Book Review: “Destiny Disrupted” by Tamim Ansary

I’ve been wanting to read this book since around 2002. Forget, for a moment, that it wasn’t written until 2009, and I only came across it at a bookstore and learned of its existence in 2013. But in 2002, I was in high school in the Chicago suburbs. I didn’t really have any political leanings yet, and, while I wasn’t a huge fan of the class/grades structure of school, I loved the feeling of progress and “leveling-up” that came with learning. So as far as my attention to current events was concerned, I was really just interested in trying to “solve” the question of what my beliefs should become. With enough data, with enough context, maybe I could reach an irrefutably correct answer.

I specifically remember watching the State of the Union address on TV, and President Bush using the phrase “Axis of Evil” to describe Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. North Korea I knew a little about; we had studied the Korean War in history class, after all. But the other two? Any mention of them in history class, if there was any, was a brief one about Desert Storm in 1990. To any relevant degree, I really didn’t know anything about them. Or feel anything specific about them either way, honestly. The appeal to sensationalist fears and blanket “evil” terms didn’t really get to me. I needed data. Or at least context. Since this was history/current events and not physics, I guess “context” would have to do.

State of the Union 2002

If facts are all you want, Wikipedia is your destination (although in 2002 not so much yet). But the context I wanted was essentially a story. A complete story. Or at least a complete-ish one. And for it to get to me, the story couldn’t demonize (“Middle Easterners have a natural tendency to violence”), patronize (“once Western values spread, these societies will finally develop”), or romanticize (“Muslim women need to be saved”). I was setting a higher bar than I knew, and, while I certainly learned a bit here and there as I grew up, it wasn’t until this book that I really felt I found what I had wanted.

Destiny Disrupted, wonderfully written by an American writer of Afghan descent, covers something like 1400 years of Islamic history (from Mohammed’s times in the 500s/600s to Sept. 10, 2001– talk about a cliffhanger) in about 350 pages. It’s told as an engaging, surprisingly relatable story for people with any level of prior knowledge (even the most limited, like myself). The tone reminded me of either watching an extremely well-made documentary or having an intro-level lecture course with the professor everyone likes (I actually found a 100-level Middle Eastern Studies course syllabus that uses this book as its main text). Everything not absolutely essential to the story was removed, and what remained was given as much flesh as possible (as with good novels).

My Top 5 moments, in chronological order:

1. Formation of the Umma, the worldwide community of Muslims. Ansary makes note of the focus Islam has on community from its beginning– the Muslim calendar sets 0 not at Mohammed’s birth, as would be analogous to the Christian calendar (Ansary says there’s no “Mohammedmas,” for example). Year 0 was when Islam became a real thing, marked by moving the fledgling group to a city where they could really get started (Mecca, his hometown, was pretty violently not a fan of him at that time). This community focus has had both positive and negative effects over the years. Positive ones prevailed when a greater responsibility was felt by Muslims toward each other in the ultimate goal of building a perfect community. Negative ones took over when that goal was hijacked for intrusive laws on what “people in a perfect community have to dress like, behave like,” etc.

2. The Crusades. As soon as they’re introduced, Ansary comments that the Crusades were rough on the Muslim world, but were minor compared to the havoc raining down around the same time coming from Genghis Khan and the Mongols. Before this, Muslims in their advanced state regarded Europeans as just a bunch of poorly-educated peasants in the grip of an obviously corrupt religious authority (what a strange viewpoint to have towards another group of people!). I love his description of the Crusaders’ disorganization, with many cases of them being hired mercenary-style by Muslim princes to fight each other (!) and generally inserting themselves sideways into the local politics. Or the Crusaders that just said “screw it!” and took over (already Christian) Constantinople instead of continuing to the Holy Land.

Curiously, the Last Crusade was omitted from this history. As was the fact that in Latin, "Jehovah" begins with an "I."

Curiously, the Last Crusade was omitted from this history. As was the fact that in Latin, “Jehovah” begins with an “I.”

3. Protestant Reformation. There is much made of the importance of the Reformation in Europe. Ansary notes that some of the associated scientific advances had already been made on paper by Muslim thinkers, even hundreds of years earlier than in Europe. But I really love his note that “necessity isn’t really the mother of invention; it’s the mother of the process that turns an invention into a product.” The Muslim societies weren’t “broken” at the time advances were made, so there was no political or economic will to make anything of them. But there was nowhere to go but up for Europeans turning against a broken theocracy. I also love his note of “second questions” in science. Imagine making a hypothesis (like, maybe the Earth goes around the Sun?) and having to trail it with and how will the explanation help make me a better Christian/Muslim/whatever? As the Europeans shed their second questions, it paved the way for their sudden technological and societal surge from peasants to world leaders.

Copernicus copernicus in its natural habitat.

4. The “Ottoman question.” The description of the colonial period was really interesting, with the way the British et. al. would inch their way into decaying empires like the Ottomans. As with any other empire I’ve ever heard of, the Ottoman one started rotting as soon as it stopped growing (which in historical retrospect was signified when Suleiman ran into Hapsburgs in Vienna and couldn’t quite take it over). So during its slow downturn, it outsourced its massive, inefficient infrastructure to the up-and-coming Western Europeans. It very gradually, over the course of many years, became more in debt and dependent on them, eventually being essentially run by the Europeans. It’s a situation worth some light comparison to today, where our own empire has stopped growing (having met its limits in Vietnam, Iraq, etc) and is becoming more in debt to China each year– although there are many differences to be sure!

5. Modernists + oil. I had no idea that so many secular modernist leaders rose up in the Middle East over the years, and Ansary captures the promise that these leaders held for the region. But then he goes into their various downfalls. Some refused to be puppets of the superpowers, which of course led to their replacement with puppets, as the Cold War would reach everywhere and the US and Russia were shoring up their lineups (perhaps the most infamous and disastrous example being the CIA in Iran, 1953). Others never had a chance in countries warped into oligarchy with all the oil money filtering to a privileged few, leaving the have-nots desperate for more extreme measures of making their voice heard. In all, a truly fascinating section that recalibrated my understanding of Middle Eastern nations as places totally capable of homegrown progress, with the road much easier if the US and friends learn from their mistakes.

Allen Dulles, head of CIA during Operation Ajax, the 1953 coup in Iran. Just look at that pipe– would you trust him to overthrow your government?

Concluding Thoughts

Overall, the book is about understanding what the Islamic worldview even is, not about prescribing The Best Way to interact with it today. So when he wraps up, Ansary notes that, while just “acknowledging each other’s worldview” isn’t going to single-handedly solve the varied issues in the Middle East, it is a necessary starting point for any real progress.

And, as for me, I came away satisfied. These places have been violent and unstable my whole life, but discovering their historical context brought to my mind some new hopes and some new concerns. In other words, brought them more to life.

Highly informative, extremely well-written, and recommended.

The cover illustration is from the Book of Kings, an old Persian history. An excellent book about old Islamic art is Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red

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