The Age of Jihad

Islamic State and the Great War for the Middle East

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Patrick Cockburn
  • Brooklyn, NY: 
    Verso
    , September
     2016.
     464 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781784784492.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Patrick Cockburn is an experienced Middle East correspondent who has published extensively for news organizations  like Financial Times and The Independent since the late 1970s. The Age of Jihad is a collection of published articles and op-eds that Cockburn has written during the last twenty years-- covering Middle Eastern and North African developments connected to the so-called “war on terror” and “Arab spring” phenomena, but also including smaller explorations of developments that preceded 9/11, including certain aspects of the sanctions on Iraq during the 1990s. The book covers a vast range of issues and developments in a host of different countries. Some of these are explored more exhaustively (the civil wars in Syria and Iraq), while others are given notably less attention (post-2011 developments in Bahrain and Yemen). The motivations for these disparities are perhaps obvious, given varying public and media interests in different issues and developments, yet it should here be stated that those events that are given a generous amount of space are (indeed) often explored in ways that are both informative and immersive.

While keeping to their original content, the author states that the articles have been slightly edited to fit with the overall “flow” of the book. This flow connects somewhat to a stated aim of connecting disparate developments, ranging over a large region and across different societies, through an overall analysis of “shared elements”. It should, however, be stated that the book’s content mostly conforms to the journalistic genre, so that issues and events are often presented in an essentially descriptive fashion, and that the stated analytical ambitions are largely left unfulfilled. Most of the presented articles are of an anecdotal and episodic character, so that societal developments are depicted through the perspectives of individuals, families, etc., that are directly affected by them. This grants the reported events a sort of “human face” which is one of the greatest achievements of Cockburn’s book. These small-scale perspectives are often neglected in analysis of events connected to large-scale societal change depicted here—and these personal, individual, or otherwise small-scale perspectives can therefore serve to complement analyses that focus on arguably more things like political development and large-scale societal change.

One should, however, stress that The Age of Jihad’s episodic character results in often fairly shallow depiction of the people Cockburn interacts with. For example, and despite the fact that he follows developments in Syria from the beginning of the revolt in 2011 up until 2016, we rarely gain insight into how changing political developments affect people over time. Rather, we are often thrown into the complicated lives of affected people in a remarkably brief and hurried fashion, before moving onto others only a few pages later.

This should not be read as an attempt to completely undermine the relevance or usefulness of Cockburn’s book. In terms of presented analyses, political developments are often presented in an efficiently exhaustive way, and any reader lacking knowledge about the domestic developments of Iraq (especially) will probably find themselves more informed about how the country’s different political factions relate to one another and outside actors. However, the scope of analysis is often quite limited; it leaves out much in terms of how contemporary developments relate to pre-1990s history, or of how politics are affected by wider developments (be they global, macro-economic, cultural, or religious). The short “Afterword” (less than ten pages long) attempts to ameliorate these tendencies by connecting the disparate data of the preceding articles to a number of overarching trends, but the way in which this is done is arguably far from satisfying. There is, notably, no serious attempt at engaging with scholarship on these issues—once again, reflecting the author’s placement within the journalistic genre.

One is, in short, left with no satisfying answer as to what is actually intended with the title’s statement about “the Age of Jihad.” Scholars of religion may, perhaps, be especially disappointed by the sort of analytical omissions highlighted above, as few of Cockburn’s stories about (for example) sectarian warfare and harshly imposed Islamic law are presented in connection to wider developments in the regional history of religion, or in terms of the ideological developments that have shaped the various actors described by him. In summary, given these arguable flaws, any scholar should perhaps view The Age of Jihad primarily as a collection of interesting data to be incorporated into further analysis, rather than as something that presents a truly nuanced analysis of its own. Seen as a collection of (largely) primary data on how certain people have been affected by violent developments in countries like Iraq and Syria, Cockburn’s book is still of obvious value to anyone who is interested in political developments in the contemporary Middle East. As such, it can also be read as a satisfyingly nuanced summary of large-scale political developments in the discussed countries.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gustav Larsson is a doctoral student in the Study of Religion at Linnaeus University.

Date of Review: 
November 14, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Patrick Cockburn is a Middle East correspondent for the Independent and has worked previously for the Financial Times. He has written three books on Iraq’s recent history, including the National Book Circle Awards– shortlisted The Occupation and Saddam Hussein: An American Obsession (with Andrew Cockburn), as well as a memoir, The Broken Boy, and, with his son, a book on schizophrenia, Henry’s Demons, which was shortlisted for a Costa Award. He won the Martha Gellhorn Prize in 2005, the James Cameron Prize in 2006, and the Orwell Prize for Journalism in 2009. More recently he has been awarded Foreign Commentator of the Year at the 2013 Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards, Foreign Affairs Journalist of the Year in British Journalism Award 2014, and Foreign Reporter of the Year in Press Awards 2014.

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