From an anatomy of modern Pakistan to an account of the hunt for Bin Laden, here are the 10 best titles on militant Islamism
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 7 November 2012 19.08 GMT[/*]
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Indonesian Muslims burn a US flag during a protest against the film Innocence of Muslims in September. Photograph: Abbas Sandji/AP
Jason Burke is the Guardian's and the Observer's south Asia correspondent, and the author of The 9/11 Wars and Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam.
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"The last decade of conflicts has created a massive new body of writing about Muslim extremism. The difference with the late 1990s, when I first started reporting on Muslim extremism while working in Afghanistan andPakistan, is immense. The works below all helped me focus and broaden my own thinking, writing and reporting of the topic over the intervening years."
1. Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam by Gilles Kepel
I read this in Pakistan, over a period of weeks shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Its sweep across the broad landscape of radical Sunni activism was a revelation. The book is one of the few genuinely rigorous academic overviews of the social and historical roots of the phenomenon of modern Muslim extremism – ranging geographically from the far east to Europe, and chronologically from the 1960s onwards – that also remains readable. Its primary thesis – that violent Islamic militancy is in large part a response to the failure of political Islamist activism – has stood the test of time. Kepel is famous in France but almost unknown outside. This is a shame. A classic.
2. A Fury for God: The Islamist Attack on America by Malise Ruthven
Ruthven has consistently shown himself to be one of the most lucid and informed writers on the Islamic world. His A Fury for God, published at speed after the 9/11 attacks, is a beautifully written explanation of the apparent rage that inspired them. I read it in northern Iraq in the summer of 2002, and recall its deep insights into the cultural aspects of radical Islamism. It's particularly strong on the complexity of the reaction provoked by the challenge of what we know in the west as "modernity" in many communities with a strong Muslim identity.
3. The Failure of Political Islam by Olivier Roy
This very early work made some fantastically valuable points. Roy is not always helped by poor translations but is always worth reading, however difficult the prose sometimes becomes. The points he made about Islamic radicalism being deeply contemporary rather than a throwback to the middle ages, as it's so often characterised, were seminal. His more recent works are hugely valuable too.
4. Infidels: A History of the Conflict Between Christendom and Islam by Andrew Wheatcroft
I read this in a US base in Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit in the summer of 2004, over long days of hanging around between patrols and operations with the US army. Largely through the arts (although it's astonishingly wide-ranging), the book explores the depiction of the Muslim east in the west and vica versa over the last millennium. Always provocative, it explores topics from Christian martyrdom in Islamic Spain to the errors in 20th-century western cinematic depictions of early Muslim armies. (There were almost no horses and virtually everyone fought with spears.)
5. Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq by Patrick Cockburn
I wish Cockburn's short book on the maverick Iraqi cleric Muqtada al'Sadr, who caused enormous problems for the Americans after the invasion of 2003, had been available when I was working in Baghdad, Basra and so on. Al'Sadr is a personality who is key not just for Iraq but for popular, working-class conservative Islamism and for Shia activism more broadly in the Muslim world. His career raises all sorts of important questions about identity, culture, politics and authenticity as well as exploring how large numbers of angry, poor, frustrated young men can be mobilised through informal and formal networks and directed into violence.
6. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden by Stephen Coll
There are many great things about this fine investigative history, but the way Coll nails the idea that the US created Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida is one of the most valuable. As Coll explains, and my own research has confirmed, US aid in the 1980s went via the Pakistanis to Afghan groups, not Arab extremists. Bin Laden clearly had no need of US dollars. That al-Qaida was a Frankenstein the CIA created makes for a neat morality tale, but it just isn't true.
7. Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven
This book generated a lot of controversy in Pakistan when it came out; it was attacked for being too sympathetic to the army. I've included it because I've always felt that understanding any militancy involves understanding the country, state and communities where it is rooted. Lieven's book is insightful – and depressing – about a hugely important country. Happily, I could have recommended a similar volume for almost every country where extremism now thrives. The same wasn't the case a decade ago!
8. The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left by Ed Husain
The story of a young Brit getting caught up in Islamist activism, albeit non-violent. Excellent on the cultural gap between first-generation Pakistani immigrants and their children in the UK.
9. Manhunt: From 9/11 to Abbottabad – the Ten-year Search for Osama bin Laden by Peter Bergen
A useful, intelligent and reasonable account of how Osama bin Laden was found and killed in May last year. Over a series of books since 2002, Bergen has proved himself one of the most reliable analysts on al-Qaida. All are worth reading. This is his latest.
10. The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
It is of course set in London and is about an agent provocateur, but anything you want to know about how Islamic militancy works you can find in this book. Conrad shows, with fabulous precision, how ideologies function, how people are drawn into violence, how states instrumentalise extremism and how amateurish it can so often be. All that is astonishingly familiar today. There is a brilliant line in the book where Conrad refers to how "the way of even the most justifiable revolutions is prepared by personal impulses disguised into creeds". This is a reminder that, however morally abhorrent, terrorism is a social activity like any other.
In: Afghanistan, Religion
Tags: Afghanistan, Occupation, by, US, NATO, Taliban, Pakistan, terrorist, Punjabi, ISI, Al, Qaeda, Iran, Intel, India
Location: Afghanistan (load item map)
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