Category Archives: generational change

Why the religious Right can be dangerous, but…

… how their influence is both exaggerated by and strengthened by the media.

As we know, the media thrive on conflict and dichotomy. We have a good example today in the Sydney Morning Herald where the activities of a minority group in Australian Christianity are puffed because of the potential for sensationalism: Christian leaders plan anti-Islam conference. Now how anyone can take seriously something that is the brainchild of someone who “was widely criticised for issuing a press release in the week after the Victorian disaster claiming the fires which claimed 173 lives were punishment for the relaxation of Victoria’s abortion laws” escapes me, but it does make good copy. A much more mainstream approach to the issue of Islam may be seen here.

The great irony of simplistic and confrontational approaches to Islam is that they mirror and give credence to the views of the violent extremists who are the cause for concern in the first place. Forget for the moment reflex cries of “racism” and “Islamophobia”. The truth is that such “good souls” as those concerned Christians are feeding the “enemy” whose recruitment drive among the young, idealistic or alienated* totally depends on believing that Islam is under attack. I am sure they thank Allah daily for the work of Pastor Nalliah, Fred Nile and David Clarke for making that belief even more acceptable. So without meaning to, some of the greatest friends of violent jihadist extremism in this country are Pastor Nalliah, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

evangelicalnation That the influence of the Religious Right in the USA is something of an illusion for which the US Right and liberals have both fallen is the thesis of an excellent book by Christine Wicker: The Fall of the Evangelical Nation (HarperOne 2008). By carefully examining the available statistics and how they are created Wicker proves, to my satisfaction, that the voice of the Religious Right has been magnified way beyond its actual potential strength. Rather than the commonly quoted “fact” that 25% of US citizens are “fundamentalists” the true figure is between 5% and 7%. That seems incredible until you see Wicker’s very readable analysis. According to Wicker, the fastest growing “religious” movement in the USA is “nonbelievers” – even if there is still a reluctance for various cultural reasons for Americans to identify on a census form as “atheist”. Then too there is a very active Religious Left, of which we normally hear little. Evidence of that may be seen every day on this blog: check “God’s Politics” in the side-bar.


See my 217 posts tagged “Christianity” and 151 tagged “Islam”. Go to Imran Ahmad for a fresh and good-humoured Muslim view and check Phillip Adams interviewing him. See also: “Jessica Stern is an expert on terrorism. She teaches it as a subject at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and was recently the Superterrorism Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. In this conversation, first broadcast in 2003/4, Jessica talks about her book which is the result of 4 years research, interviewing a range of Jewish, Christian and Muslim terrorists.”

* 11 August the young, idealistic or alienated: See the sad tale of 18-year-old Jakarta bomber Dani Dwi Permana.

…Friends, neighbours and worshippers at his mosque yesterday said Dani – almost universally described as ”very nice” – was the unlikeliest of mass murderers, albeit someone who was easily persuaded…

His mother lived in Kalimantan after a messy divorce. Things got worse when his father was imprisoned about a year ago for robbery. It was then that Dani seems to have fallen under the spell of Saifuddin. ”Ustad Saifuddin usually spent time with the caretakers [young devotees] at the mosque. Usually they would gather here after evening prayer,” said Harno. ”Sometimes he would go out with them camping. But that didn’t seem to be suspicious because that is what an ustad should do.”

Even so, Dani had clearly become radicalised. According to a school friend, he talked openly of waging jihad, the Islamic notion of struggle that is typically a peaceful pursuit by the devout but is twisted by terrorist groups to justify mass murder…

”We now know that [Saifuddin] was trying to brainwash many young people here. He told these youngsters that American was bad.”

Saifuddin is believed to have groomed up to 10 men from the area. According to Indonesian counter-terrorism sources, Saifuddin is suspected to be one of Noordin Mohammed Top’s most trusted talent spotters. Noordin is thought to have organised the Jakarta bombings on July 17. On the weekend Indonesian police believed they had killed him in a siege but were mistaken.

That last, unfortunately, simply adds to Top’s legend.


Norm, Ahmed, Shafana, Aunt Sarrinah, radicalisation and Australia

The first of the Things to look forward to is now done. It was the world premiere of Alana Valentine’s Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah and a revival of Alex Buzo’s 1969 classic Norm and Ahmed.

pakistanirestaurant shafana-0026-aunt-sarrinah-8low

Left: “Ahmed” takes “Norm” to a Pakistani Restaurant

Right: the opening scene of Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah

Pics from the Alex Buzo Company blog linked above.

Of her new play Alana Valentine writes:

I hope Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah will surprise audiences with its portrait of Afghani Muslim women, who are articulate, highly educated, deeply spiritual and enraged by the way Australian and global media paint them as oppressed, meek and silent. To be part of a project where Buzo’s theme and concerns might be reignited through a new work…is genuinely exciting. In effect, it allows the ‘conversation’ to move into a third dimension: not just Buzo speaking anew to the 21st Century, but Buzo reflected and responded to through the voice of a contemporary playwright. It’s a vision of Australian theatre as a historical continuum…

Alana’s plays are always grounded in in depth research and interviews with the groups she is representing; that depth came through in last night’s performance which both Sirdan and I found very thought-provoking. The issue is whether or not Shafana should wear hijab. She eventually decides she will, even if Aunt Sarrinah, whom she dearly loves, is somewhat appalled by that decision. The play takes us beyond our often mind-numbingly dreadful understanding (if that is the right word) of the issues Australian Muslim women face and that we face in our response to them. A valuable exercise well dramatised, if, I thought, just a bit slow off the mark at the beginning.

As for Norm and Ahmed I agree with the woman sitting next to me in the theatre: “the more things change the more they stay the same.”  Sirdan was born in Zimbabwe (Rhodesia at the time) but could well relate to Norm and Ahmed – for him it was, unlike for me, as new as Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah. He agreed that the contemporary relevance of this forty-year-old play was quite amazing.

A thoroughly good night out.

By coincidence, my mind still on Alana’s play especially, I read a truly excellent article in this morning’s Australian: From a human to a terrorist by Sally Neighbour.

… The perplexing question is: Why? How does a seemingly ordinary young man come to embrace violent extremism? Its corollary, the question that confounds counter-terrorism experts worldwide, is: how can we stop them?

The rapidly morphing nature of global terrorism demands an evolving response. Since 9/11, Osama bin Laden’s al-Qa’ida has diminished but its ideology has flourished, spawning hundreds of like-minded groups and cells across the world. US terrorism specialist Marc Sageman describes this new phenomenon as a "violent Islamist born-again social movement" straddling the globe. Its fragmented and anarchic nature makes it arguably a bigger threat than al-Qa’ida, according to Britain’s Strategy for Countering International Terrorism, unveiled in March this year. Unlike the once highly centralised al-Qa’ida, the new grassroots terrorism cannot be fought with border protection measures or military strikes, but must be tackled at its roots.

This reality has spawned a new buzzword in the anti-terrorism fraternity: counter-radicalisation. Its aim, in Sageman’s words, is to "stop the process of radicalisation before it reaches its violent end"…

Sageman, the pre-eminent expert on radicalisation theory, is a former CIA mujaheddin handler in Pakistan, now a psychologist and author of two books, Understanding Terror Networks and Leaderless Jihad. After studying 165 jihadists, Sageman is adamant that terrorists are not born but made. There is no psychological profile of a terrorist and Sageman believes "root causes" such as socioeconomic deprivation are overrated. The most common factor in the making of a terrorist is alienation. Of the jihadists Sageman studied, he found that "a remarkable 78 per cent were cut off from their cultural and social origins". He concludes "this absence of connection is a necessary condition for a network of people to join the global jihad"…

Sageman adds they are not violent psychopaths but "generally idealistic young people seeking dreams of glory fighting for justice and fairness"…

Much better in its analysis that most of the rants you see. The dynamics of that alienation, though not in a form likely to lead to terrorism, are also seen in Alana Valentine’s play.

Oh – and a footnote. I have always thought taking the French path and “outlawing” the hijab in Australia would be really stupid. Fortunately both John Howard and Kevin Rudd have not been tempted.

* Special thanks to Emma Buzo. 🙂


See the The Australian Stage review.

[On Alana’s play] …This is a powerful night at theatre and a welcome, bold, essential addition to the culturally homogeneous theatre one can expect to see in some of the larger venues around town. I believe this to be an extraordinarily brave and bold double bill containing four very fine performers. Actors who embrace the challenge of new work, with new perspectives are worth their weight in effusive praise and I feel compelled to mention the spectacular performances by Camilla Ah Kin and Sheridan Harbridge who confront this subject with tenderness, fierceness and great compassion – to the extent that I felt stunned and broken by the time the lights dimmed.


Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve — and all that

Gay marriage is definitely on the agenda at the moment both here and in the USA. Here Saturday 1 August (by coincidence the official birthday of all horses in the Southern Hemisphere) is set as a National Day of Action. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is numbered among those unwilling to alter the definition of “marriage” in the Marriage Act, although most of the legal barriers in gay civil unions have been removed during his term of office. The current Marriage Act (1961) defines “marriage” as involving a man and a woman.

There are those for whom the issue is simple: this act is discriminatory. It is analogous, they would say, to a citizenship act limiting citizenship to a certain race. Therefore just as we would legitimately see such a citizenship act as racist, so the current Marriage Act is homophobic and those who defend it are thus homophobes.

I don’t think it is quite so simple. For a start I very much doubt that K Rudd is a homophobe, but he is a politician who knows that the majority of Australians may not be ready for such a transformation at the deepest legal level of the definition of marriage. I know others of that opinion who are by no stretch of the imagination homophobic, though it is quite certain that your actual homophobes would oppose changing the Act. K Rudd may also be acting out of conviction, not out of political expediency or strategy – the second if you wish to be less cynical.

It seems to me – and this is not original as I first heard it proposed some years ago by Justice Michael Kirby – that the problem is the dual function of the Marriage Act as it stands. Here you get to a position the non-religious Right (libertarians for example) may well support: that it is not the business of government to define “marriage”. It is the business of government to set parameters in terms of age and species (excluding, for example, marrying a goldfish) and incest and to set the rights and responsibilities of those entering into a civil partnership so delineated. Such boundaries are needed for all sorts of reasons such as tax, social security benefits, visitation rights in hospitals, insurance, superannuation, and so on.

The other part of the current Act, however, is rather different. It involves privileging one kind of partnership or union which has the blessings of tradition and Church and Synagogue. Excluded are gay and lesbian “marriages” and polygamous or polyandrous “marriages”.

The solution is to regard civil unions or partnerships as a legitimate area for government, but to leave religious definitions of marriage to individuals and their faith communities. In a religious ceremony one would still “sign the register” under such a Civil Unions Act, but the sacramental side would entirely be a religious affair not in itself needed to make the union legitimate. Some religious groups would limit marriage to men and women, others may not. The Metropolitan Community Church, for example, would clearly conduct religious ceremonies for gay and lesbian partnerships, the Uniting Church may do, the Catholic Church probably would not, and Muslims may be entitled to sharia on this matter.

If you look at Some light rather than heat on non-standard marriages, a post from October 2007, you will see that I am now in the camp of The Rabbit and my ex-student David Smith on this one. As David commented then:

I agree with the Rabbit. Take the state out of marriage altogether. I know a gay activist from Utah who said that he was beginning to see the possibilities of a political alliance on this issue. Legal polygamy, like legal gay marriage, would “hurt” other people because it dilutes what they see as the definition of the holy sacrament of marriage: the union of one man and one woman. I don’t see any point in trying to downplay the subjective pain that this causes to conservative religious people, nor do I think that it’s the role of the legislature to try and educate them out of their prejudices. But that pain would only be felt because the universalising laws of the state would lump the traditional man/woman sacrament, polygamy and gay marriage into the single legal category of “marriage.”

If, as The Rabbit suggests, the state doesn’t recognise any marriages, this gets rid of most of the problem. It is much easier to accept the existence of something you see as abhorrent if the state isn’t actively endorsing it. Marriage would then become the domain of churches and private agents who would be free to impose whatever strict standards they wished in order to certify it.

My proposal above is a little more radical, however, as (just to make clear) I am suggesting there should not be anything called a “Marriage Act” but rather a universal “Civil Unions Act”.

Related: Email to a Megachurch Pastor by Anthony Venn-Brown (Australia).


“post-modernistic bogans” – an interesting thought

This is a weird post, but is a reflection on the changing population of Australia. It was also inspired by a vent on Thomas’s blog which he has thought fit to withdraw since. It would appear Thomas had an unpleasant olfactory and visual experience recently…

038 Funny in a way, as I had a run-in with the Rabbit a few years back on this very subject: More of the same; on bogans present and past. I cited the famous Hogarth picture on the right as evidence of the source of the bogan culture in Australia. 😉 Moralising rather too much I noted:

Yes, I see bogans every day; they move through Surry Hills and Waterloo day in and day out. They haven’t all moved out to the south-west. Over time I have learned to discern that there are gradations and subtleties here as much as anywhere, and that sweeping generalisations are really out of place. I also grew up among bogans; back in the 50s Sutherland Primary was probably bogan central, before the estates in the south-west were built. Vermont Street was wall to wall bogans… Except we didn’t have the word then. Maybe we were lucky.

Maybe “there but for the grace of God go I” is not such a bad position; it doesn’t have to be patronising. We could try being a bit less judgmental about situations we do not really understand. And we could lend support to all those amazing people, probably mostly not politicians and journalists, who actually do something about it all.

The House of Bogan, manufacturer of T-shirts and hoodies, supports my views on the bogans’ ancient lineage.

Whilst the actual word “bogan” has only been in mainstream circulation for around 20 years, historic evidence points to the existence of bogans for many centuries past.  It is widely believed that the majority of the members in the first fleet to land in Australia were actually bogan prisoners from the United Kingdom.  Therefore, it appears that Australia was actually established by criminally insane bogans who enjoyed drinking, fighting and shooting.

he evolution of the bogan to that of what we know in the present day is largely believed to have commenced in the late 1970’s.  The children of ‘generation x’ form much of the current populous, whilst their offspring continue in the same mould as post-modernistic bogans.  The adoption of key elements such as the ‘mullet’, the flannelette shirt and the ‘trackie-daks’ are also indicators that the contemporary bogan gains inspiration from fashions of the 1980’s in the era of the ‘bogan renaissance’.

Unlike the populace at large, the average bogan is most likely born in Australia.

That brings me to the other strand here, Australia’s changing population. ABC reports:

A report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics has found that more than a quarter of people living in Australia were born overseas.

The report examined migration data for the financial year ending in mid 2008, and includes people who stay in the country for more than 12 months. Neil Scott from the ABS says it is the highest proportion of migrants in the population since the late 19th Century. He says the number of European-born migrants is declining, while the proportion born in Asia is rising.

"Traditionally the United Kingdom, which has remained the largest group, with 1.2 million calling Australia home," he said. "But it’s been declining over the years, so even though it’s the largest, it’s not as large as it used to be in terms of proportion. It’s closely followed by New Zealand, which have about half a million people living in Australia and then followed by China, which have about 314,000."

It was the third consecutive year that overseas migration contributed more to Australia’s population growth than natural increase…

You can find the details in the ABS Report. I found it fascinating reading. Here’s just one item for you to think about:


Sally considered this too in her photoblog yesterday:

Did you know that 2% of Sydney-siders are Aboriginal, and 32% were born overseas? According to the 2006 census, United Kingdom, China and New Zealand are the countries of origin of most immigrants, followed by Vietnam, Lebanon, India, Italy and the Philippines.Most Sydneysiders are native speakers of English; many have a second language, the most common being Arabic (predominately Lebanese), Chinese languages (mostly Mandarin, Shanghainese or Cantonese), and Italian. Sydney has the seventh largest percentage of a foreign born population in the world,ahead of cities such as London and Paris but lower than Toronto and Miami.

An amusing visual rendition of the faces of Australia can be found on Faces of Sydney – we’re all bogans! In 2006 there was an exhibition of Faces of Sydney:

If you pop down to Custom’s House in Circular Quay, you’ll see quite excitingly this Faces of Sydney Exhibit. It’s that thing you may have read about where they digitally imposed the faces of some massive sample of Sydney-siders into each other…

Then they separate them into suburbs like Haymarket and Redfern…

Aussie City Life (link at the start of this paragraph) mocked up some faces from other parts of Australia. Quite funny really.


And even more, I’m afraid…

Curious, isn’t it? Here I am in this country which has allegedly taken up “curry bashing” as a sport extending beyond the Cricket field and I bought my Sydney Morning Herald this morning, several of the lead stories in which are by one Arjun Ramachandran, from the Indian newsagent to see that Miranda Devine has returned to the theme. I even agree with some of what she says, insofar as the people actually doing the bashing tend to come from a pool of thugs fairly well known for a similar interest in targeting gays, not that Miranda mentions that. (Lord Malcolm was once on the receiving end.) Jim Belshaw’s term “underclass” is another that Miranda eschews. Instead her King Charles’ Head leads her down a slippery slope – no racial profiling intended – where I would rather not follow. She accuses Kevin Rudd of hypocrisy for advocating that vigilante action really is not a good idea, and rather commends the good folk of Cronulla 2005.

…In a strange twist of fate, Superintendent Robert Redfern, the Parramatta local area commander who was hard at work at the Harris Park protests at midnight on Tuesday, was also police commander at Cronulla during the 2005 race riots. We saw then the dangers of vigilantism.

Back then, Cronulla locals had been complaining for months that police were playing down assaults and menacing behaviour by what they described as "Middle Eastern" youths from south-western Sydney. There was a protest, which turned into an ugly riot with racist violence against anyone who looked Middle Eastern, followed by revenge attacks as young men from the south-west drove to Cronulla damaging property and assaulting people, with police nowhere to be seen.

In Harris Park, the script is familiar. Police play down crime problems, victims lose faith in the authorities to protect them, start to protest, take matters into their own hands, attack innocent passers-by. So far there have been no revenge attacks but it’s unlikely police can guarantee they won’t occur.

I sincerely hope Miranda isn’t hoping… And I should add, as a Shire boy myself originally, that the openly racist nut who attempted to be elected to Sutherland Council last year failed miserably.

You see, I brought the first Indian into The Shire myself, or perhaps I did. It was back in 1957 when I brought one of my best school friends, Ashok, home to Kirrawee. That of course was when institutional racism was alive and well in Australia. There was the White Australia policy, generally supported by the Left partly on the grounds that it protected Australian working conditions and kept the “Yellow Peril” at bay, and there was our Aboriginal policy, though that was beginning to be questioned. There the Left had a better track record. Mind you, hindsight is all very well, isn’t it?

My father was a bit worried about the prospect of meeting Ashok. He wanted to know how black he was, and warned me about the strange things some folks did when the moon was full. On meeting him, though, it was almost love at first sight, and over thirty years later, when my father was unfortunately quite gaga, he would ask me how Ashok was, though it was thirty years since Ashok had gone on to higher fields at St Paul’s School in London. His father, you see, was Assistant Indian Trade Commissioner, which explains why Ashok and Anand were in Australia at that time. My mother thought Ashok’s mum’s saris were really beautiful, and Ashok’s manners were at times a contrast to my own.

The local Kirrawee boys were just disappointed that Ashok didn’t have feathers and a bow and arrow…

Forty years on and The Mine had more subcontinentals – who tended to call themselves “curries”—than you could poke a stick at. Not that we did. We did rely on them to keep up the school’s cricketing reputation though.



Pondering the Defence White Paper

There has been so much said about the latest Australian Defence White Paper that I haven’t much to add, except that it would be a good idea to actually read the thing. Some of those below clearly have and some haven’t.

I am not at all surprised by some of the things therein. For example, it is hardly surprising that it takes into account the various larger countries in our region, which I see as inevitable rather than anti-Asian. Who’s to say what may happen over the next twenty-one years? It may be we find ourselves working closely with China in certain circumstances, complementing their superior forces with our own, or we may find ourselves working with Indonesia, or India, or whoever. The USA may well not be such a power in our region by 2030. We can hardly project no change in our defence capability by 2030, can we? Of course there is a very good chance, personally, that I will be dead by 2030 so won’t get to see our shiny new military gear, and it may also well be that costs and dates will blow out so that some of it doesn’t arrive in due time.

But can you imagine in 2030 our having our present capability unchanged, whoever is in government? Imagine someone in 1920 planning ahead to 1941. They didn’t, of course…


Here’s a selection of posts:



Some non-fiction read recently: 2a

See also Some non-fiction read recently: 1.

The first two books have led to much thinking – to that degree they are both good books. The thinking is so profound – in the sense that I am exploring again some important territory, not in the sense that I can offer great depth – that it will lead to post 2b in the near future. I will attempt there to draw out some ideas and will relate them to some things I have said before. I have also downloaded a video I found while looking for something else; it turns out to be a document, in a way, from my own recent past – or at least I know and have spent much time with some who feature in it. It is a video that will knock the socks off some readers. It is related to the issues in the following two books.

star30 star30star30star30star30 Madeleine Albright, The Mighty & the Almighty: Reflections on Power, God, and World Affairs, Macmillan 2006.

Yes, that Madeleine Albright. The thesis is that while there is a place for the military in the struggles that engage us, the more important struggle is in the world of ideas, and that must include a recognition of the significance of religion to the majority of the people in the world. I find this a very wise and persuasive book. Some of the policy moves the Obama administration has made in recent times are less surprising in the light of this book.

Albright was involved too with the Changing Course – A New Direction for U.S. Relations with the Muslim WorldReport of the Leadership Group on U.S.-Muslim Engagement September 2008 (SECOND PRINTING, WITH A NEW PREFACE AND ENDORSEMENTS February 2009). You can download a PDF copy here; I strongly urge you to do so.

See also Madeleine Albright’s Take on Religion and Politics by Jim Zogby on Muslim Media Network.

star30star30star30 Michael Burleigh, Blood & Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism, Harper 2008

This isn’t really a cultural history of its subject, but rather a series of narratives of selected terrorist movements from 19th century Fenians through Russian Nihilists to of course the current phenomenon of terrorists who claim to be advancing the cause of Islam – a long-winded expression I have devised as more satisfactory than alternatives such as Islamists, Jihadists, or Islamofascists. The last one Burleigh also rejects, and he makes fairly careful use of the first two. He prefers another term that is unlikely to catch on: jihadi-salafist. On p.353 he compares the world of Islam to a series of concentric circles. The largest, outer circle “includes the world’s one and a half billion Muslims, divided into Sunni, Shia, and hundreds of other sects…” He doesn’t have a problem with most in that circle. The next circle inside the larger one includes “Islamists” – people who want Muslim states to introduce or maintain Islamic law. These too are in the main not terrorists. The next and smaller circle are the Salafi, but even there while “most [violent] jihadists are salafists, not all salafists are jihadists.” The final smallest circle Burleigh seems to forget about, but clearly it is those who actually embrace terror.

Now that isn’t too bad, really, as a kind of model. I had approached the book with dread, since he does at one point tell us that John Howard was the world’s most successful conservative leader. He is, on the other hand, not very fond of Rumsfeld and Cheney, it would appear, but does speak fairly kindly of George Bush. The book was after all written in the rarefied atmosphere of the Hoover Institution.

One of the book’s most annoying features is the author’s habit of parading his Aunt Sallys, his King Charles’ Heads, his hobbyhorses, rather too often and sometimes too smugly. You can almost guess what they might be. But the book is not quite as bad as some left reviewers have made out, nor nearly as good as Quadrant thought. Its great strength is that he tells his stories very well, when he’s not doing the right-wing whinging bits, and those stories are fascinating and disturbing enough, and I believe, going on the ones I already knew about, the telling is accurate enough. So the book really is informative. To his credit, too, Burleigh is firmly opposed to torture, and cognisant of right-wing terrorism.

See also a Google search. Especially look at Those who live by the bomb (Jason Burke) and Shadows of the gunmen (Giles Foden). Historian Fred Halliday is particularly pissed off in Blood and Rage, By Michael Burleigh.

Blood and Rage proclaims itself to be a "cultural history of terrorism". In eight far-ranging and fluently written chapters, it covers the Fenians in 19th-century Ireland, Russian nihilists, American anarchists, ETA, the Baader-Meinhof group in Germany and Red Brigades in Italy, as well as the ANC, Black September and – in a long concluding chapter – more recent Islamist groups. All are, for Burleigh, examples of one phenomonon, a cult of death and destruction that has little anchorage in politics and is more the product of "a pre-existing chemical mix" that is set to explode.

The first thing that strikes the reader of this book is its mediocrity. All is based on secondary material, and the main stories, events and characters are well known. Despite the fact that most episodes involve people who are still alive, or who lived through them, Burleigh never sees fit to interview anyone. The overall analytic framework is weak, and unoriginal. We never learn what a "cultural history" means, as if there could be such a thing. Compared to some major works on terrorism, by authors such as Walter Laqueur, Conor Gearty or Gerard Chaliand – who, without any shred of indulgence, do seek political causes, and recognise political context – Burleigh’s account is lacking. Equally, in his discussion of Islamist guerrilla groups, he has nothing to add to the works of such writers as Jason Burke, Fawaz Gerges, Olivier Roy, Malise Ruthven or Steven Simon….

Rushed opinion is buttressed by arrogance, not least towards former colleagues and institutions in which the author worked. A reference to the students of his former institution, the LSE, whom I have had the pleasure of teaching these past 25 years, has them described as "Eurotrash and Americans doing ‘Let’s See Europe’". At one point he sneers at fellow-participants at a conference in Madrid in 2005 on the dialogue of civilisations, "the usual obsfuscatory cloud of ecumenical goodwill". He fails to note that some of those who participated, such as the Egyptian Nasser Abu Zaid, had suffered at first hand from Islamist violence and knew far more than he about the matter.

In predictable vein, the final sections launch a general offensive against academics who write on terrorism for failing to engage with the reality of suffering involved. A survey of books shows, Burleigh tells us, "how unserious academics have become as a group". This would be as much a surprise to the Laqueurs and Geartys of this world as it is to those of us who have worked, over decades, on the Middle East. Bashing academics, the stock-in-trade of the sometimes virulently anti-intellectual Robert Fisk, is best left to others….

And there’s more. I agree about Jason Burke and Malise Ruthven, as I have read them. On the other hand, I did learn quite a bit from Blood & Rage.

star30star30star30star30 James  M McPherson (ed), The American Presidents, DK Publishing 2004 (revised).

This is a set of essays on all the US Presidents up to George W, each essay more or less of equal length and each by a different historian. Considering I knew so little about some of them I found the book worth reading. Some of the essays are brilliant. In the back you’ll find all the Inaugural Speeches. It is lavishly illustrated.

Now I am not promising Part B for tomorrow. I have a lot of thinking to do. But you may in the meantime be interested in this rather Marxist essay: Terry Eagleton, Culture & Barbarism: Metaphysics in a Time of Terrorism.

Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God? Who would have expected theology to rear its head once more in the technocratic twenty-first century, almost as surprisingly as some mass revival of Zoroastrianism? Why is it that my local bookshop has suddenly sprouted a section labeled “Atheism,” hosting anti-God manifestos by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others, and might even now be contemplating another marked “Congenital Skeptic with Mild Baptist Leanings”? Why, just as we were confidently moving into a posttheological, postmetaphysical, even posthistorical era, has the God question broken out anew?

Can one simply put it down to falling towers and fanatical Islamists? I don’t really think we can. Certainly the New Atheists’ disdain for religion did not sprout from the ruins of the World Trade Center. While some of the debate took its cue from there, 9/11 was not really about religion, any more than the thirty-year-long conflict in Northern Ireland was over papal infallibility. In fact, radical Islam generally understands exceedingly little about its own religious faith, and there is good evidence to suggest that its actions are, for the most part, politically driven.

That does not mean these actions have no religious impact or significance. Islamic fundamentalism confronts Western civilization with the contradiction between the West’s own need to believe and its chronic incapacity to do so. The West now stands eyeball-to-eyeball with a full-blooded “metaphysical” foe for whom absolute truths and foundations pose no problem at all-and this at just the point when a Western civilization in the throes of late modernity, or postmodernity if you prefer, has to skate by on believing as little as it decently can…

Eagleton always writes well.

Comments Off on Some non-fiction read recently: 2a

Posted by on April 19, 2009 in America, Best read of 2009, book reviews, fundamentalism and extremism, generational change, History, Islam, Middle East, politics, right wing politics, terrorism, USA