Last Chance

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David Gardner

"Any shot fired in the Middle East echoes around the world. Any conflict registers within minutes on the oil market."

Western democratic capitalism's last chance is really what the author means in this excellent book by a senior Financial Times expert. He's panicking that the West will screw it up - as they always seem to do. This book is peppered with insights that - up to a point - readers of this magazine will enthusiastically endorse.

Written before the Arab Spring, the preface to this new paperback edition unconditionally celebrates it, blaming a duplicitous West for its long delay: "The Mubarak regime was at the centre of a network of regional strongmen the West has backed and bankrolled to secure stability in a neuralgic region, guaranteed oil supplies and the security of Israel. The West had struck a Faustian bargain with Arab rulers, who blackmailed them into believing that, but for them, the mullahs would be in charge."

Chapter by chapter, country by country, this manipulative interplay between the West and these regional strongmen is dissected with a precision driven from detailed information gleaned by an extraordinary array of contacts at every level of the thuggish regimes of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and so on.

Particularly fascinating is the author's "wobble" on Israel. Committed to a two-state solution, which, incidentally, he defends with powerful arguments taken from the jailed and too easily forgotten Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti, yet in just two sentences he overturns his own position: "Israel's right to exist is inalienable, but it has no right whatsoever to colonise occupied land. By mixing these things up so cynically it is compromising its right to exist."

But it is the author's defence of Islam that simultaneously impresses but also circumscribes the limits of his political vision.

"Much European narrative...leaves out the extent to which Europe's revival was built on the universal cultural heritage preserved by Islam."

He provides a timely reminder that "anti-Semitism is a Christian phenomenon: the Jews prospered in Muslim lands, often as refugees from the Christians, under defined and defended 'protocols of tolerance'."

His call for "an element of humility, rather than unctuous Western cant about Islam" is also a call to recognise Islam and its modern political representatives as potential partners for a lasting peace in the Middle East.

Political Islam filled "the vacuum left by the failure of creeds such as pan-Arab nationalism and 'Arab Socialism' which was nothing more than "state capitalism with socialist verbiage and some land reform."

So for Gardner, it is not just the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt but also Hezbollah and Hamas that are potential Western allies.

And the trailblazer here is identified as Recep Erdogan's democratically elected Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), now in government in Turkey.

It's not just that this conclusion is such an anti-climax after the author's stupendous analytical build-up. One wonders how convinced he really is of it. The discussion about Turkey merits just 15 pages, not even its own chapter.

This is extremely frustrating because he can only point very superficially to ways the theologians at Ankara University, backed by the Diyanet (the state authority for religious affairs), are delving deep into the Koran and later derived teachings in search of inspiration for an Islam for the 21st century, with an insistence on gender equality. Again we needed more than just a passing remark from the author that premier Erdogan "believes religion is a personal issue".

But above all else we needed the author to hone his analytical skills to attend much more to one of the most important give-away remarks in the book. This is when he lays into the AKP's "secular" opponents, "urban elites", "with an unmistakable whiff of class animus", resenting "the shift in the balance of power to 'black Turks' who only talk about family and football".

Here we come full circle back to the Arab Spring where the revolutionary street demonstrations, and in the case of Egypt, workers strikes have appeared to put political power in the hands of democratising Islamic parties based mainly on working class votes.

Yes, the author correctly warns the West that its last chance to influence the Middle East is to treat the new Islamic parties with dignity and respect. But his assumption that the West and the Islamic parties can then together address the global economic crisis, itself one of the triggers of the Arab Spring and class polarisation everywhere, is the book's ultimate weakness.

Last Chance: The Middle East in the Balance is published by IB Tauris, £10.99