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July 15, 2008

Islam, beauty, torture and market reform

I've recently been posting mainly on Livejournal, rather than here. But, since I don't want to totally kill off this blog, I thought I'd cross-post a few things from there. So, a few book reviews:

Malise Ruthven, Islam in the world. A history of Islam both as a religion and as a political force. This was written 20 years ago by a journalist with a knack for picking out telling details, for tracing currents of thought through centuries, and for telegraphing detail into a paragraph without drying it out. It clarifies many of those names and terms that keep popping up, but tend to be explained only in terms of day-to-day politics.

He's particularly successful explaining the Islamic world through the eyes of Muslim thinkers. So, for instance, much of the military history is described in terms of 14th-century writer Ibn Khaldun, and his ideas of repeated conquest by close-knit tribal groups (Once in power, these groups become entangled in bureaucracy and urban life, zhence lose their sense of community and so fall victim to the next invaders). Ruthven falls flat only when he turns to modern Western intellectuals for ideas: Marx, Freud and Jung all look ridiculous here.

Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth. Feminist tract from 1990. Powerful as a polemic, fairly convincing as an account of how ideals of beauty are used against women, but almost silent as to why. The 'beauty myth' becomes a free-floating malignant entity, causing oppression but itself without a cause.

More economics might have helped Wolf here, especially in the chapter on employment. Are women discriminated against at work because they are female, or because those who are already weak are easiest to exploit? I half-suspect she left out this kind of analysis deliberately, as it would have put off chunks of her audience.

Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine. Market reforms are like torture, says Klein: they're most effective when the victims are too bewildered to resist. It's not so convincing as an argument, but serviceable as an excuse to string together analysis of political repression and market liberalisation.

Most persuasive is her account of Chicago School economists as an organised, influential force that took advange of - or created - economic and political catastrohes to advance a neoliberal agenda. Except - she somehow thinks right-wing economists are the only group with long-standing agendas, who wait for crises in which to advance them. What about Marxists with their vanguards, with their dialectic of spontaneity and organisation, their plans to lead the people when they rise? For that matter, in any revolution you'll find discontent being used to serve ulterior aims. The free-marketeers have won in recent decades because their ideas were in the ascendant, not because they were the first to take advantage of crises.