On the eve of the heady 1960's, the sociologist Daniel Bell pointed to "the end of ideology." In watershed 1989, which brought the end of the cold war, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama foresaw "the end of history." Yet, in ways neither Mr. Bell nor Mr. Fukuyama ever imagined, the odd product of history and ideology we have learned to call religious fundamentalism may yet turn out to be the real measure of our times.
In fact, from St. Petersburg, Fla., to St. Petersburg, Russia, and Tripoli, Iowa, to Tripoli, Libya, and Lebanon, the new political religion -- or religious politics -- has now taken root nearly everywhere but Western Europe and the surviving Communist states. Judith Miller, a 19-year veteran of The New York Times and the paper's former Cairo bureau chief, prefers to call its predominant Middle Eastern form "Islamism." Whatever its name, the phenomenon has flourished like kudzu among the ruins and crevices left by liberalism, socialism, nationalism and the crash of rising expectations.
But the Islamic Middle East seems to be its happy hunting ground. In Lebanon, Ms. Miller has watched 5-year-olds march under the burning eyes of bearded kindergarten teachers who get their lessons from Iran. In Egypt, one of her sources, a columnist and critic of the militants, was gunned down after reporting that senior clerics promised martyrs an eternity of blissful pederasty. Such things can make life difficult for people in the region. But the bombs and bombers they inspire are also at least a potential threat to the rest of us.
"The Middle East is not the Middle West," the Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens once observed. Under most other circumstances, the dour Mr. Arens is probably not Ms. Miller's kind of guy. But on this, at least, she is all but certain to agree. What distinguishes her from Mr. Arens is her determination to understand as well as to master the differences, and to make sure we understand them too.
"I am not a scholar and this is not a scholarly book," she declares preemptively before she even reaches Chapter I. This is true. While generally accurate, Ms. Miller's history comes out of the can. She openly acknowledges her reliance on translators. Like most smart journalists, Ms. Miller piggybacks on scholars, in this case including such familiar suspects as Fouad Ajami, Bernard Lewis, Ghassam Salameh and Emmanuel Sivan.
But her reporting is its own reward. Like such now-forgotten giants of the correspondent's art as Dorothy Thompson, John Gunther and Vincent Sheehan, Ms. Miller is at her best at point-blank range: the interview, the street scene, the face in the crowd, which distinguish a place and a moment from all others. An amateur in the best sense, she is equally good at explaining why the Middle East has captured her imagination since she was a student at Barnard in 1971.
Her subsequent adventures are the kind that make an editor's day. En route with the author through 10 countries and a very big book, the reader visits Lebanese Baalbek in jeans and a T-shirt and an Iranian Persepolis covered from head to toe, attends a Sudanese execution and an Israeli interrogation, just barely escapes a pass by Col. Muammar el-Qadaffi of Libya, enjoys a lift and repeated dinner invitations from King Hussein of Jordan, is issued a Saudi affidavit certifying that the bearer is not a prostitute and watches Iran's theocracy fray and corrode like the Shah's regime 20 years ago.
Along the way, there are the conversations with the men in charge and the man on the street that all good reporters exist to report. But at every stop, there are also the conversations with decent, smart, tough and troubled women that only a good female reporter can deliver.
Fair-minded to her fingertips, Ms. Miller offers sensible thoughts and afterthoughts on a part of the world Americans find intermittently fascinating, sometimes scary, but invariably baffling. No reader of Ms. Miller is ever again likely to think that Arabs are closer to one another, let alone Iranians, than Sicilians are to Finns.
But her real comparative advantages are focus and nuance. The former allows her to note evenhandedly how the people she so plausibly likes have consistently been their own worst enemy, while Americans and Israelis too have done their part to create the golems that now haunt them. Her sense of nuance not only allows her to see such unexpected change as an American-financed birth control clinic in Egypt that actually works. It even allows a feminist case for what the author herself sees as the inhibiting and discriminatory conventions of Islamic modesty. The veil, Ms. Miller observes, can also be a social buffer. It can express generational revolt. It can be a passport to hitherto inaccessible jobs, a cultural analgesic, even a way to save on cosmetics. The argument would not occur to most men.
Ms. Miller's bad news is that Middle Easterners suffer from what is arguably the world's highest ratio of discontent to civilization. As recently as the early 1960's, the seven most prosperous Arab states were no poorer, even slightly richer, than their Asian rim counterparts. Today the same countries are already lengths behind the Asian tigers, not to mention Israel.
In a globalized economy where markets vote daily with their software, 58 percent of foreign investment now goes to Asia, 3 percent to the Middle East. From Algeria to the Sudan, from Syria to Saudi Arabia, rampaging population growth has left economic development in the dust. Yet the region buys half of all arms sold to what we still call the third world, and several Islamic sources not only confirm but volunteer that the Koran is no barrier to nuclear fantasies.
Ms. Miller's good news, if relative, is that Islamists are not inevitable winners, that they can be as pragmatic as anyone else and that Israel, Lebanon and Jordan have all had some success containing and domesticating them. Their own contentiousness is a natural obstacle to any "Khomeintern." They can be a threat to individual states, to the regional status quo, perhaps to economic stability and certainly to our own sense of security. But they are not Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.
Her argument stops here. But what it suggests about the appropriateness, likely efficacy, even rationality of our current national energy habits, defense priorities, special relationships and cultural blind spots, already demands another book. With luck, Ms. Miller herself is now working on the sequel. If not, we should at least hope someone else is.
David Schoenbaum teaches history at the University of Iowa. He is the author of "The United States and the State of Israel."
Correction: May 21, 1996. A book review yesterday about "God Has Ninety-Nine Names" by Judith Miller misspelled the surname of a journalist hailed as a great foreign correspondent of the past. He was Vincent Sheean, not Sheehan.