Some non-fiction read recently 2c – tentative conclusions

23 Apr

And I really mean tentative. Further, there is no way a shortish post like this can do more than indicate rather than expound. After all, the books with which this series of posts began comprise around a thousand pages, while this post will most likely be just one to three! And I am about to add to that by recommending another thousand pages or more, which I have either skimmed or, in the case of Jason Burke, read attentively since commencing these posts.

Supplementary texts

star30 star30star30star30star30star30 Jason Burke, Al-Qaeda: the true story of radical Islam, Penguin 2004. This is the most thorough and most convincing book I have read on the subject. The writer has gone to first-hand sources and has relevant language skills, unlike very many who write on this. He speaks Urdu, the principal language of Pakistan and a second language understood by many of the players in Afghanistan. He has been to many of the relevant places and spoken to many of the people involved and thoroughly documents everything he says. His understanding of Islam and of the bewildering array of groups and their connections, or lack of direct connections, with Bin Laden or Al-Qaeda is superior to that of most western commentators. Anyone at all interested has to read this book. It outclasses the derivative work of Burleigh in this area by a factor of what – 1000%? The small sample of his work I attach below barely indicates the strengths of the book, but does indicate the direction Burke takes.

star30star30star30star30star30 Malise Ruthven, A Fury for God: the Islamist attack on America, Granta 2002. There has been an edition since then, which I don’t have. This was the first book of its kind that I read and remains among the best, but some of his conclusions about his subject need to be reconsidered in the light of Burke’s book. He is sceptical about the direction much US and UK policy was taking at that time, particularly about reliance on military solutions. That remains true, but does not rule out all military involvement. Excellent on the ideological background of “Islamist” groups.

star30star30star30star30star30 Karen Armstrong, Islam: a short history, Verso 2001. Short it is indeed, but also scholarly and fair-minded.

star30star30star30star30 John Gray, Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern, Faber 2003. Even shorter! The thesis is very interesting, however, and has a lot going for it.

star30star30 Melanie Phillips, Londonistan: how Britain is creating a terror state within, Gibson Square 2006. Burleigh endorses this book, but I still find it tendentious. Phillips does, however, highlight some of the ironies of following our own values of free speech. She overdraws, as does Burleigh, the “multiculturalism is to blame” argument. In The Mighty and the Almighty Madeleine Albright comes almost to the opposite conclusion: that a deep understanding of cultural pluralism and a willingness to respect the Other may be part of the solution. There’s a big difference, I would argue, between that position, which I share, and craven surrender to the bizarre and positively dangerous in our midst. Getting the balance wrong in either direction won’t help us, and may indeed do worse than that. The temptation to divide the world into goodies and baddies, alluded to below under “complexity”, must be resisted.

star30star30star30star30star30 Abdullah Saeed, Interpreting the Qu’ran: Towards a contemporary approach, Cambridge UP 2006. Saeed is Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne. I am sure this book would not please either of the speakers at that 2005 Mine Seminar, but it will please very many Muslims and seems to me, by analogy with my understanding of some parallel dilemmas in Jewish and Christian circles and with my understanding of the nature of text and reading generally, to be a very fruitful approach for all concerned. Accepting, as all observant Muslims do, that the Qu’ran is indeed of divine origin, Saeed argues that interpreters of the Qu’ran are not so blessed.  He distinguishes three approaches, and in that respect adds nuance to the rather too broad idea of “fundamentalism”. The three approaches are: i) textualists, who argue for a strict following of the text and adopt a literalistic approach to the text; ii) semi-textualists, who “essentially follow the Textualists as far as linguistic emphasis and ignoring of the socio-historical context are concerned, but … package the ethico-legal content in a somewhat ‘modern’ idiom, often within an apologetic discourse.” Apologetic there is in the theological sense of presenting scripture in a way meant to refute sceptics. Having broken that sentence structure, I now present: iii) contextualists, who emphasise “the socio-historical content of the Qu’ran and of its subsequent interpretations.” Or, as a Presbyterian minister I knew many years ago was fond of saying, “a text without a context is a pretext.”  Thus, while I agree with the very well expressed statement by Sheik Yasin on context towards the end of that video referred to in the previous post, it is clear nonetheless that he is not a contextualist in Saeed’s sense, and may even be in camp i), though possibly in camp ii).  I still find it unfortunate that contextualism does not, in general, go as far in Qu’ranic studies as perhaps it should, as it has (much to the distress of many) in Biblical Studies.


0402occidental140 So much could be said here! People often resist complexity. They like their boundaries neat. Thus the vision of Al-Qaeda that emerges in Burke’s book may be resisted because the appeal of something resembling a Western or a James Bond movie is far easier to imagine. This can be a fatal trap when the true situation is simply not so neat, as Burke convincingly demonstrates. See too a 2005 post here: Lernaean Hydra – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. I posted that at the time of the London bombings.

Let’s just take one example: Did the CIA fund the Taliban?

This is a widely held view. I even shared it myself. However, is it true? It may well be that it is not. There are issues of chronology involved – the Taliban emerged rather late in the day compared to other mujahadeen groups, and Burke is excellent at unpicking all that. (Some thought of by many as Al-Qaeda in many books turn out to have been very loosely connected, or not connected, or even rivals of Al-Qaeda.)  Certainly the CIA, mostly via Pakistan intelligence and along with Saudi and other financiers, did fund some of those fighting the USSR and the Afghan Marxist regime, but it appears the US backed off from that policy during the Clinton years, and that further in the stage when such funding was occurring the Taliban hardly existed. Nonetheless, much of the materiel did fall eventually into Taliban hands.

This video is a typical example of the case for the CIA having funded the Taliban, but looking at it carefully one does see much chronological sliding going on. Rather, when the Taliban did emerge it appears the question really was “Who the hell are they?” See for example The Taliban Files from National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 97. Various Pakistani groups, on the other hand, were heavily involved, but Pakistan too is another instance of complexity, but there isn’t space here to go down that track. See also Beyond the Burqa: The Taliban, Women and the C.I.A. (September 12, 2001).


shsislam I am really trying not to sound patronising, because I respect idealism and even cling to some to this day, modified as it might be by experience and knowledge, especially of history.

The young, confronted with a world that all will admit is not the best of all possible worlds, may react with cynicism, apathy, or a deep desire to make a difference. Those who desire to make a difference will soon seek out how to make a difference, and therein is some danger, as well, of course, as much of the hope of the world. Those boys at The Mine, just like their confreres in the rather fundamentalist Christian and Jewish or political activist groups in the school, look for people who offer convincing solutions. Now you have to admit that both those speakers in the 2005 seminar (the video linked from the previous post in this series) are quite excellent public speakers. As a former debating coach I wouldn’t mind having them on my team, and it is no accident that one of the two sixteen year old presenters was indeed a valuable member of his age-group’s debating team, as was the brave young lad in cadet uniform who got up to rebut what he had heard. (The body language going on behind him, if you have seen the video, is interesting; it’s almost as if the presenters wish there was a hook in the wings or a trapdoor under the stage.) That lad, by the way, is now one of my Facebook friends.

You will also note on the right that the seminar the previous year directly dealt with the issue of terror. The tactic was definitely not recommended.

We need to remind ourselves that terrorism is a tactic and not an ideology, nor is it inevitable in a Muslim context. The nearest that terrorism came to being a rather empty ideology was in the case of the Russian nihilists and the weird Germans in the 60s and 70s. Burleigh is actually very good on both, especially on the Germans.

On the other hand, when an ideology goes in for group judgements, whether these be based on class, race or religion, there is a likelihood that terror may become an attractive tactic. In my view we need to strenuously resist group judgements. It also must be said that the ideology recommended by the two speakers in the 2005 seminar is ultimately total – they said as much – and you can’t get a higher authority than God as its author. Indeed, if the premises of the speakers were in fact correct it would follow that we should listen, but unfortunately I think the premises are highly questionable.

But as the speakers also said, we do have to all live together. Their solution, however, is not mine. In the world, let alone Australia, we all have to find ways to harmony in difference. It is a challenge, one we have not done too badly on here in Oz, comparatively, much better in fact than much of Europe.


One small but important example. In Blood & Rage (p. 468) Burleigh defines takfir as “the art of deluding infidels”. Burke notes (p. 331) “Takfir: excommunication, a practice in Shia Islam but until recently almost unknown among Sunnis.”  See also this from a conservative Muslim source. The authority referred to there is a key figure in the development of political Islam in the 20th century.

Jason Burke article.


2 responses to “Some non-fiction read recently 2c – tentative conclusions

  1. Martin

    April 23, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    I was just wondering if you’ve read Hans Kung’s “Islam: Past, Present and Future” Oneworld, 2007. I’m guessing it’s likely to be a quite thoughtful work on these kinds of issues because of the author. I ran into it at the Kings Cross Library but I was dissuaded from grabbing it there and then both because of its length and because I had a feeling much of it would be going over old ground for me as a student of the area. I am now reconsidering it and know you have read fairly widely in this area so I wonder if you have any thoughts on its usefulness. Please excuse the grammar.

  2. Neil

    April 23, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    Thanks, Martin. No I haven’t read it but thanks for the heads-up. I may seek to borrow it after you. 🙂

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