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If anyone was going to write a book exploring the development of the Islamic worlds volatile relationship with the West, then Malise Ruthven, author of numerous books on fundamentalism and religion in general and the Arab peoples and Islam in particular, was a good candidate. It is a book that was written in the heat of the moment as the author himself states, following the attacks on the Twin Towers and although the book is even subtitled, the Islamic Attack on America, it is actually about so much more that the relation ship between the two. The author is honest enough to venture the fact that he sees the book as offering very little that hasnt been written before. What is new about the book, however, is that it draws on the full range of resources to but its case together, from popular opinion, however misconceived, to specialist papers and academic reports that are not normally easily attainable to the man in the street. He is also brave enough to state in his opening salvo that whilst, at one extreme, popular media opinion is happy to tar a whole religious philosophy with the same brush and at the other political commentators have gone out of their way to exculpate the moderate majority of Muslims from any sympathetic attachment to the Twin Towers attacks, the answer is less clear cut. He sees the Muslim tradition as being a system that is not entirely blameless. In justification of that point he is also at pains to balance the argument with the fact that all three monotheistic Abrahamic traditions (that is Christianity, Judaism and Islam who all revere Abraham of the Old Testament) contain within their doctrines some justifications for violence which can easily be exploited by terrorism and evil deeds, but also in the name of patriotism, national resistance and even the promotion of human rights. Anyone who looks for a black and white picture on the subject will not find there answers here.
The book itself does open with the logical starting point, at least from a western perspective, September 11th. An examination of what little we know of Muhammad Atta and his network and planning is covered in the books first chapter. The natural progression of this is the whole philosophy of violence and suicide attacks within the Islamic scheme. As has been stated before by strict observance of the Koran (the Islamic holy book) violence, accepting self-defence and suicide are not permitted, which then leads into the argument of how representative of the faith are theses attackers. Maybe they are using religion as something to hide behind and their aims are more secular, political or plain anarchic. If you consider the target, how representative of the west is it? If they were making a statement against American foreign policy surely military and political targets would have been chosen, if western culture and ideals, wouldnt the Metropolitan Museum been more relevant? Instead they hit New York in its economic heart, the place where her financial power base was, and considering the range of nationalities based there not altogether representative of America herself. These ideas are deeply explored along with the ideology of all such suicide attackers.
With the obvious thrust out of the way the book then becomes much wider in its scope and much more interesting. Whilst many of us are familiar with the events of that day and since have seen many discussion on the matter, the more interesting arguments lie within the recent evolution of Islam itself. Whilst a bit of room is given over to the early days of Islam, one of the most interesting characters is Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) seen as the father of modern Islamic activism. Whilst the doctrine of jihad (the struggle or holy war) seems to remain unchanged since the creation of the Islamic code in the seventh century, in modern times the application of that has changed and an understanding of Qutb and those who follow his ideas is a key to understanding both the internal and external struggles of the faith and much space is devoted to this end.
Obviously such a book must touch on Bin Laden, but his personal philosophy is not the main issue here. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is covered in much detail, as this period really is a turning point in the way that Islamic extremists viewed the west. Ironically both the AlQaida and the Taliban are the legacy of American foreign policy in central Asia. The former are the remnants of the CIA funded mujahadin, a volunteer militia from all over the Islamic world put together to expel the Soviets from Muslim territory and the later are what became the power base in the vacuum left by the Soviet withdrawal and the American disinterest that followed. There is an argument that America has made a bed for itself in the way that it plays its game elsewhere in the world. An interesting analysis of the Saudi connection with the west highlights some interesting ironies as well as some warnings for the future. Saudi Arabia exports two things freely to the west, oil and fundamentalism, both of which are finding eager buyers in America. There is an interesting appraisal of the connection between western terror groups, such as Bader-Meinhoff and the Red Brigade and their seeming opposites in the Islamic world. It seems that these groups borrow more from the west than they admit to, ideology, tactics and mutual support are clearly seen and again the question is raised as to their nature, religious fanatics or anti capitalist anarchists. The enemy of my enemy is my friend is an argument that can be used to justify many unlikely pairings but is difficult to condone when dealing with a purely religious standpoint.
I found the book both detailed and full of a wealth of information and also compelling, being that it is, or should I say was, a subject I knew nothing about. The conclusion of the book is that if left unchecked, pressure from America and Israeli religious fundamentalists and the forces we have already seen at work within the Muslim world are putting the world on a collision course towards a clash of civilizations. Its an important book that goes a long way to understanding the reasons behind the rift between east and west. It is not an apologist work, understanding is not the same as condoning, but at a time when there seems to be a frenzy of intolerance and deliberate misunderstanding, a time when a discussion on the whole issue of the wearing of veils leads directly to talk of terrorism, it is a book that we can all benefit from reading. The world is not black and white; it is a complex mix of faiths, culture, secularism, policy, economics and patriotism, as well as so much more. If we can begin to understand someone who we may perceive as an enemy, then we are on the first step to seeing where the common ground and compromise lies, where a more tolerant and harmonious co-existence lies and where the only assured future of our very species awaits.