Max Rodenbeck is the Middle East Bureau Chief of The Economist. (December 2015)

How She Wants to Modify Muslims

Ayaan Hirsi Ali at the Goldwater Institute, Phoenix, Arizona, December 2007
Ayaan Hirsi Ali bluntly declares her intention in the introduction to her new book: “To make many people—not only Muslims but also Western apologists for Islam—uncomfortable.” Discomfort, alas, comes easily when the subject, as in the Somali-born author’s three previous books, happens to be the sorry state of Islam.

Iraq: The Outlaw State

An image from Clanking of the Swords IV, a recent film by the Sunni jihadist guerrilla group that now calls itself the State of the Islamic Caliphate, on the border of Iraq and Syria
The use of seemingly gratuitous cruelty as a form of display—as a talisman of godlike power and an advertisement of worldly success—has old roots in Iraq. Some can be traced just outside of Mosul in the fields of dusty ruins that mark the sites of Nineveh and Nimrud, great cities of the ancient Assyrian empire.

The Father of Violent Islamism

Sayyid Qutb in prison in Egypt, where he was executed in 1966
Religion, religion…. This is the battle cry of the feeble and the weak person who defends himself with it whenever the current threatens to sweep him away. —Sayyid Qutb, 1938 Humanity will see no tranquility or accord, nor can peace, progress or material and spiritual advances be made, without total …

The Agony of Syria

Residents of Tall Rifat, a small town north of Aleppo, after a Syrian army helicopter launched rockets at a local school, July 12, 2012
In the face of the current uprising, now in its eighteenth bloody month, Bashar Assad has ordered a sustained use of heavy weaponry against his own people that may be unmatched by any state in modern times. The gory internecine wars in Bosnia, Chechnya, and Sri Lanka saw governments behave with similar savagery, but against what they claimed were separatist revolts. In trying to crush an inclusive, nationwide, and initially peaceful pro-democracy movement that from its inception was unquestionably backed by the vast majority of Syrians, the Assads’ army has wreaked devastation akin to that in Grozny or Jaffna or Sarajevo, only across swathes of a country with a far larger population, devastating scores of villages, dozens of towns, and all three of Syria’s biggest cities.

The Reporter Who Knew

Anthony Shadid on the front line in Ras Lanouf, Libya, March 11, 2011
Reporters are notoriously loud, nosy, and pushy. Anthony Shadid was different. The celebrated Middle East correspondent, who died suddenly in February from a suspected asthma attack while crossing the Syrian–Turkish frontier, had instead the patient, avuncular air of a village padre. Fortuitously blending a native Oklahoman’s openness with the supple …

Libya: The Losers

Supporters of Muammar Qaddafi protesting in Tripoli, Libya, March 2, 2011
General Mbairish turns stone-faced when asked what Qaddafi’s intentions are today. “My opinion is that Qaddafi will never stop. He will accept that thousands die. He will fire rockets on cities if he gets any chance.” The general pauses and toys with his Rolex watch before adding softly, “He’s gotten used to killing.”

From Cairo: Goodbye to bin Laden

Still from a video of Osama bin Laden watching a newscast about himself and Barack Obama in his Abbottabad compound
News cameras may zoom lustily into Middle Eastern crowds that vow vengeance. Pundits can cleverly parse the praise for a fallen warrior voiced by the usual Islamist hotheads. Cooler analysts will fret over the uses of assassination as a tool of policy, or over the finer points of Muslim doctrine …

Bin Laden’s Death: Why the Arab World Shrugs

A newspaper stall in Islamabad, May 3, 2011

News cameras may zoom lustily into Middle Eastern crowds that vow vengeance. Pundits can cleverly parse the praise for a fallen warrior voiced by the usual Islamist hotheads. Cooler analysts will fret over the uses of assassination as a tool of policy, or over the finer points of Muslim doctrine regarding burial at sea. Yet for the most part the demise of the world’s most wanted man has been met, across the Arab and Muslim worlds, with a very untelegenic shrug of indifference.

‘Volcano of Rage’

A group of peaceful protesters attacked by police with rubber bullets and tear gas, Diraz, Bahrain, February 14, 2011
Arab rulers had grown too isolated, too inflated with pretense and hypocrisy, and too complacently confident in the power of their police. Their overwhelmingly youthful populations suffered perpetual humiliation at the hands of government officials, faced dim work prospects, and had little means of influencing politics. They felt, in the famous words of the Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous, that they were “sentenced to hope.” More sophisticated and exposed to the world than the generation that ruled them, they had lost faith in the whole patriarchal construct that seemed to hem in their lives.

How to Deal With Yemen

A Yemeni woman walking on the main road leading to the mountain village of Kawkaban, north of the capital Sanaa, January 10, 2010

It’s hard to imagine a longer or more pressing “to do” list than that of Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Quite apart from the attempt by Yemeni jihadists to plant parcel bombs in US-bound cargo planes, he is beset with trouble: Recent times have seen a hideous surge in hunger among Yemeni children and a plunge in the level of ground water supplies and oil reserves. A war against northern rebels has raged for six years, smashing towns and villages and turning 350,000 people into refugees while draining the central government’s already shallow coffers. In the south, would-be revivers of the defunct 1968–1990 People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen are gaining force, threatening to split the nation in two and snatch the richest oilfields, to boot. And then of course there’s the daily chore of keeping family, clan and a web of cronies happy, while appeasing tribal sheikhs, religious leaders, opposition parties and the haughty Western diplomats who supply vital top-ups of aid.

Yemen, al-Qaeda, and the US

A camel in the old city of Sanaa, Yemen, 1999
President Ali Abdullah Salih of Yemen deserves some respect. Critics may decry his rule as a scantily gloved kleptocracy, or fret that it has turned his spectacularly rugged and impoverished country into an incubator of jihadist terror. Some cite other ills swelling in Yemen, such as the malnutrition that now …


Perhaps it was the squirrels and peacocks leaping in the foliage overhead. Or maybe the way the rambling grounds of the Diggi Palace divided into separate tableaux—here Gulzar, a venerated Urdu poet, recited before a rapt audience, there a pair of London publishers toasted a trio of hard drinking and smoking Kashmiris, while over on the lawn tablas thumped and sittars whined. All this made it hard not to feel like a figure in an outsized miniature, such as those late paintings of the great durbars of the Raj, in which suited British officers faced off against far more splendidly plumed native rulers. Yet the Jaipur Literature Festival, now in its fifth year, is determinedly void of pomp and hierarchy.

Which Way for Hamas?

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, Cairo, September 6, 2009
I have never previously felt so despondent about Israel, so shamed by its actions, so despairing of any peace that might terminate the dominion of the dead in favor of opportunity for the living.

The Iran Mystery Case

The governance of religion and morals and resurgence of Islamic values is that heightened peak to which the defiled hands of those given to debauchery and whims does not reach, and which the diplomacy of gold and might fails to entrap. —Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of Iran, from a …

The Arab Spring, and After

If there is such a thing as a pinnacle in the landscape of international journalism, Robin Wright surely stands atop it. The Washington Post’s chief diplomatic correspondent has braved thirty-five years of wars, crises, and famines, not to mention bureaucratic sniping in Washington, to illuminate the world’s darker interstices. She …

An American in Iran

Imam Khomeini International in Tehran looks much like any big new airport, except that its long corridors bear posters declaring this the Year of National Unity and Islamic Solidarity, rather than ads for lipstick and perfume. Still, it does not take long for an American passport-holder to meet with deeper …

Lebanon’s Agony

“This country is like a cake. On the top it is cream. Underneath it is fire.” So a Hezbollah spokesman told me last June, speaking in the shabby Beirut apartment that served as the party’s press office until an avalanche of Israeli ordnance leveled the building, along with the surrounding …

How Terrible Is It?

The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander must make is to establish…the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. —Carl von Clausewitz, …

War Within War

There are many ways to read the latest war in Lebanon. It may rightly, for instance, be seen as a proxy war, a nasty skirmish at the margins of a strategically bigger struggle. Like those cold war subconflicts in Africa, Indochina, and Central America, it pits adversaries equipped, ideologically inspired, …

The Time of the Shia

Servants of Allaah! The animosity of the Shee’ah towards the people of the Sunnah is severe. This animosity has been ingrained in their souls since the time they took the belief of corrupt partisanship as a rule and path for their religion. It is no wonder, because a snake gives …

Their Master’s Voice

When Osama bin Laden speaks, people listen. They tend, however, to hear different things. Take the coverage of his latest voice-from-the-mountain tape, released in mid-January. The New York Times and The Washington Post both headlined with the words "Bin Laden Warns of Attacks." The equivalent two highbrow Arabic-language newspapers, al-Hayat …

The Truth About Jihad

“We say outright: these are madmen, yet these madmen have their own logic, their teaching, their code, their God even, and it’s as deepset as could be.” —Fyodor Dostoevsky Recall, for a moment, the mood in Washington immediately after September 11. There was grief, and rage, and bewilderment, followed closely …

A New Lebanon?

Lebanon is smaller than Connecticut and scarcely more populous. Its economy, still struggling to recoup the losses of the 1975–1990 civil war, hardly amounts to the annual turnover at McDonald’s. What is so special about the country? The immediate answer is that this statelet, which was subtracted by French imperialists …

Unloved in Arabia

Late in the year 1818, the people of Constantinople witnessed the execution of a bandit chief who had been captured in the arid badlands of Arabia. Tried and convicted by the Ottoman Empire’s highest sharia court for heresy as well as brigandage, the rebel was dragged to the gate of …

Islam Confronts Its Demons

“And once again wars of religions are ready to devastate Europe. Boheman, leader and agent of a new sect of “purified” Christianity, has just been arrested in Sweden, and the most disastrous plans were found among his papers. The sect to which he belonged is said to want nothing less …

The Occupation

It was late April, and the pink roses in Chemical Ali’s garden were in fragrant bloom. The new, self-anointed governor of this region had requisitioned the riverside villa for his headquarters. I asked him if he knew the whereabouts of its owner, a cousin of Saddam Hussein best remembered for …

Bohemia in Baghdad

The scene at the deserted National Library in Baghdad looks almost too staged to be true. Ignoring the occasional tock-tock-tock of nearby gunplay, a tethered donkey lunches on flowers in the garden. A statue of Saddam is still standing out front, but someone has looped a noose around its neck.