Neil MacFarquhar's new book does what every reporter aspires to: it sneakily delivers social science (history, anthropology, political theory) to the reader in the guise of a hack's memoir. The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday is the author's account of four years as a Middle East reporter for The New York Times, and it is filled with first-rate analysis leavened by plenty of color. Strangely, though, MacFarquhar's implied conclusion—he is cautiously optimistic about reform—is largely at odds with the evidence he submits. He sallies forth into Arab capitals and listens attentively to the ambitious, clever and desperate intellectuals trying to liberalize their countries. But ominous obstacles—stagnation-prone governments, paranoid autocrats—lurk in the background.
MacFarquhar, who grew up in a Libyan oil enclave populated by Westerners, threads reform ideas into his country descriptions. A Syrian, Mohamed Shahrour, for example, believes the prophet is infallible as a religious messenger but not as a state builder. So while the Muslim religion is sensible and just, political Islam is full of intrigue and civil war. The answer is to separate the political and the theological—not to negate the Qur'an "but to negate it as law," says Shahrour. MacFarquhar reports, ruefully, that this notion is scoffed at as blasphemy by Muslims everywhere.
The activists MacFarquhar meets want the West to learn how to speak to Islam on its own terms—to laud justice rather than "democracy," which has little respect in the Muslim world because "it elevates man's laws over those of God." What frustrates MacFarquhar's sources more than the lack of suffrage is the absence of civil rights: "the stifling control of the secret police; the absence of any rule of law even if the constitution guarantees it; … the inherent difficulty in working alone because organizing is mostly banned," he writes.
Yet MacFarquhar is too slow to judge. Which ideas are impractical, which can gain a following, and how long will they take to render change? The author is circumspect. A Bahraini prince says that states producing less than one barrel of oil per citizen will have to relax their despotism, while others can bribe their citizens into submission. (Qatar produces up to nine barrels per person, Kuwait five and Bahrain one third.) MacFarquhar relates the theory without comment.
As the pages pass, despair sinks in. MacFarquhar says the religious revival of recent decades, combined with animosity toward the West, quashed his hope that globalization and satellite TV would open up Middle Eastern societies. Instead, the Internet has empowered the reactionaries by giving all of them megaphones. That's because of what MacFarquhar calls "fatwa chaos." Since Islam has no central body for interpreting scripture and making doctrine, any cleric can issue a ruling on religious law. And since politics in many Arab countries is verboten, partisans solicit the policy prescriptions they want under religious cover. MacFarquhar writes that governments keep clerics on the payroll to manufacture fatwas that answer attacks from the fundamentalists.
The result is the pathologies we know about: political apathy is rampant because participation can't bring change (only one fourth of Egyptians vote); sex segregation in Saudi Arabia is almost perfect. In some ways, this is incoherence—why does MacFarquhar show us so many liberals if they have so little influence? (He naively suggests that activists can erode "the taboo that the religion and those schooled in it are somehow infallible" merely by talking about Islam.) If his opinions had been more forthright, we'd know more about the likelihood of reform; instead, we walk away only with a sense of what the place is like. But even that is something we badly need.