With the catastrophic attacks on the Pentagon and New York City’s Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, Americans suddenly realized that Islamic extremism was a force with enormous potential effect upon world affairs. Among the effects of this recognition was a renewed interest in the Middle East and Islam. Few Westerners, either within the educated public or the government, knew much about the Islamic faith or the countries to whose life it is central. One Westerner who does is Yaroslav Trofimov. Fluent in Arabic, he had for ten years prior to the attacks traveled the Middle East, reporting for Bloomberg News and The Wall Street Journal. After 2001, he decided to revisit various Muslim countries, to see how the terrorist attacks and their aftermath of Western responses have changed conditions in the Middle East. The resulting project is titled Faith at War. A personal, unofficial account of what Trofimov found, in form it resembles a perceptive, highly literate travelogue. Often, however, it reads like a travelogue through a nightmare landscape.
Islam has over one billion adherents worldwide. Fittingly, the book opens with a view of Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. The richest and most influential Muslim country, the Saudis fund schools, mosques, and “reformist” religious movements across the globe. Because of the country’s importance to the Muslim world, Trofimov underwent considerable difficulty to obtain a visa. The Saudis, notoriously reluctant to grant entrance to tourists, are even more reluctant to grant entrance to foreign writers. Once in Saudi Arabia, despite the country’s superficial signs of modernity, Trofimov found an utterly alien place. The two chapters on the country are packed with information little known beyond its borders.
The stark Wahhabi sect, which Arabia is trying to export, originated there in the late eighteenth century. Like adherents of many religious movements, the Wahhabis sought to “purify” the faith and restore it to itsreal or imaginedstate at the time of the Prophet Mohammed. Few Westerners have realized that, while the Saudi regime controls the oil, all the wells are concentrated in the Eastern Province, a majority-Shiite area whose inhabitants receive little benefit from “their” oil. Saudi authorities keep a close enough watch on the territory to hamper any organized independence movement. Some elders among the Eastern Province’s Shiites met with Trofimov and told him of their oppression and the way their lands had been taken from them. They realize that a different arrangement could only come with outside intervention. Because of the West’s dependence upon Saudi oil, successive American governments have turned a blind eye to oppressive Saudi practices.
In contrast to Saudi Arabia, Tunisia takes pride in its achievement of secularism. Habib Bourguiba, president when the country won independence in 1956, tirelessly pursued modernization. His aggressive secularism has become government policy. Trofimov met with various government ministers, each of whom proudly described the Tunisian brand of Islam, which is almost 180 degrees different from that of the Saudis. Their way of life is maintained against the influence of extreme Islamists by extreme measures. Force and imprisonment have been used here since the early 1990’s. Since the “war on terror” escalated, Western governments have stopped pressuring Tunisia about human rights, allowing such repression to be extended to secular dissidents as well. Tunisia, with its dictatorship and torture, was very disappointing to Trofimov, despite the regime’s successes. In its defense, maintaining an egalitarian legal code and a thriving tourism-based economy in a Muslim country is no small achievement.
Trofimov next begins his series of chapters on Iraq. He...
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