We will soon be inundated with titles about the ongoing upheaval in the Arab world. Regardless of their merits or lack of, these books will have been written after the start of the Arab Spring. In the meantime, however, it is fascinating to examine those books that were begun before the onset of the region's awakening, but whose authors scrambled to incorporate it into their narratives.
Two such titles are Robin Wright's Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World and Mohamed El-Bendary's The "Ugly American" in the Arab Mind: Why Do Arabs Resent America? Both titles focus on socio-political attitudes among Arabs and Muslims - whether towards radical Islam, as in Wright's book, or towards the West, as in El-Bendary's - and both attempt to bring the Arab Spring into the picture.
While Wright's book, which examines the multifaceted "counter-jihad" - the phenomenon of moderate Muslims confronting violent and authoritarian interpretations of Islam - is consistently engaging, it too often feels more like advocacy than analysis, and tends to be overly coloured by optimism.
El-Bendary's book, which is basically a monograph bringing to light rampant anti-Americanism in the Arabic media, emerges as uninspired, but sounds a cautionary note regarding the Arab Spring and the Islamists in its midst.
Wright's Rock the Casbah - taken from the title of the famous Middle East-themed song by The Clash - picks up where her earlier Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East left off. And that's the problem. Wright finds new reform-minded Muslims to praise, but conceptually, this book is almost identical to her previous one.
An award-winning journalist, Wright originally set out to write about the counter-jihad in both the Middle East and the West. (The book's working subtitle - still found on some websites - wasHow Sheikhs, Comedians, Rappers, and Women Are Challenging Osama Bin Laden.) Her overview of this subject proves quite appealing.
Wright shows how radical Islam, Arab authoritarian regimes, and western bigotry are receiving a verbal thrashing at the hands of Muslim playwrights, poets, comedians, and gay activists. Oh, and don't forget the rappers: "Rap spawned a new sass in countries where the state controlled the media, banned the opposition, orchestrated elections, and arrested the outspoken - conditions that have in turn fostered alienation and extremism."
But the author displays a worrisome tendency to ignore the "sword that cuts both ways" aspect of certain trends in the Arab world.
She asserts that the "counter-jihad's most critical components ... were the clerics who originally inspired and conferred legitimacy on al Qaeda" but who now chastise the monster they helped create. However, continuing to invest such people with power is problematic. What if some of these clerics change their minds yet again - say, when they are released from Egyptian prisons, from which many of them have recently and perhaps not coincidentally begun denouncing terrorism? Wright apparently does not realise that the counter-jihad's best chance of long-term success lies in its ability to break Muslim clerics' stranglehold on interpreting Islam.
A similar case of selective observation occurs in Wright's analysis of how the headscarf has become "a kind of armour for Muslim women to chart their own course, personally or professionally", in patriarchal Arab countries such as Egypt.
By donning the headscarf, many women have silenced their male would-be guardians and enabled themselves to participate more fully in the social and even political spheres. However, Wright fails to note that in using conservative Islamic dress as their means of socio-political advancement, they have simultaneously marginalised Christian and secular Muslim women.
Wright deals with the Arab Spring by collapsing it into the counter-jihad. This does not always work, because the masses of moderate Muslims in Arab countries who non-violently opposed quasi-secular and militaristic dictatorships were not actively engaged in a struggle against radical Islam.