Mullahs, Merchants, and Militants

Stephen Glain interweaves summaries of Arab history and economics with firsthand accounts of his travels through and contacts in the Arab world. In his introduction, Glain sketches the impressive Arab accomplishments during the early centuries of the Islamic period, and then the chaotic modern problems which he lays mostly at the feet of the European powers who re-made the map of the Middle East in the aftermath of World War I. He then devotes chapters to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, and Egypt. In each chapter he looks unflinchingly at the witches’ brew of Islamic fundamentalism, political corruption, and dysfunctional economies that hamper many Arabs’ attempts to improve their lives. But he also finds fault with the legacy of the European powers in the region, along with the ongoing behavior of the United States and Israel.

This latter point gives the book something of a schizophrenic flavor. Glain has too sharp an eye to avoid clearly delineating a damning catalog of Arab dysfunction: the cunning brutality of the Assads in Syria, the crippling nepotism of Lebanese financial institutions, the duplicity of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, and the ubiquitous, fiercely irrational anti-Semitism throughout the region. But Glain also seems to have a political axe to grind against Israel and the United States, and that bias leads him to assign much Arab misery to external causes—a hard sell after his persuasive documentation of consistently self-destructive Arab behavior. The chapters on Iraq and Palestine are especially shaped by this bias. (He compares Israel’s behavior to Stalin’s, and at one point he sympathizes with Palestinian protests against Israel’s stopping Arab ambulances, while alluding only briefly and in passing to terrorists’ use of ambulances to transport bombs and gunmen.)

In Mullahs, Merchants, and Militants: The Economic Collapse of the Arab World Glain’s greatest strength is his insight into Arab political and economic suffering under modern Arab regimes. His greatest weakness is the political bias that undermines his analysis. Bernard Lewis and other historians have documented a long-term Muslim and Arab decline that had gone on for almost a millennium before Balfour. Glain’s economic focus is enlightening and persuasive, his political conclusions less so.