GOD HAS NINETY-NINE NAMES
Reporting from a Militant Middle East
By Judith Miller
Simon & Schuster -- 574pp -- $30
We have reached one of those moments again when everything looks black in the Middle East. Suicide bombings have soured the Israeli public on peace. Israelis have overreacted to guerrilla provocations in southern Lebanon, killing scores of civilians. So Judith Miller's God Has Ninety-nine Names--above all a chilling survey of the wellsprings of hate and violence in the region--is nothing if not timely. At the least, readers will come away from this highly informative tour of the many faces of Islam with an almost tactile appreciation of the Gaza slums that produce suicide bombers and the grim, calculating mullahs who guide Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.
Miller, a veteran New York Times Middle East correspondent, focuses on the Islamic militants who are bidding for power in Arab countries and in the newly independent Palestinian areas--and on the political leaders, police, and intellectuals trying to combat them. She excels at describing the ferocity of the conflict. For instance, she reports that Palestinian Hamas militants plucked out the eyes of an Israeli border guard whom they kidnapped and murdered in 1992. And how in crushing a rebellion in Hama, Syria, in 1982, Syrian soldiers are said to have piped cyanide gas into buildings where militants were thought to be hiding.
The author's wicked sense of humor leavens what could have become a depressing catalog of mayhem. She tells us that fundamentalists in Egypt have urged their followers not to eat squash and eggplants because of their supposed resemblance to sexual organs. The amorous antics of Libya's Muammar Qaddafi are a source of much fun. Miller describes how the colonel sent a Bulgarian nurse armed with a "giant syringe" on an unsuccessful errand to administer an AIDS test to a female correspondent whom he hoped to bed.
It's in such reporting, rather than in grand analysis, that God Has Ninety-Nine Names is most valuable. Miller brings to life the diversity of the Islamic movement that has created such turbulence. Just as there are 99 names for God in the Koran, Islamic militancy is "as distinct from country to country as Catholicism is in France, Italy, Brazil, and America," she writes.
Miller takes us to places few visitors would ever see. In the interrogation wing of an Israeli security prison, she finds a prisoner--who is both a used-car salesman from Chicago and a Hamas operative--revealing to the Israelis the Palestinian group's dependence on contributions from U.S. Muslims. Miller also captures the sinister atmosphere in the Shiite villages of southern Lebanon. Driving through the hills in 1983, she comes upon kindergarten children drilling like soldiers. "They are playing martyr," their teacher explains approvingly. "When they are older, they may have the honor of dying for Islam."
The teacher had just come back from Iran, often viewed by the West as the source of radicalization. But the dominant Islamic-militant trend in the Arab world originates with the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood, Miller shows. She provides an accessible introduction to the life and work of the seminal Brotherhood thinker, Sayyid Qutb, who was hanged by Gamal Abdel Nasser's regime in 1966. Qutb broke new ground by arguing that leaders such as Nasser, who brutally repressed such Islamists, were not Muslims and therefore had to be deposed by force. Many of today's radicals are Qutb's intellectual heirs.
Miller also shows that America's Arab allies have sometimes stoked Islamic militancy. The Saudis have long provided refuge for militants and have funded their organizations. The late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat helped bring about his own demise by encouraging the formation of Islamic groups in order to counter leftists, who he thought were more dangerous enemies.
The billions of dollars in aid and weapons that the U.S. and the Saudis sent to Afghan Islamic guerrillas in the 1980s helped train "thousands of Arab militants in Pakistan who had nowhere to go and nothing to do once the jihad against Moscow was over," she says. These war vets are now the hard-core cadres of the Islamic groups in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other countries.
Will the Islamists prevail in the Middle East? Miller is doubtful. She points out that the Arab regimes are far better at self-preservation than many people suppose. While sharing common ideas, the militants are badly split, and their tactics are often self-defeating. For instance, she says that the Egyptian Islamists' attacks on tourists have been a turnoff to many Egyptians who depend on the foreign visitors for their livelihood. Rule by Islamic militants has been something of a bust in Sudan and Iran, the two countries that have such regimes.
On the other hand, Arab leaders are holding on to power only at a tremendous cost to their societies. In Algeria, an estimated 40,000 people are said to have died in civil strife. The Syrian army has killed as many as 30,000 in Hama. The Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak seems to have gained the upper hand on the militants but only by adopting the widespread use of torture and other tactics that may wind up increasing its enemies. Badly needed economic reforms are being neglected while rulers focus on eliminating their opponents. So the regimes now in power may win this round, but they certainly aren't sowing the seeds of a bright future.