From Publishers Weekly
A history of foreign policy gone wrong, Makdisi™s study argues convincingly that Americans have rarely engaged with the Arab nations as autonomous peoples with cultures and histories of their own--they™ve preferred "glib generalizations"--and that such myopia is at the core of much of the Middle East™s animosity toward the U.S. In his history of the Middle East, Makdisi (Artillery of Heaven) privileges Arab voices and, for the most part demonstrates an impressive ability to render societies and individuals as multifaceted. He efficiently debunks the Huntingtonian belief in an inevitable clash of civilizations and resurrects a forgotten history of mutual curiosity and cultural cross-pollination between the East and West. It™s unfortunate, then, that he reduces Zionism and Zionists to a cog in the machinations of Western power politics, rather than presenting a more complex, messy, and accurate picture of competing narratives and their impact on American policy making. His pat simplification undermines his otherwise commendable effort to defuse the "mutual incomprehension" and "mutual demonization" between the U.S. and the Arab world.
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In Artillery of Heaven (2009), Makdisi challenged simplistic theories of a “clash of civilizations” by examining the largely unsuccessful efforts of American missionaries in the Middle East in the early nineteenth century, paying particular attention to the conversion, suffering, and death of As'ad Shidyaq, the first known Arab to be converted to Protestantism. His latest selection, carefully researched and strongly voiced, opens by revisiting Shidyaq and the missionaries of the 1820s, casting their experience as the first in a long series of increasingly sour U.S.-Arab cultural interactions. It did not have to be this way, Makdisi suggests; goodwill toward Americans, especially in Lebanon and Egypt, was initially substantial enough to overcome even the most dramatic misconceptions and unrealistic expectations. Western-oriented institutions like the American University of Beirut—alma mater of several of Makdisi's ancestors and one of this selection's informal focal points—thrived. And yet certain political acts and omissions, particularly the U.S. decision to align itself closely with Israel (a “betrayal,” in Makdisi's words), have led relations to their current nadir. Yet such animosity is rooted in policy, not cultural clash, and in this there may be cause for guarded optimism. --Brendan Driscoll