Professor Eric Davis (Rutgers) has an excellent post on his blog Tabsir: Insight on Islam and the Middle East; it is basically a guide to studying the Middle East with rules on how NOT to do it in the form of '10 Conceptual Sins'.
He really covers all the bases here - from the importance of historical context to the lack of importance of ethnic identity. If I had made a similar list, it would list the same issues.
This is amazing:
Sin #5: The myth of “Islamic fundamentalism.” The notion of a radical Islam at the root of much if not all of the Middle East’s problems is pervasive in the Western media. I will soon upload a posting that will discuss this issue in greater detail. The idea that Islamic “fundamentalism” is a myth would begin by pointing out that most of those who claim to be pursuing a radical Islamist politics know little about Islamic theology and doctrine, or Islamic law (al-sharia). I discovered this many years ago when I conducted research on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Brothers who went on trial for participating in alleged violent behavior knew very little about Islamic doctrine when questioned by a learned judge. While they would always argue that their actions were prescribed by “Islam,” they invariably were unable to support these assertions with textual sources when questioned by the judge.
A good analogy would be to compare radicals who claim to be acting in the name of Islam to members of the Ku Klux Klan (or other such radical organizations in the US). While Klan members have terrorized and lynched African-Americans in the name of “Christianity,” the overwhelming majority of Christians find such ideas abhorrent and reject the notion that they have anything to do with their religion.
There were times I was reading this when I was convinced that Eric Davis was inside my head. If you are a loyal reader of my blog (which chances are you aren't) you will see the similarities in our ideas: (Not trying to pat myself on the back, just saying we think alike and I like his funky Middle East style.)
Likewise, radical Islamists (and I would argue that they don’t even deserve to be dignified with the appellation “Islamist” given their lack of education and knowledge) make up doctrines as they go along. In addition to usually knowing very little about Islamic doctrine, they in effect create an “invented religion.” These radicals begin with a political agenda, often tied to economic goals, and then politicize Islam in ways that they hope will facilitate their behavior by giving it an aura of legitimacy.
Amen and Hallelujah all praise be to Eric Davis.