This is a lively, succinctly written work that will stand the test of time. It will fit nicely as a basic text in a course on contemporary Middle East politics. Because Owen takes a comparative perspective that spans the Third World, he avoids a pitfall common to others who focus exclusively on the Middle East, namely a tendency to reduce explanations of change or continuity to a common religious component. For instance, the exclusivist assumption that Islam encourages military rule is rendered spurious with the observation that military rule has been ubiquitous throughout the non-Islamic Third World: "Coups and military regimes are such a common feature of the post-colonial world, that their occurrence must be due in large part to universal, rather than simply Middle Eastern, factors" (p. 197).
This comparative approach serves the reader well in the discussion on the politics of religion. Owen insists on including Christianity and Judaism because a restrictive focus on Islam would imply that the latter is somehow "more unusual - and often more violent and obscurantist - than it really is" (p. 167). His analysis of the commonalities shared by politico-religious movements makes this point well. Regardless of their religion, these movements share many characteristics: a comparable vocabulary (often appropriating secularist terms), similar goals (involving the struggle for power), and like-minded opposition forces arrayed against them (who doggedly distort their message).
In the book's first section, the creation and evolution of the modern Middle East is explored against a backdrop of ideological and religious confluences. Easternized versions of nationalism - Arabism, Turkism, and Zionism - mix inconsistently with wider and deeper held religious beliefs. As a result of this process, the record of state formation is not uniform. For instance, the conservative states in the Arabian Peninsula relied more on religious claims for legitimacy in their confrontation with the radical Arabism emanating from the Levant and Fertile Crescent.
Owen's adroit use of comparative methodology covers a wide swath of subjects, including the varying effects of colonial administration, the differentiated growth of state power, and the idiosyncracies of family rule in the Arab World. Sub-regional patterns and trends, which transcend religious and communal lines, are uncovered. For example, the trajectory of state formation in Iran, Turkey and Israel was...