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Global Preoccupations: Four New Books on Religion and Modernity

In “Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards”, Afshon Ostovar provides a cautious and objective history of Iran’s Islamic Revelutionary Guard Cops, arguing that they cannot be reduced to a vanguard of impassioned religious warriors. Cihan Tugal explores a geographically proximate albeit different context in “The Fall of the Turkish Model: How the Arab Uprisings Brought Down Islamic Liberalism”, paying particular attention to how governments have tried to engage devout Muslim constituencies in the neoliberal project. Taking a less likely angle to the conversation, Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog explore a bizarre link between engineers and violent extremism, stemming from a yearning for order, social “purity.” In a more general approach to questions of religion, ideology and modernity, the book “Post-Western World: How Emerging Powers Are Remaking Global Order” by Oliver Stuenkel shows that concepts such as religious freedom, human rights, and sovereignty have never been exclusively Western inventions and that modernity is a global project with many sources of inspiration.


Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards

by Afshon Ostovar

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was born in the first weeks of the Iranian Revolution, in February 1979, and has arguably become the Islamic Republic’s most powerful institution. It spearheaded all of Iran’s engagements during the Iran-Iraq War. The IRGC’s Quds Force, commanded by the redoubtable Qasem Soleimani, has internationalized the Iranian Revolution by involving itself in conflicts in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. And the IRGC’s domestic feeder organization, the Basij militia, has been a bulwark of internal support for Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Ostovar provides a careful and dispassionate history of the organization and its domestic and foreign exploits. The IRGC cannot be reduced to a vanguard of impassioned religious warriors, although that aspect of it is important. It has economic interests to protect and is closely allied with Khamenei. Ostovar asks but does not answer the question of whether the next supreme leader will follow Khamenei’s example and ally himself closely with the IRGC or align himself more with the preferences of Iranian civil society. Whatever course he chooses, the IRGC will rely on its proven survival instincts. Donald Trump will be the seventh U.S. president it has confronted.

The Fall of the Turkish Model: How the Arab Uprisings Brought Down Islamic Liberalism

by Cihan Tugal

The “Turkish model” of governance promises the merger of Islam with democracy and free markets. It first took shape under Prime Minister Turgut Ozal in the 1980s and then crystallized under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has led Turkey since 2002. In this ambitious book, Tugal compares Turkey’s approach to those of Egypt, Iran, and Tunisia by examining how neoliberal economic strategies have played out in each place, paying particular attention to how governments have tried to engage devout Muslim constituencies in the neoliberal project. Tugal argues that the Arab uprisings of 2010–11 and the large antidevelopment protests that took place in Istanbul in 2013 demonstrated the failure of those efforts. But Tugal’s analysis is disjointed; cause and effect chase each other’s tails. He relies on jargon and leaves undefined key concepts, such as “political society,” “power bloc,” and “passive revolution”—a significant problem, since the book hinges not on new empirical evidence but rather on an analytic framework.

Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection Between Violent Extremism and Education

by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog

Beware engineers! In their examination of individuals involved in violent extremism of all kinds, Gambetta and Hertog find engineers to be massively overrepresented in right-wing movements, both secular and religious. Not all engineers are violent extremists, of course, but an astonishing proportion of right-wing (but not leftist) extremists are engineers. The authors hypothesize that engineering attracts individuals who yearn for order, social “purity,” and some mythical halcyon days of yore. The argument is not watertight, but it is data-driven and carefully constructed. Gambetta and Hertog take a close look at jihadist engineers, many of whom started promising mainstream careers in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, they were hailed as the future leaders of newly independent states in the Muslim world, but in the 1980s, they crashed against a wall of failing economies, cronyism, and corruption. Some of them went on to become the architects of utopian Islamist movements and demonstrated no qualms about using violence. Although engineers belong to both violent and nonviolent Islamist movements, they seem particularly drawn to the violent variety. 

Post-Western World: How Emerging Powers Are Remaking Global Order

by Oliver Stuenkel

Stuenkel argues that conventional understandings of international order and global change are distorted by deep-seated, Western-centric biases, revealed in narratives that cast Westerners as the sole agents of modernity and the only carriers of progressive ideas. Stuenkel pokes holes in those accounts, showing that concepts such as religious freedom, human rights, and sovereignty have never been exclusively Western inventions; they were hammered out over centuries with contributions from African, Asian, and Middle Eastern societies. He argues that scholars should challenge Western-centric interpretations because they make the United States and European countries more suspicious of rising non-Western states and reluctant to share power with them, which Stuenkel thinks is unwise. If modernity is seen not as a Western gift to the world but as a global project with many sources of inspiration, the struggle between the West and “the rest” will be seen for what it really is: not a contest between deep values and philosophies of order but rather an organic evolution of world politics in which power, authority, status, and privilege are redistributed to make the existing order more fair and functional.

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