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My Middle East politics summer reading picks

- July 3, 2017
The sun rises in Cairo on July 4, 2016. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

Everyone is heading to the beach, and that can only mean one thing: time for my annual summer beach book list! I’m well aware that my reading diet of books about the Middle East, political science, Islamist movements and failed states might not be everyone’s idea of good beach reading. But if it is, then here are some books I’ve enjoyed reading over the past year — or look forward to reading once I’ve found a good spot in the sun.

We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria by Wendy Pearlman. This profoundly important book draws on hundreds of interviews to create an oral history of the Syrian uprising and the unfolding catastrophe that has followed. Pearlman, an accomplished political scientist, has chosen to let her Syrian interlocutors speak for themselves. What emerges is a complex, engaging and difficult oral history, which deserves a wide readership. Listen to Pearlman talk about her interviews with Syrian refugees on the POMEPS Middle East Political Science Podcast here.

The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History,” by Cemil Aydin. The idea of a unified “Muslim World” is rooted in colonialism and global power politics, argues the historian Cemil Aydin in this provocative new book. Aydin ranges over the centuries to show the relative novelty of the idea of a Muslim world and the relentless efforts to exploit that idea for political ends by Muslim and Western powers alike. Listen to Aydin talk about his book on the POMEPS Middle East Political Science Podcast here.

Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West,” by Gilles Kepel and Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of the Islamic State,” by Olivier Roy. You may have read one of the many entertaining accounts of the intellectual battles in French academic circles between these two leading scholars of political Islam. Now you can read the books themselves. Each makes a distinctive contribution to our understanding of radical jihadist movements and ideas, and — though neither author might like to hear it — they complement each other nicely. I recommend reading both.

Islam: An American Religion,” by Nadia Marzouki. As the Trump administration’s travel ban heads to the Supreme Court, this timely book offers a clear-eyed account of the evolution of Islam as a political and cultural issue in the United States. Marzouki, a leading French Tunisian scholar, expertly unpacks the similarities and differences between debates in America and Europe over Islam, while carefully tracking the political mobilization that has pushed anti-Islamic discourse to the fore. Listen to Marzouki talk about her book on the POMEPS Middle East Political Science Podcast here.

Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest,” by Zeynep Tufekci. An enormous amount has been written over the past few years about how social media might contribute to political protest movements. Tufekci, a Turkish sociologist, has authored what may be the best book on the topic yet. Mixing personal anecdotes with rigorous social theory, she offers a compelling and nuanced picture of how social media can change the incentives and opportunities for political mobilization and how those very strengths often contribute to the ultimately failure of the movements.

The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East,” by me. I honestly wasn’t going to include my own book this year, despite my publisher’s expectations. But after years of proxy competition between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE suddenly escalated into an intense crisis, I humbly believe that this account of the regional proxy wars following the Arab uprisings has only become more relevant. Plus, there’s a new paperback edition.

The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas,” by Daniel Drezner. Finally, even though it’s not about the Middle East, I have to include this highly entertaining account of the transformation of the American public sphere and the rise of a new breed of public intellectual. Drezner, a former colleague of mine at Foreign Policy and currently at The Washington Post, writes brilliantly about these changes as both a scholar and a participant observer. He offers keen insights into how rapidly changing media and social media environment have opened up new forms of public engagement … for better or for worse.