terms of the range and impartiality of its reporting, having been started by ex-BBC Arabic staff with a commitment to giving all sides a voice.

I was left feeling that Neil MacFarquhar was an unusual member of the American press himself. He clearly made huge efforts to amass a balance of material using a wide range of informants. Fluent in Arabic, he frequently interviewed dissenting voices and was under continuous scrutiny from the mukhabarat in each country he visited. Temporary interceptions and arrests were regular occurrences which he managed with humour and aplomb. Fortunately he established good relationships with secret service personnel who arranged for speedy release when dungeon and shackles threatened. It seemed that he was well-respected despite being American. I admired his even-handed approach.

The Bookbag would like to thank the publishers for sending this very interesting book.

Suggestions for further reading:

Palestinian Walks: Notes from a Vanishing Landscape by Raja Shehadeh, Kidnapped And Other Dispatches by Alan Johnston and Unveiled: A Woman's Journey Through Politics, Love, and Obedience by Deborah Kanafani all look at Middle Eastern politics from interestingly individual vantage points. We enjoyed them all.

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