Fred A. Reed appears quite the man of contradictions. His publisher has chosen to tease the reader by describing the author, on the back cover, as "the Middle East specialist that American military intelligence has known him to be since the publication of his first book, Persian Postcards, in 1994." This appears more than a bit inflated, since Reed's books have generally had scant readership in the United States, and it is curious that a Vancouver publisher would claim to know what the Pentagon thinks about them.
Reed is, in any event, a fascinating writer and personality, and I would recommend his works to U.S. military intelligence were they not marked by unexpected venom when he discusses U.S. strategies and actions. The author has described himself as a Québécois, and writes for the Montreal dailies Le Devoir and La Presse, as well as other leading media, including Maclean's and The Globe and Mail. His command of French has also won him two Governor-General's Awards for translation, the most recent in 2001 (with David Homel) for Fairy Ring, a version of Martin Desjardins's Le Cercle de Clara.
In his latest work, he refers to himself as an "amateur archeologist of ideas." The subtitle of Shattered Images is somewhat misleading, in that Reed deals less with the history of Syrian iconoclasm, a movement with a brief but startling impact on the Byzantine world some 1,300 years ago, than with Damascus, the great Syrian metropolis, as a cradle of religious disputation. Syria even today has one of the largest Christian minorities in the Muslim world.
The iconoclasts rejected the artistic rendering, in painting and sculpture, of God, Jesus and the other principal movers of Christian theology, arguing, along lines similar to those pursued at the same time by Jews and by the newly flourishing faith of Islam, that the creator cannot be depicted in human form. Arguments against such representation, which both the oldest and youngest forms of monotheism continue to view as idolatry, have always set them apart from Christians, except during the age when Byzantine rulers, too, shared in the hatred of anthropomorphism.
But Reed is anything but an academic writer, and in this book as in others, such as Salonica Terminus: Travels into the Balkan Nightmare (1996), he is, as one reviewer noted, "breathtakingly discursive." Thanks to his encounters with Islamic fundamentalists in Damascus -- whom he never identifies as such, leaving them without context -- he links the iconoclasm of the Byzantines a millennium ago with the desire of Islamist radicals today to destroy such "idols" as the World Trade Center.
Interspersed with his reflections on these matters, he offers observations of Damascus street society, somewhat bitter commentaries on the Baath dictatorship in Syria, and an account of Shiism and the extremist movement Hezbollah in Lebanon, among many other morsels. Reed is fluent in Greek, and in the end the effect is rather like a large table of mezes, the Mediterranean buffet of dishes and snacks that accompanies social occasions.
He has a sharp eye for detail, noting that a large mosque in which his narrative begins, and the Syrian Military Museum, are both housed in buildings formerly possessed by the Bektashi dervish order -- a Muslim mystical, or Sufi, trend known for its heterodox view of faith. In this way, the Bektashis, now found mainly in the Balkans and Turkey, seem close to the Alawis, the minority community from which the Baath soldiers who now rule Syria sprang.
Bektashis and Alawis are both alleged by some to stand outside Islam. As Reed notes, Hafez Assad, founder of the Syrian Baathist state and father of the present Syrian ruler, Bashir Asad, encountered protests in 1972 when the country's new constitution failed to stipulate that the ruler must be a Muslim. Since the claim of the Alawis to Islamic identity was in doubt, Hafez Assad obtained a ruling from Imam Musa al-Sadr, an Iranian-born Shia cleric who lived in Lebanon, defining the Alawis as "a community of Shia Islam."
Al-Sadr's name is no less evocative in the contemporary Levant than that of the Assads; he was a living link between the Shias of Lebanon and the revolutionary movement in Iran. Late in 1978, with Iran in crisis, al-Sadr visited Libya, where he vanished. His family and followers believe he remains alive.
Reed weaves such historical personages, and the religious issues they embodied, into a striking intellectual travelogue. He paints a vivid portrait of Damascus as a city of the sacred, which includes numerous tombs, including that of Ibn Arabi, considered the greatest of the Sufis. He also recounts his own dialogues with Sufis in Damascus, although here as elsewhere he could have benefited from a better proofreader: The Sufi ritual of "remembrance of God," or dhikr, is misspelled as dhkir, one of a number of such errors.
But Reed has a good grasp of the differing creeds that have conquered, and animated, the residents of Damascus. One of his most telling vignettes comprises a description of his visit to Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro, "the Mufti," a religious instructor known throughout the Islamic world, and among students of Islam in the West, for his novel, almost improvised manner of teaching. Reed claims that Kuftaro has more influence in Syria than the country's president, which may well be true. But in discussing Kuftaro, who is generally considered an Islamic moderate, Reed also passes lightly over the distressing news of the Syrian cleric's reaction to the war in Iraq. "Stepping out of character," Reed writes, Kuftaro "had authorized martyrdom attacks against the invaders, and called on the faithful to carry out armed resistance as a sacred obligation -- jihad -- wherever possible."
Reed's apparent indifference to the consequences of such incitement may fit with his own view of U.S. power, which seems to have led him to his accusation that Bashir Assad plotted nothing less than the "symbolic re-extermination" of the Baath regime's dead enemies, the Muslim Brotherhood, who were massacred in the Syrian town of Hama by Assad the father in 1982. According to Reed, this vague but horrific-sounding intention was expressed in advice by Bashir Assad to U.S. military intelligence (them again) in 2002.
And to think how many others had the idea that the United States and Syria didn't quite get along, and might even go to war after the intervention in Iraq. Reed's book is a useful contribution to the literature of interfaith dialogue. But for an American like myself, at least, it would be better if he stuck to reportage on his own journey, and left us to make up our own minds about global politics.