Author: Shelly Culbertson

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

ISBN: 978-1-250-06704-3

Islam is a mystery to many. Americans walk about with the muddled impression that it’s a religion; or no, it’s a political system; or no, it’s a nation somewhere out in the middle of a dessert. The depth of our ignorance has been plumbed by one candidate for president who won wide approval for promising to keep Muslims out of the country. Ours is a democratic republic. We owe it to ourselves to become better informed. An excellent place to start is The Fires of Spring by Shelly Culbertson released in April, 2016 by St. Martin’s Press.

Ms. Culbertson, a policy analyst for the Rand Corporation, has focused her career on studying and writing about the Middle East. She has advised the U. S. Statement Department and other governments. The Fires of Spring is at once a travelogue and a commentary of her findings in the post-Arab Spring, a period of protest and violence that resulted in the deaths of thousands, toppled governments, vicious civil wars and one of the largest mass immigrations in modern times. Culbertson’s writing style is unpretentious and straightforward – a joy to read. Her reporting is objective, all the more laudable given the complexity of the issues and the political cross-currents of the region.

Her presentation builds one country at a time, beginning with Tunisia and moving through Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Qatar and Egypt in that order. Each country, all with Muslim majority, emerge with challenges in common and with problems that are unique to each. Tunisia, for example, is proud that it moved through the turbulence of the Arab Spring without bloodshed. Iraq, by contrast, was torn by wholesale slaughter of its people under Saddam Hussein.

Culbertson’s narrative builds on the interviews with leaders and intellectuals of the countries she visits. The extensively quoted texts create immediate credibility. Commentators reflect on their own experience as witnesses to the upheaval. Their accounts are often moving and poignant. To her credit, Culbertson, does not attempt in-depth explanations of the political and religious differences that drive protest and resistance alike. She seeks, instead, the common ground in what many still see as an East-meets-West confrontation.

History is key to understanding. For generations, the peoples of the region lived peaceably and tolerant of their diversity as Arabs of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman rule was autocratic. It set the model of the dictatorships that came to power after World War I. This critical event – the collapse of the Ottoman Empire – brought with it a profound loss that followed Turkey’s defeat. No longer Ottoman Arabs, the people of the region lost their identity,. a loss deeply spiritual and psychological in scope. Inhabitants fell back on what was left to them; namely, tribal, religious, and ethnic identities to set themselves apart from the masses. (See Edward O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth which argues the sense of belonging and identity is DNA deep in humans.) As one expert suggests, “Identity under the Ottomans was cultural and religious, but never political.” With the political structure crushed, a vacuum was created and cultural identity was all that remained.

Emergence of ethnic, tribal and religious differences caused conflict. Western leaders arbitrarily redrew the map for the people whose roots extended back for centuries. Colonial rule replaced the Ottoman governance. Colonial powers saw the Arab population as inferior and finally ceded to pressures to grant independence. The new countries, boundaries drawn without regard for social, economic, cultural, or ethnic differences, were held together by dictatorships, the only form of government known to the citizens. Under dictatorship countries stagnated. Surging interest in oil from the West served to make matters worse for the most part.

The Muslim world today is divided between those who insist that nothing new can be introduced into the faith of Islam and those who insist that answers lie not in the past. Arabs experienced government as religious. God governs. To believe in law is to believe in God. To obey the law is to obey God. There is no separation of church and state. While liberal thinking is slowly breaking down these beliefs, polarization is taking place. The extremes of the crisis show up in the barbarism of ISIS and others. Violence is how these groups present their challenge to contemporary liberal thinkers. Middle ground is hard to fine. The most recent constitution adopted by Egypt, for example, recognizes only Islam in creating a state that excludes non-Arabs. Missing entirely is the humanist base of most Western constitutions.

The Fires of Spring is a huge first step toward creating better understanding in the world. Culbertson’s reporting on the status of women in Arab countries is also a plus and adds depth to her book. Not to be overlooked are the author’s moving impressions as she strolls the streets of the ancient cities of antiquity, seeks out the poor in the slums, and describes the timeless beauty of the vistas of these legendary lands. The First of Spring is contemporary non-fiction at its best. Mission accomplished, Shelly Culbertson.