by Mark Allen Peterson

A recent book review in the journal Contemporary Islam entitled “Introducing Islam or reviling Muslims” has me reflecting uneasily on some of my own recent writing. Bruce Lawrence reviews twelve books that each purport to offer a brief, comprehensive and accessible introduction to Islam. Most of the texts are found to be lacking—and why not? I could not fit what I learned in five years of living with and teaching upper class Muslims in Egypt into a single text, much less try to construct a comprehensive survey of the beliefs and practices that is, collectively, Islam. I wince at the loss of subtleties in my classes as I try to cover the arkaan, the Hajj, ‘eid al-adha and the sebou.

Yet I recently had the unmitigated gall to write a short chapter covering not merely Islam but “The Middle East and the Islamic World” for a new textbook in international studies. With chapters by two anthropologists, a geographer, a political scientist and a historian, International Studies: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Global Issues (2008 Westview) is intended to offer a multidisciplinary alternative to the political science texts that dominate the field of international studies.

Why did I engage in what I knew would be an act of frustration and futility? Because somebody was going to, and I knew I’d rather teach my own chapter than somebody else’s. As a text written by the most senior ITS faculty this book became a required text for the six hundred or so students who take the introductory course in international studies at Miami University of Ohio every year. Because the introduction to international studies is a core liberal arts class taken by students across the university, for many of these students these pages may be the only representation of the Middle East they encounter outside mainstream media. Moreover, this was a collegial effort; if my colleagues felt they could summarize Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia each in about 25 pages each, how could I refuse?

From the start, I felt constrained. I must build my chapter around the five disciplines that comprise our program: anthropology, geography, economics, history, and political science. My colleagues insist on a section concerning Palestine, and of course they want me to write about terrorism.

I began by deconstructing the concept of the Middle East—describing the origins of the term and the ways it is rooted in European and North American geopolitical interests. History must be terribly truncated—the rise of civilizations along the Nile and the Tigris and Euphrates gets a paragraph, as does the history of Christianity. Muhammed and the rise of Islam receive three paragraphs, the high caliphal period one, one for the crusades and the Mongol invasions, four for the Ottoman empire, two for colonialism and its collapse.

“The Problem of Palestine” gets a solid four pages, taking us all the way from the emergence of Zionism in the 19th century to the election of Hamas. The last paragraph begins “Peace has proven elusive”—no one can fault me for failing to state the obvious. The next section seeks to establish the ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity of the region—followed by seven paragraphs summarizing Muhammad’s revelation, the five pillars, shi’a/sunni similarities and divisions, and some of the different ways to interpret shari’a.

Colonialism, tribes, nations and states get a section, as does a short summary of the economic problems facing states—and people–in the Middle East. I knew I didn’t want to have “terrorism” enshrined in the book as a “Middle East” issue, so I compromised with a section on “Political Islam” that lets me describe some of the complexities of Islamic discussions about politics—no “good Muslims versus bad Muslims” here, thank you very much.

I sent the chapter out to a number of people, from fellow academics to former grad students in Egypt to Middle East minors here at Miami. I tried to address every complaint they had (one undergraduate told me, “You have to put Sayyed al-Qutb in there somewhere—I can’t believe I took five classes on the modern Middle East before anybody mentioned him.” So this salafi icon makes a cursory appearance).

I can’t read this chapter without wincing at the summary way in which I gloss over extremely complex issues, or the selectivity of what went in and what was left out. I’m certainly guilty of the charge brought by Dan Varisco in Islam Obscured of writing about people in the Middle East without actually writing about any people.

And the editor is unhappy because it’s the longest regional chapter in the book, almost five pages over the length we’d agreed on. The students echo this: It’s interesting, they tell me, but does it have to be so long? So long? Am I dreaming?

Representation is always incomplete, always unsatisfying. To gloss the beliefs and practices, states and institutions of millions of peoples in 15,000 words is simply absurd. And yet, someone is going to write short, pithy summaries on “the Middle East” for undergraduate textbooks and readers. If not me, who?
In the end, I can only fall back on the maxim of my days as a journalist: If a story doesn’t make anyone happy, it must be okay.

Mark Allen Peterson is associate professor of anthropology and international studies at Miami University of Ohio.