Bawer, Bruce. While Europe Slept. New York: Doubleday, 2006. ISBN 0-385-51472-7.
In 1997, the author visited the Netherlands for the first time and “thought I'd found the closest thing to heaven on earth”. Not long thereafter, he left his native New York for Europe, where he has lived ever since, most recently in Oslo, Norway. As an American in Europe, he has identified and pointed out many of the things which Europeans, whether out of politeness, deference to their ruling elites, or a “what-me-worry?” willingness to defer the apocalypse to their dwindling cohort of descendants, rarely speak of, at least in the public arena.

As the author sees it, Europe is going down, the victim of multiculturalism, disdain and guilt for their own Western civilisation, and “tolerance for [the] intolerance” of a fundamentalist Muslim immigrant population which, by its greater fertility, “fetching marriages”, and family reunification, may result in Muslim majorities in one or more European countries by mid-century.

This is a book which may open the eyes of U.S. readers who haven't spent much time in Europe to just how societally-suicidal many of the mainstream doctrines of Europe's ruling elites are, and how wide the gap is between this establishment (which is a genuine cultural phenomenon in Europe, encompassing academia, media, and the ruling class, far more so than in the U.S.) and the population, who are increasingly disenfranchised by the profoundly anti-democratic commissars of the odious European Union.

But this is, however, an unsatisfying book. The author, who has won several awards and been published in prestigious venues, seems more at home with essays than the long form. The book reads like a feature article from The New Yorker which grew to book length without revision or editorial input. The 237 page text is split into just three chapters, putatively chronologically arranged but, in fact, rambling all over the place, each mixing the author's anecdotal observations with stories from secondary sources, none of which are cited, neither in foot- or end-notes, nor in a bibliography.

If you're interested in these issues (and in the survival of Western civilisation and Enlightenment values), you'll get a better picture of the situation in Europe from Claire Berlinski's Menace in Europe (July 2006). As a narrative of the experience of a contemporary American in Europe, or as an assessment of the cultural gap between Western (and particularly Northern) Europe and the U.S., this book may be useful for those who haven't experienced these cultures for themselves, but readers should not over-generalise the author's largely anecdotal reporting in a limited number of countries to Europe as a whole.

June 2007 Permalink

Bin Ladin, Carmen. The Veiled Kingdom. London: Virago Press, 2004. ISBN 1-84408-102-8.
Carmen Bin Ladin, a Swiss national with a Swiss father and Iranian mother, married Yeslam Bin Ladin in 1974 and lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia from 1976 to 1985. Yeslam Bin Ladin is one of the 54 sons and daughters sired by that randy old goat Sheikh Mohamed Bin Laden on his twenty-two wives including, of course, murderous nutball Osama. (There is no unique transliteration of Arabic into English. Yeslam spells his name “Bin Ladin”, while other members of the clan use “Bin Laden”, the most common spelling in the media. This book uses “Bin Ladin” when referring to Yeslam, Carmen, and their children, and “Bin Laden” when referring to the clan or other members of it.) This autobiography provides a peek, through the eyes of a totally Westernised woman, into the bizarre medieval life of Saudi women and the arcane customs of that regrettable kingdom. The author separated from her husband in 1988 and presently lives in Geneva. The link above is to a U.K. paperback edition. I believe the same book is available in the U.S. under the title Inside the Kingdom : My Life in Saudi Arabia, but at the present time only in hardcover.

September 2004 Permalink

Buckley, Christopher. Florence of Arabia. New York: Random House, 2004. ISBN 0-8129-7226-0.
This is a very funny novel, and thought-provoking as well. Some speak of a “clash of civilisations” or “culture war” between the Western and Islamic worlds, but with few exceptions the battle has been waged inadvertently by the West, through diffusion of its culture through mass media and globalised business, and indirectly by Islam, through immigration without assimilation into Western countries. Suppose the West were to say, “OK, you want a culture war? Here's a culture war!” and target one of fundamentalist Islam's greatest vulnerabilities: its subjugation and oppression of women?

In this story, the stuck-on-savage petroleum superpower Royal Kingdom of Wasabia cuts off one head too many when they execute a woman who had been befriended by Foreign Service staffer Florence Farfaletti, herself an escapee from trophy wife status in the desert kingdom, who hammers out a fifty-page proposal titled “Female Emancipation as a Means of Achieving Long-Term Political Stability in the Near East” and, undiplomatically vaulting over heaven knows how many levels of bureaucrats and pay grades, bungs it into the Secretary of State's in-box. Bold initiatives of this kind are not in keeping with what State does best, which is nothing, but Florence's plan comes to the attention of the mysterious “Uncle Sam” who appears to have unlimited financial resources at his command and the Washington connections to make just about anything happen.

This sets things in motion, and soon Florence and her team, including a good ole' boy ex-CIA killer, Foreign Service officer who detests travel, and public relations wizard so amoral his slime almost qualifies him for OPEC membership, are set up in the Emirate of Matar, “Switzerland of the Gulf”, famed for its duty-free shopping, offshore pleasure domes at “Infidel Land”, and laid-back approach to Islam by clergy so well-compensated for their tolerance they're nicknamed “moolahs”. The mission? To launch TVMatar, a satellite network targeting Arab women, headed by the wife of the Emir, who was a British TV presenter before marrying the randy royal.

TVMatar's programming is, shall we say, highly innovative, and before long things are bubbling on both sides of the Wasabi/Matar border, with intrigue afoot on all sides, including Machiavellian misdirection by those masters of perfidy, the French. And, of course (p. 113), “This is the Middle East! … Don't you understand that since the start of time, startin' with the Garden of Eden, nothing has ever gone right here?” Indeed, before long, a great many things go all pear-shaped, with attendant action, suspense, laughs, and occasional tragedy. As befits a comic novel, in the end all is resolved, but many are the twists and turns to get there which will keep you turning pages, and there are delightful turns of phrase throughout, from CIA headquarters christened the “George Bush Center for Intelligence” in the prologue to Shem, the Camel Royal…but I mustn't spoil that for you.

This is a delightful read, laugh out loud funny, and enjoyable purely on that level. But in a world where mobs riot, burn embassies, and murder people over cartoons, while pusillanimous European politicians cower before barbarism and contemplate constraining liberties their ancestors bequeathed to humanity in the Enlightenment, one cannot help but muse, “OK, you want a culture war?”

March 2006 Permalink

Carlos [Ilich Ramírez Sánchez]. L'Islam révolutionnaire. Textes et propos recueillis, rassemblés et présentés par Jean-Michel Vernochet. Monaco: Éditions du Rocher, 2003. ISBN 2-268-04433-5.
Prior to his capture in Sudan in 1994 and “exfiltration” to a prison in France by the French DST, Carlos (“the Jackal”), nom de guerre of Venezuelan-born Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (a true red diaper baby, his brothers were named “Vladimir” and “Lenin”) was one of the most notorious and elusive terrorists of the latter part of the twentieth century. This is a collection of his writings and interviews from prison, mostly dating from the early months of 2003. I didn't plan it that way, but I found reading Carlos immediately after Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies (above) extremely enlightening, particularly in explaining the rather mysterious emerging informal alliance among Western leftists and intellectuals, the political wing of Islam, the remaining dribs and drabs of Marxism, and third world kleptocratic and theocratic dictators. Unlike some Western news media, Carlos doesn't shrink from the word “terrorism”, although he prefers to be referred to as a “militant revolutionary”, but this is in many ways a deeply conservative book. Carlos decries Western popular culture and its assault on traditional morality and family values in words which wouldn't seem out of place in a Heritage Foundation white paper. A convert to Islam in 1975, he admits he paid little attention to the duties and restrictions of his new religion until much later. He now believes that only Islam provides the framework to resist what he describes as U.S. totalitarian imperialism. Essentially, he's exchanged utopian Marxism for Islam as a comprehensive belief system. Now consider Popper: the essence of what he terms the open society, dating back to the Athens of Pericles, is the absence of any utopian vision, or plan, or theory of historical inevitability, religious or otherwise. Open societies have learned to distinguish physical laws (discovered through the scientific method) from social laws (or conventions), which are made by fallible humans and evolve as societies do. The sense of uncertainty and requirement for personal responsibility which come with an open society, replacing the certainties of tribal life and taboos which humans evolved with, induce what Popper calls the “strain of civilisation”, motivating utopian social engineers from Plato through Marx to attempt to create an ideal society, an endpoint of human social evolution, forever frozen in time. Look at Carlos; he finds the open-ended, make your own rules, everything's open to revision outlook of Western civilisation repellent. Communism having failed, he seizes upon Islam as a replacement. Now consider the motley anti-Western alliance I mentioned earlier. What unifies them is simply that they're anti-Western: Popper's enemies of the open society. All have a vision of a utopian society (albeit very different from one another), and all share a visceral disdain for Western civilisation, which doesn't need no steenkin' utopias but rather proceeds incrementally toward its goals, in a massively parallel trial and error fashion, precisely as the free market drives improvements in products and services.

December 2003 Permalink

Djavann, Chahdortt. Que pense Allah de l'Europe?. Paris: Gallimard, 2004. ISBN 2-07-077202-0.
The author came of age in revolutionary Iran. After ten years living in Paris, she sees the conflict over the Islamic veil in French society as one in which those she calls “islamists” use the words of the West in ways which mean one thing to westerners and something entirely different to partisans of their own cause. She argues what while freedom of religion is a Western value which cannot be compromised, neither should it be manipulated to subvert the social liberty which is equally a contribution of the West to civilisation. Europe, she believes, is particularly vulnerable to infiltration by those who do not share its values but can employ its traditions and institutions to subvert them. This is not a book length treatment, but rather an essay of 55 pages. For a less personally impassioned but more in-depth view of the situation across the Channel, see Le Londonistan (July 2003).

October 2004 Permalink

Fallaci, Oriana. La rage et l'orgueil. Paris: Plon, 2002. ISBN 2-259-19712-4.
An English translation of this book was published in October 2002.

June 2002 Permalink

Fallaci, Oriana. La Force de la Raison. Monaco: Éditions du Rocher, 2004. ISBN 2-268-05264-8.
If, fifty years from now, there still are historians permitted to chronicle the civilisation of Western Europe (which, if the trends described in this book persist, may not be the way to bet), Fallaci may be seen as a figure like Churchill in the 1930s, willing to speak the truth about a clear and present danger, notwithstanding the derision and abuse doing so engenders from those who prefer to live the easy life, avoid difficult decisions, and hope things will just get better. In this, and her earlier La rage et l'orgueil (June 2002), Fallaci warns, in stark and uncompromising terms verging occasionally on a rant, of the increasing Islamicisation of Western Europe, and decries the politicians, church figures, and media whose inaction or active efforts aid and abet it. She argues that what is at risk is nothing less than European civilisation itself, which Islamic figures openly predict among themselves eventually being transformed through the inexorable power of demographics and immigration into an Islamic Republic of “Eurabia”. The analysis of the “natural alliance” between the extreme political left and radical Islam is brilliant, and brings to mind L'Islam révolutionnaire (December 2003) by terrorist “Carlos the Jackal” (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez). There is a shameful little piece of paper tipped into the pages of the book by the publisher, who felt no need for a disclaimer when earlier publishing the screed by mass murderer “Carlos”. In language worthy of Pierre Laval, they defend its publication in the interest of presenting a «différent» viewpoint, and ask readers to approach it “critically, in light of the present-day international context” (my translation).

December 2004 Permalink

Ferrigno, Robert. Prayers for the Assassin. New York: Scribner, 2006. ISBN 0-7432-7289-7.
The year is 2040. The former United States have fissioned into the coast-to-coast Islamic Republic in the north and the Bible Belt from Texas eastward to the Atlantic, with the anything-goes Nevada Free State acting as a broker between them, pressure relief valve, and window to the outside world. The collapse of the old decadent order was triggered by the nuclear destruction of New York and Washington, and the radioactive poisoning of Mecca by a dirty bomb in 2015, confessed to by an agent of the Mossad, who revealed a plot to set the Islamic world and the West against one another. In the aftermath, a wave of Islamic conversion swept the West, led by the glitterati and opinion leaders, with hold-outs fleeing to the Bible Belt, which co-exists with the Islamic Republic in a state of low intensity warfare. China has become the world's sole superpower, with Russia, reaping the benefit of refugees from overrun Israel, the high-technology centre.

This novel is set in the Islamic Republic, largely in the capital of Seattle (no surprise—even pre-transition, that's where the airheads seem to accrete, and whence bad ideas and flawed technologies seep out to despoil the heartland). The society sketched is believably rich and ambiguous: Muslims are divided into “modern”, “moderate”, and “fundamentalist” communities which more or less co-exist, like the secular, religious, and orthodox communities in present-day Israel. Many Catholics have remained in the Islamic Republic, reduced to dhimmitude and limited in their career aspirations, but largely left alone as long as they keep to themselves. The Southwest, with its largely Catholic hispanic population, is a zone of relative personal liberty within the Islamic Republic, much like Kish Island in Iran. Power in the Islamic Republic, as in Iran, is under constant contention among national security, religious police, the military, fanatic “fedayeen”, and civil authority, whose scheming against one another leaves cracks in which the clever can find a modicum of freedom.

But the historical events upon which the Islamic Republic is founded may not be what they seem, and the protagonists, the adopted but estranged son and daughter of the shadowy head of state security, must untangle decades of intrigue and misdirection to find the truth and make it public. There are some thoughtful and authentic touches in the world sketched in this novel: San Francisco has become a hotbed of extremist fundamentalism, which might seem odd until you reflect that moonbat collectivism and environmentalism share much of the same desire to make the individual submit to externally imposed virtue which suffuses radical Islam. Properly packaged and marketed, Islam can be highly attractive to disillusioned leftists, as the conversion of Carlos “the Jackal” from fanatic Marxist to “revolutionary Islam” demonstrates.

There are a few goofs. Authors who include nuclear weapons in their stories really ought seek the advice of somebody who knows about them, or at least research them in the Nuclear Weapons FAQ. The “fissionable fuel rods from a new Tajik reactor…made from a rare isotope, supposedly much more powerful than plutonium” on p. 212, purportedly used to fabricate a five megaton bomb, is the purest nonsense in about every way imaginable. First of all, there are no isotopes, rare or otherwise, which are better than highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium for fission weapons. Second, there's no way you could possibly make a five megaton fission bomb, regardless of the isotope you used—to get such a yield you'd need so much fission fuel that it would be much more than a critical mass and predetonate, which would ruin your whole day. The highest yield fission bomb ever built was Ted Taylor's Mk 18F Super Oralloy Bomb (SOB), which contained about four critical masses of U-235, and depended upon the very low neutron background of HEU to permit implosion assembly before predetonation. The SOB had a yield of about 500 kt; with all the short half-life junk in fuel rods, there's no way you could possibly approach that yield, not to speak of something ten times as great. If you need high yield, tritium boosting or a full-fledged two stage Teller-Ulam fusion design is the only way to go. The author also shares the common misconception in thrillers that radiation is something like an infectuous disease which permanently contaminates everything it touches. Unfortunately, this fallacy plays a significant part in the story.

Still, this is a well-crafted page-turner which, like the best alternative history, is not only entertaining but will make you think. The blogosphere has been chattering about this book (that's where I came across it), and they're justified in recommending it. The Web site for the book, complete with Flash animation and an annoying sound track, includes background information and the author's own blog with links to various reviews.

March 2006 Permalink

Ferrigno, Robert. Sins of the Assassin. New York: Scribner, 2008. ISBN 978-1-4165-3765-6.
Here we have the eagerly awaited sequel to the author's compelling thriller Prayers for the Assassin (March 2006), now billed as the second volume in the eventual Assassin Trilogy. The book in the middle of a trilogy is often the most difficult to write. Readers are already acquainted with the setting, scenario, and many of the main characters, and aren't engaged by the novelty of discovering something entirely new. The plot usually involves ramifying the events of the first installment, while further developing characters and introducing new ones, but the reader knows at the outset that, while there may be subplots which are resolved, the book will end with the true climax of the story reserved for the final volume. These considerations tend to box in an author, and pulling off a volume two which is satisfying even when you know you're probably going to have to wait another two years to see how it all comes out is a demanding task, and one which Robert Ferrigno accomplishes magnificently in this novel.

Set three years after Prayers, the former United States remains divided into a coast-to-coast Islamic Republic, with the Christian fundamentalist Bible Belt in Texas and the old South, Mormon Territories and the Nevada Free State in the West, and the independent Nuevo Florida in the southeast, with low intensity warfare and intrigue at the borders. Both northern and southern frontiers are under pressure from green technology secular Canada and the expansionist Aztlán Empire, which is chipping away at the former U.S. southwest.

Something is up in the Bible Belt, and retired Fedayeen shadow warrior Rakkim Epps returns to his old haunts in the Belt to find out what's going on and prevent a potentially destabilising discovery from shifting the balance of power on the continent. He is accompanied by one of the most unlikely secret agents ever, whose story of self-discovery and growth is a delightful theme throughout. This may be a dystopian future, but it is populated by genuine heroes and villains, all of whom are believable human beings whose character and lives have made them who they are. There are foul and despicable characters to be sure, but also those you're inclined to initially dismiss as evil but discover through their honour and courage to be good people making the best of bad circumstances.

This novel is substantially more “science fiction-y” than Prayers—a number of technological prodigies figure in the tale, some of which strike this reader as implausible for a world less than forty years from the present, absent a technological singularity (which has not happened in this timeline), and especially with the former United States and Europe having turned into technological backwaters. I am not, however, going to engage in my usual quibbling: most of the items in question are central to the plot and mysteries the reader discovers as the story unfolds, and simply to cite them would be major spoilers. Even if I put them inside a spoiler warning, you'd be tempted to read them anyway, which would detract from your enjoyment of the book, which I don't want to do, given how much I enjoyed it. I will say that one particular character has what may be potentially the most itchy bioenhancement in all of modern fiction, and perhaps that contributes to his extravagantly foul disposition. In addition to the science fictional aspects, the supernatural appears to enter the story on several occasions—or maybe not—we'll have to wait until the next book to know for sure.

One thing you don't want to do is to read this book before first reading Prayers for the Assassin. There is sufficient background information mentioned in passing for the story to be comprehensible and enjoyable stand-alone, but if you don't understand the character and history of Redbeard, the dynamics of the various power centres in the Islamic Republic, or the fragile social equilibrium among the various communities within it, you'll miss a great deal of the richness of this future history. Fortunately, a mass market paperback edition of the first volume is now available.

You can read the first chapter of this book online at the author's Web site.

March 2008 Permalink

Ferrigno, Robert. Heart of the Assassin. New York: Scribner, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4165-3767-0.
This novel completes the author's Assassin Trilogy, which began with Prayers for the Assassin (March 2006) and continued with Sins of the Assassin (March 2008). This is one of those trilogies in which you really want to read the books in order. While there is some effort to provide context for readers who start in the middle, you'll miss so much of the background of the scenario and the development and previous interactions of characters that you'll miss a great deal of what's going on. If you're unfamiliar with the world in which these stories are set, please see my comments on the earlier books in the series.

As this novel opens, a crisis is brewing as a heavily armed and increasingly expansionist Aztlán is ready to exploit the disunity of the Islamic Republic and the Bible Belt, most of whose military forces are arrayed against one another, to continue to nibble away at both. Visionaries on both sides imagine a reunification of the two monotheistic parts of what were once the United States, while the Old One and his mega-Machiavellian daughter Baby work their dark plots in the background. Former fedayeen shadow warrior Rakkim Epps finds himself on missions to the darkest part of the Republic, New Fallujah (the former San Francisco), and to the radioactive remains of Washington D.C., seeking a relic which might have the power to unite the nation once again.

Having read and tremendously enjoyed the first two books of the trilogy, I was very much looking forward to this novel, but having now read it, I consider it a disappointment. As the trilogy has progressed, the author seems to have become ever more willing to invent whatever technology he needs at the moment to advance the plot, whether or not it is plausible or consistent with the rest of the world he has created, and to admit the supernatural into a story which started out set in a world of gritty reality. I spent the first 270 pages making increasingly strenuous efforts to suspend disbelief, but then when one of the characters uses a medical oxygen tank as a flamethrower, I “lost it” and started laughing out loud at each of the absurdities in the pages that followed: “DNA knives” that melt into a person's forearm, holodeck hotel rooms with faithful all-senses stimulation and simulated lifeforms, a ghost, miraculous religious relics, etc., etc. The first two books made the reader think about what it would be like if a post-apocalyptic Great Awakening reorganised the U.S. around Islamic and Christian fundamentalism. In this book, all of that is swept into the background, and it's all about the characters (who one ceases to care much about, as they become increasingly comic book like) and a political plot so preposterous it makes Dan Brown's novels seem like nonfiction.

If you've read the first two novels and want to discover how it all comes out, you will find all of the threads resolved in this book. For me, there were just too many “Oh come on, now!” moments for the result to be truly satisfying.

A podcast interview with the author is available. You can read the first chapter of this book online at the author's Web site.

October 2009 Permalink

Ferro, Marc. Le choc de l'Islam. Paris: Odile Jacob, 2002. ISBN 2-7381-1146-7.

October 2002 Permalink

Fregosi, Paul. Jihad in the West. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998. ISBN 1-57392-247-1.

July 2002 Permalink

Gémignani, Anne-Marie. Une femme au royaume des interdits. Paris: Presses de la Renaissance, 2003. ISBN 2-85616-888-4.

March 2003 Permalink

Goldman, David P. How Civilizations Die. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2011. ISBN 978-1-596-98273-4.
I am writing this review in the final days of July 2013. A century ago, in 1913, there was a broad consensus as to how the 20th century would play out, at least in Europe. A balance of power had been established among the great powers, locked into alliances and linked with trade relationships which made it seem to most observers that large-scale conflict was so contrary to the self-interest of nations that it was unthinkable. And yet, within a year, the irrevocable first steps toward what would be the most sanguinary conflict in human history so far would be underway, a global conflict which would result in more than 37 million casualties, with 16 million dead. The remainder of the 20th century was nothing like the conventional wisdom of 1913, with an even more costly global war to come, the great powers of 1913 reduced to second rank, and a bipolar world emerging stabilised only by the mutual threat of annihilation by weapons which could destroy entire cities within a half hour of being launched.

What if our expectations for the 21st century are just as wrong as those of confident observers in 1913?

The author writes the “Spengler” column for Asia Times Online. It is commonplace to say “demographics is destiny”, yet Goldman is one a very few observers who really takes this to heart and projects the consequences of demographic trends which are visible to everybody but rarely projected to their logical conclusions. Those conclusions portend a very different 21st century than most anticipate. Europe, Russia, China, Japan, and increasingly, the so-called developing world are dying: they have fertility rates not just below replacement (around 2.1 children per woman), but in many cases deep into “demographic death spiral” territory from which no recovery is possible. At present fertility rates, by 2100 the population of Japan will have fallen by 55%, Russia 53%, Germany 46%, and Italy 39%. For a social welfare state, whose financial viability presumes a large population of young workers who will pay for the pensions and medical care of a smaller cohort of retirees, these numbers are simply catastrophic. The inverted age pyramid places an impossible tax burden upon workers, which further compounds the demographic collapse since they cannot afford to raise families large enough to arrest it.

Some in the Islamic world have noted this trend and interpreted it as meaning ultimate triumph for the ummah. To this, Goldman replies, “not so fast”—the book is subtitled “And Why Islam is Dying Too”. In fact, the Islamic world is in the process of undergoing a demographic transition as great as that of the Western nations, but on a time scale so short as to be unprecedented in human history. And while Western countries will face imposing problems coping with their aging populations, at least they have sufficient wealth to make addressing the problem, however painful, possible. Islamic countries without oil (which is where the overwhelming majority of Muslims live) have no such financial or human resources. Egypt, for example, imports about half its food calories and has a functional illiteracy rate of around 40%. These countries not only lack a social safety net, they cannot afford to feed their current population, not to mention a growing fraction of retirees.

When societies are humiliated (as Islam has been in its confrontation with modernity), they not only lose faith in the future, but lose their faith, as has happened in post-Christian Europe, and then they cease to have children. Further, as the author observes, while in traditional society children were an asset who would care for their parents in old age, “In the modern welfare state, child rearing is an act of altruism.” (p. 194) This altruism becomes increasingly difficult to justify when, increasingly, children are viewed as the property of the state, to be indoctrinated, medicated, and used to its ends and, should the parents object, abducted by an organ of the state. Why bother? Fewer and fewer couples of childbearing age make that choice. Nothing about this is new: Athens, Sparta, and Rome all experienced the same collapse in fertility when they ceased to believe in their future—and each one eventually fell.

This makes for an extraordinarily dangerous situation. The history of warfare shows that in many conflicts the majority of casualties on the losing side occur after it was clear to those in political and military leadership that defeat was inevitable. As trends forecaster Gerald Celente says, “When people have nothing to lose, they lose it.” Societies which become aware of their own impending demographic extinction or shrinking position on the geopolitical stage will be tempted to go for the main prize before they scroll off the screen. This means that calculations based upon rational self-interest may not predict the behaviour of dying countries, any more than all of the arguments in 1913 about a European war being irrational kept one from erupting a year later.

There is much, much more in this book, with some of which I agree and some of which I find dubious, but it is all worthy of your consideration. The author sees the United States and Israel as exceptional states, as both have largely kept their faith and maintained a sustainable birthrate to carry them into the future. He ultimately agrees with me (p. 264) that “It is cheaper to seal off the failed states from the rest of the world than to attempt to occupy them and control the travel of their citizens.”

The twenty-first century may be nothing like what the conventional wisdom crowd assume. Here is a provocative alternative view which will get you thinking about how different things may be, as trends already in progress, difficult or impossible to reverse, continue in the coming years.

In the Kindle edition, end notes are properly linked to the text and in notes which cite a document on the Web, the URL is linked to the on-line document. The index, however, is simply a useless list of terms without links to references in the text.

July 2013 Permalink

Hirsi Ali, Ayaan. The Challenge of Dawa. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2017.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia in 1969. In 1992 she was admitted to the Netherlands and granted political asylum on the basis of escaping an arranged marriage. She later obtained Dutch citizenship, and was elected to the Dutch parliament, where she served from 2001 through 2006. In 2004, she collaborated with Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh on the short film Submission, about the abuse of women in Islamic societies. After release of the film, van Gogh was assassinated, with a note containing a death threat for Hirsi Ali pinned to his corpse with a knife. Thereupon, she went into hiding with a permanent security detail to protect her against ongoing threats. In 2006, she moved to the U.S., taking a position at the American Enterprise Institute. She is currently a Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

In this short book (or long pamphlet: it is just 105 pages, with 70 pages of main text), Hirsi Ali argues that almost all Western commentators on the threat posed by Islam have fundamentally misdiagnosed the nature of the challenge it poses to Western civilisation and the heritage of the Enlightenment, and, failing to understand the tactics of Islam's ambition to dominate the world, dating to Mohammed's revelations in Medina and his actions in that period of his life, have adopted strategies which are ineffective and in some cases counterproductive in confronting the present danger.

The usual picture of Islam presented by politicians and analysts in the West (at least those who admit there is any problem at all) is that most Muslims are peaceful, productive people who have no problems becoming integrated in Western societies, but there is a small minority, variously called “radical”, “militant”, “Islamist”, “fundamentalist”, or other names, who are bent on propagating their religion by means of violence, either in guerrilla or conventional wars, or by terror attacks on civilian populations. This view has led to involvement in foreign wars, domestic surveillance, and often intrusive internal security measures to counter the threat, which is often given the name of “jihad”. A dispassionate analysis of these policies over the last decade and a half must conclude that they are not working: despite trillions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost, turning air travel into a humiliating and intimidating circus, and invading the privacy of people worldwide, the Islamic world seems to be, if anything, more chaotic than it was in the year 2000, and the frequency and seriousness of so-called “lone wolf” terrorist attacks against soft targets does not seem to be abating. What if we don't really understand what we're up against? What if jihad isn't the problem, or only a part of something much larger?

Dawa (or dawah, da'wah, daawa, daawah—there doesn't seem to be anything associated with this religion which isn't transliterated at least three different ways—the Arabic is “دعوة”) is an Arabic word which literally means “invitation”. In the context of Islam, it is usually translated as “proselytising” or spreading the religion by nonviolent means, as is done by missionaries of many other religions. But here, Hirsi Ali contends that dawa, which is grounded in the fundamental scripture of Islam: the Koran and Hadiths (sayings of Mohammed), is something very different when interpreted and implemented by what she calls “political Islam”. As opposed to a distinction between moderate and radical Islam, she argues that Islam is more accurately divided into “spiritual Islam” as revealed in the earlier Mecca suras of the Koran, and “political Islam”, embodied by those dating from Medina. Spiritual Islam defines a belief system, prayers, rituals, and duties of believers, but is largely confined to the bounds of other major religions. Political Islam, however, is a comprehensive system of politics, civil and criminal law, economics, the relationship with and treatment of nonbelievers, and military strategy, and imposes a duty to spread Islam into new territories.

Seen through the lens of political Islam, dawa and those engaged in it, often funded today by the deep coffers of petro-tyrannies, is nothing like the activities of, say, Roman Catholic or Mormon missionaries. Implemented through groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), centres on Islamic and Middle East studies on university campuses, mosques and Islamic centres in communities around the world, so-called “charities” and non-governmental organisations, all bankrolled by fundamentalist champions of political Islam, dawa in the West operates much like the apparatus of Communist subversion described almost sixty years ago by J. Edgar Hoover in Masters of Deceit. You have the same pattern of apparently nonviolent and innocuously-named front organisations, efforts to influence the influential (media figures, academics, politicians), infiltration of institutions along the lines of Antonio Gramsci's “long march”, exploitation of Western traditions such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion to achieve goals diametrically opposed to them, and redefinition of the vocabulary and intimidation of any who dare state self-evident facts (mustn't be called “islamophobic”!), all funded from abroad. Unlike communists in the heyday of the Comintern and afterward the Cold War, Islamic subversion is assisted by large scale migration of Muslims into Western countries, especially in Europe, where the organs of dawa encourage them to form their own separate communities, avoiding assimilation, and demanding the ability to implement their own sharia law and that others respect their customs. Dawa is directed at these immigrants as well, with the goal of increasing their commitment to Islam and recruiting them for its political agenda: the eventual replacement of Western institutions with sharia law and submission to a global Islamic caliphate. This may seem absurdly ambitious for communities which, in most countries, aren't much greater than 5% of the population, but they're patient: they've been at it for fourteen centuries, and they're out-breeding the native populations in almost every country where they've become established.

Hirsi Ali argues persuasively that the problem isn't jihad: jihad is a tactic which can be employed as part of dawa when persuasion, infiltration, and subversion prove insufficient, or as a final step to put the conquest over the top, but it's the commitment to global hegemony, baked right into the scriptures of Islam, which poses the most dire risk to the West, especially since so few decision makers seem to be aware of it or, if they are, dare not speak candidly of it lest they be called “islamophobes” or worse. This is something about which I don't need to be persuaded: I've been writing about it since 2015; see “Clash of Ideologies: Communism, Islam, and the West”. I sincerely hope that this work by an eloquent observer who has seen political Islam from the inside will open more eyes to the threat it poses to the West. A reasonable set of policy initiatives to confront the threat is presented at the end. The only factual error I noted is the claim on p. 57 that Joseph R. McCarthy was in charge of the House Committee on Un-American Activities—in fact, McCarthy, a Senator, presided over the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

This is a publication of the Hoover Institution. It has no ISBN and cannot be purchased through usual booksellers. Here is the page for the book, whence you can download the PDF file for free.

August 2017 Permalink

Houellebecq, Michel. Soumission. Paris: J'ai Lu, [2015] 2016. ISBN 978-2-290-11361-5.
If you examine the Pew Research Center's table of Muslim Population by Country, giving the percent Muslim population for countries and territories, one striking thing is apparent. Here are the results, binned into quintiles.

Quintile   % Muslim   Countries
1 100–80 36
2 80–60 5
3 60–40 8
4 40–20 7
5 20–0 132

The distribution in this table is strongly bimodal—instead of the Gaussian (normal, or “bell curve”) distribution one encounters so often in the natural and social sciences, the countries cluster at the extremes: 36 are 80% or more Muslim, 132 are 20% or less Muslim, and only a total of 20 fall in the middle between 20% and 80%. What is going on?

I believe this is evidence for an Islamic population fraction greater than some threshold above 20% being an attractor in the sense of dynamical systems theory. With the Islamic doctrine of its superiority to other religions and destiny to bring other lands into its orbit, plus scripturally-sanctioned discrimination against non-believers, once a Muslim community reaches a certain critical mass, and if it retains its identity and coherence, resisting assimilation into the host culture, it will tend to grow not just organically but by making conversion (whether sincere or motivated by self-interest) an attractive alternative for those who encounter Muslims in their everyday life.

If this analysis is correct, what is the critical threshold? Well, that's the big question, particularly for countries in Europe which have admitted substantial Muslim populations that are growing faster than the indigenous population due to a higher birthrate and ongoing immigration, and where there is substantial evidence that subsequent generations are retaining their identity as a distinct culture apart from that of the country where they were born. What happens as the threshold is crossed, and what does it mean for the original residents and institutions of these countries?

That is the question explored in this satirical novel set in the year 2022, in the period surrounding the French presidential election of that year. In the 2017 election, the Front national narrowly won the first round of the election, but was defeated in the second round by an alliance between the socialists and traditional right, resulting in the election of a socialist president in a country with a centre-right majority.

Five years after an election which satisfied few people, the electoral landscape has shifted substantially. A new party, the Fraternité musulmane (Muslim Brotherhood), led by the telegenic, pro-European, and moderate Mohammed Ben Abbes, French-born son of a Tunisian immigrant, has grown to rival the socialist party for second place behind the Front national, which remains safely ahead in projections for the first round. When the votes are counted, the unthinkable has happened: all of the traditional government parties are eliminated, and the second round will be a run-off between FN leader Marine Le Pen and Ben Abbes.

These events are experienced and recounted by “François” (no last name is given), a fortyish professor of literature at the Sorbonne, a leading expert on the 19th century French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, who was considered a founder of the decadent movement, but later in life reverted to Catholicism and became a Benedictine oblate. François is living what may be described as a modern version of the decadent life. Single, living alone in a small apartment where he subsists mostly on microwaved dinners, he has become convinced his intellectual life peaked with the publication of his thesis on Huysmans and holds nothing other than going through the motions teaching his classes at the university. His amorous life is largely confined to a serial set of affairs with his students, most of which end with the academic year when they “meet someone” and, in the gaps, liaisons with “escorts” in which he indulges in the kind of perversion the decadents celebrated in their writings.

About the only thing which interests him is politics and the election, but not as a participant but observer watching television by himself. After the first round election, there is the stunning news that in order to prevent a Front national victory, the Muslim brotherhood, socialist, and traditional right parties have formed an alliance supporting Ben Abbes for president, with an agreed division of ministries among the parties. Myriam, François' current girlfriend, leaves with her Jewish family to settle in Israel, joining many of her faith who anticipate what is coming, having seen it so many times before in the history of their people.

François follows in the footsteps of Huysmans, visiting the Benedictine monastery in Martel, a village said to have been founded by Charles Martel, who defeated the Muslim invasion of Europe in a.d. 732 at the Battle of Tours. He finds no solace nor inspiration there and returns to Paris where, with the alliance triumphant in the second round of the election and Ben Abbes president, changes are immediately apparent.

Ethnic strife has fallen to a low level: the Muslim community sees itself ascendant and has no need for political agitation. The unemployment rate has fallen to historical lows: forcing women out of the workforce will do that, especially when they are no longer counted in the statistics. Polygamy has been legalised, as part of the elimination of gender equality under the law. More and more women on the street dress modestly and wear the veil. The Sorbonne has been “privatised”, becoming the Islamic University of Paris, and all non-Muslim faculty, including François, have been dismissed. With generous funding from the petro-monarchies of the Gulf, François and other now-redundant academics receive lifetime pensions sufficient that they never need work again, but it grates upon them to see intellectual inferiors, after a cynical and insincere conversion to Islam, replace them at salaries often three times higher than they received.

Unemployed, François grasps at an opportunity to edit a new edition of Huysmans for Pléiade, and encounters Robert Rediger, an ambitious academic who has been appointed rector of the Islamic University and has the ear of Ben Abbes. They later meet at Rediger's house, where, over a fine wine, he gives François a copy of his introductory book on Islam, explains the benefits of polygamy and arranged marriage to a man of his social standing, and the opportunities open to Islamic converts in the new university.

Eventually, François, like France, ends in submission.

As G. K. Chesterton never actually said, “When a man stops believing in God he doesn't then believe in nothing; he believes anything.” (The false quotation appears to be a synthesis of similar sentiments expressed by Chesterton in a number of different works.) Whatever the attribution, there is truth in it. François is an embodiment of post-Christian Europe, where the nucleus around which Western civilisation has been built since the fall of the Roman Empire has evaporated, leaving a void which deprives people of the purpose, optimism, and self-confidence of their forbears. Such a vacuum is more likely to be filled with something—anything, than long endure, especially when an aggressive, virile, ambitious, and prolific competitor has established itself in the lands of the decadent.

An English translation is available. This book is not recommended for young readers due to a number of sex scenes I found gratuitous and, even to this non-young reader, somewhat icky. This is a social satire, not a forecast of the future, but I found it more plausible than many scenarios envisioned for a Muslim conquest of Europe. I'll leave you to discover for yourself how the clever Ben Abbes envisions co-opting Eurocrats in his project of grand unification.

April 2017 Permalink

Karsh, Efraim. Islamic Imperialism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-300-10603-3.
A great deal of conflict and tragedy might have been avoided in recent years had only this 2006 book been published a few years earlier and read by those contemplating ambitious adventures to remake the political landscape of the Near East and Central Asia. The author, a professor of history at King's College, University of London, traces the repeated attempts, beginning with Muhammad and his immediate successors, to establish a unified civilisation under the principles of Islam, in which the Koranic proscription of conflict among Muslims would guarantee permanent peace.

In the century following the Prophet's death in the year 632, Arab armies exploded out of the birthplace of Islam and conquered a vast territory from present-day Iran to Spain, including the entire north African coast. This was the first of a succession of great Islamic empires, which would last until the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I. But, as this book thoroughly documents, over this entire period, the emphasis was on the word “empire” and not “Islamic”. While the leaders identified themselves as Muslims and exhorted their armies to holy war, the actual empires were very much motivated by a quest for temporal wealth and power, and behaved much as the previous despotisms they supplanted. Since the Arabs had no experience in administering an empire nor a cadre of people trained in those arts, they ended up assimilating the bureaucratic structure and personnel of the Persian empire after conquering it, and much the same happened in the West after the fall of the Byzantine empire.

While soldiers might have seen themselves as spreading the word of Islam by the sword, in fact the conquests were mostly about the traditional rationale for empire: booty and tribute. (The Prophet's injunction against raiding other Muslims does appear to have been one motivation for outward-directed conquest, especially in the early years.) Not only was there relatively little aggressive proselytising of Islam, on a number of occasions conversion to Islam by members of dhimmi populations was discouraged or prohibited outright because the imperial treasury depended heavily on the special taxes non-Muslims were required to pay. Nor did these empires resemble the tranquil Dar al-Islam envisaged by the Prophet—in fact, only 24 years would elapse after his death before the Caliph Uthman was assassinated by his rivals, and that would be first of many murders, revolutions, plots, and conflicts between Muslim factions within the empires to come.

Nor were the Crusades, seen through contemporary eyes, the cataclysmic clash of civilisations they are frequently described as today. The kingdoms established by the crusaders rapidly became seen as regional powers like any other, and often found themselves in alliance with Muslims against Muslims. Pan-Arabists in modern times who identify their movement with opposition to the hated crusader often fail to note that there was never any unified Arab campaign against the crusaders; when they were finally ejected, it was by the Turks, and their great hero Saladin was, himself, a Kurd.

The latter half of the book recounts the modern history of the Near East, from Churchill's invention of Iraq, through Nasser, Khomeini, and the emergence of Islamism and terror networks directed against Israel and the West. What is simultaneously striking and depressing about this long and detailed history of strife, subversion, oppression, and conflict is that you can open it up to almost any page and apart from a few details, it sounds like present-day news reports from the region. Thirteen centuries of history with little or no evidence for indigenous development of individual liberty, self-rule, the rule of law, and religious tolerance does not bode well for idealistic neo-Jacobin schemes to “implant democracy” at the point of a bayonet. (Modern Turkey can be seen as a counter-example, but it is worth observing that Mustafa Kemal explicitly equated modernisation with the importation and adoption of Western values, and simultaneously renounced imperial ambitions. In this, he was alone in the region.)

Perhaps the lesson one should draw from this long and tragic narrative is that this unfortunate region of the world, which was a fiercely-contested arena of human conflict thousands of years before Muhammad, has resisted every attempt by every actor, the Prophet included, to pacify it over those long millennia. Rather than commit lives and fortune to yet another foredoomed attempt to “fix the problem”, one might more wisely and modestly seek ways to keep it contained and not aggravate the situation.

October 2006 Permalink

Lamb, David. The Arabs. 2nd. ed. New York: Vintage Books, 2002. ISBN 1-4000-3041-2.

June 2002 Permalink

Lewis, Bernard. What Went Wrong? New York: Perennial, 2002. ISBN 0-06-051605-4.
Bernard Lewis is the preeminent Western historian of Islam and the Middle East. In his long career, he has written more than twenty volumes (the list includes those currently in print) on the subject. In this book he discusses the causes of the centuries-long decline of Islamic civilisation from a once preeminent empire and culture to the present day. The hardcover edition was in press when the September 2001 terrorist attacks took place. So thoroughly does Lewis cover the subject matter that a three page Afterword added in October 2002 suffices to discuss their causes and consequences. This is an excellent place for anybody interested in the “clash of civilisations” to discover the historical context of Islam's confrontation with modernity. Lewis writes with a wit which is so dry you can easily miss it if you aren't looking. For example, “Even when the Ottoman Turks were advancing into southeastern Europe, they were always able to buy much needed equipment for their fleets and armies from Christian European suppliers, to recruit European experts, and even to obtain financial cover from Christian European banks. What is nowadays known as ‘constructive engagement’ has a long history.” (p. 13).

April 2005 Permalink

Phares, Walid. Future Jihad. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, [2005] 2006. ISBN 1-4039-7511-6.
It seems to me that at the root of the divisive and rancorous dispute over the war on terrorism (or whatever you choose to call it), is an individual's belief in one of the following two mutually exclusive propositions.

  1. There is a broad-based, highly aggressive, well-funded, and effective jihadist movement which poses a dire threat not just to secular and pluralist societies in the Muslim world, but to civil societies in Europe, the Americas, and Asia.
  2. There isn't.

In this book, Walid Phares makes the case for the first of these two statements. Born in Lebanon, after immigrating to the United States in 1990, he taught Middle East studies at several universities, and is currently a professor at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of a number of books on Middle East history, and appears as a commentator on media outlets ranging from Fox News to Al Jazeera.

Ever since the early 1990s, the author has been warning of what he argued was a constantly growing jihadist threat, which was being overlooked and minimised by the academic experts to whom policy makers turn for advice, largely due to Saudi-funded and -indoctrinated Middle East Studies programmes at major universities. Meanwhile, Saudi funding also financed the radicalisation of Muslim communities around the world, particularly the large immigrant populations in many Western European countries. In parallel to this top-down approach by the Wahabi Saudis, the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated groups, including Hamas and the Front Islamique du Salut in Algeria, pursued a bottom-up strategy of radicalising the population and building a political movement seeking to take power and impose an Islamic state. Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, a third stream of jihadism has arisen, principally within Shiite communities, promoted and funded by Iran, including groups such as Hezbollah.

The present-day situation is placed in historical content dating back to the original conquests of Mohammed and the spread of Islam from the Arabian peninsula across three continents, and subsequent disasters at the hands of the Mongols and Crusaders, the reconquista of the Iberian peninsula, and the ultimate collapse of the Ottoman Empire and Caliphate following World War I. This allows the reader to grasp the world-view of the modern jihadist which, while seemingly bizarre from a Western standpoint, is entirely self-consistent from the premises whence the believers proceed.

Phares stresses that modern jihadism (which he dates from the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1923, an event which permitted free-lance, non-state actors to launch jihad unconstrained by the central authority of a caliph), is a political ideology with imperial ambitions: the establishment of a new caliphate and its expansion around the globe. He argues that this is only incidentally a religious conflict: although the jihadists are Islamic, their goals and methods are much the same as believers in atheistic ideologies such as communism. And just as one could be an ardent Marxist without supporting Soviet imperialism, one can be a devout Muslim and oppose the jihadists and intolerant fundamentalists. Conversely, this may explain the curious convergence of the extreme collectivist left and puritanical jihadists: red diaper baby and notorious terrorist Carlos “the Jackal” now styles himself an Islamic revolutionary, and the corpulent caudillo of Caracas has been buddying up with the squinty dwarf of Tehran.

The author believes that since the terrorist strikes against the United States in September 2001, the West has begun to wake up to the threat and begin to act against it, but that far more, both in realising the scope of the problem and acting to avert it, remains to be done. He argues, and documents from post-2001 events, that the perpetrators of future jihadist strikes against the West are likely to be home-grown second generation jihadists radicalised and recruited among Muslim communities within their own countries, aided by Saudi financed networks. He worries that the emergence of a nuclear armed jihadist state (most likely due to an Islamist takeover of Pakistan or Iran developing its own bomb) would create a base of operations for jihad against the West which could deter reprisal against it.

Chapter thirteen presents a chilling scenario of what might have happened had the West not had the wake-up call of the 2001 attacks and begun to mobilise against the threat. The scary thing is that events could still go this way should the threat be real and the West, through fatigue, ignorance, or fear, cease to counter it. While defensive measures at home and direct action against terrorist groups are required, the author believes that only the promotion of democratic and pluralistic civil societies in the Muslim world can ultimately put an end to the jihadist threat. Toward this end, a good first step would be, he argues, for the societies at risk to recognise that they are not at war with “terrorism” or with Islam, but rather with an expansionist ideology with a political agenda which attacks targets of opportunity and adapts quickly to countermeasures.

In all, I found the arguments somewhat over the top, but then, unlike the author, I haven't spent most of my career studying the jihadists, nor read their publications and Web sites in the original Arabic as he has. His warnings of cultural penetration of the West, misdirection by artful propaganda, and infiltration of policy making, security, and military institutions by jihadist covert agents read something like J. Edgar Hoover's Masters of Deceit, but then history, in particular the Venona decrypts, has borne out many of Hoover's claims which were scoffed at when the book was published in 1958. But still, one wonders how a “movement” composed of disparate threads many of whom hate one another (for example, while the Saudis fund propaganda promoting the jihadists, most of the latter seek to eventually depose the Saudi royal family and replace it with a Taliban-like regime; Sunni and Shiite extremists view each other as heretics) can effectively co-ordinate complex operations against their enemies.

A thirty page afterword in this paperback edition provides updates on events through mid-2006. There are some curious things: while transliteration of Arabic and Farsi into English involves a degree of discretion, the author seems very fond of the letter “u”. He writes the name of the leader of the Iranian revolution as “Khumeini”, for example, which I've never seen elsewhere. The book is not well-edited: occasionally he used “Khomeini”, spells Sayid Qutb's last name as “Kutb” on p. 64, and on p. 287 refers to “Hezbollah” and “Hizbollah” in the same sentence.

The author maintains a Web site devoted to the book, as well as a personal Web site which links to all of his work.

September 2007 Permalink

Podhoretz, Norman. World War IV. New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN 978-0-385-52221-2.
Whether you agree with it or not, here is one of the clearest expositions of the “neoconservative” (a term the author, who is one of the type specimens, proudly uses to identify himself) case for the present conflict between Western civilisation and the forces of what he identifies as “Islamofascism”, an aggressive, expansionist, and totalitarian ideology which is entirely distinct from Islam, the religion. The author considers the Cold War to have been World War III, and hence the present and likely as protracted a conflict, as World War IV. He deems it to be as existential a struggle for civilisation against the forces of tyranny as any of the previous three wars.

If you're sceptical of such claims (as am I, being very much an economic determinist who finds it difficult to believe a region of the world whose exports, apart from natural resources discovered and extracted largely by foreigners, are less than those of Finland, can truly threaten the fountainhead of the technologies and products without which its residents would remain in the seventh century utopia they seem to idolise), read Chapter Two for the contrary view: it is argued that since 1970, a series of increasingly provocative attacks were made against the West, not in response to Western actions but due to unreconcilably different world-views. Each indication of weakness by the West only emboldened the aggressors and escalated the scale of subsequent attacks.

The author argues the West is engaged in a multi-decade conflict with its own survival at stake, in which the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are simply campaigns. This war, like the Cold War, will be fought on many levels: not just military, but also proxy conflicts, propaganda, covert action, economic warfare, and promotion of the Western model as the solution to the problems of states imperiled by Islamofascism. There is some discussion in the epilogue of the risk posed to Europe by the radicalisation of its own burgeoning Muslim population while its indigenes are in a demographic death spiral, but for the most part the focus is on democratising the Middle East, not the creeping threat to democracy in the West by an unassimilated militant immigrant population which a feckless, cringing political class is unwilling to confront.

This book is well written and argued, but colour me unpersuaded. Instead of spending decades spilling blood and squandering fortune in a region of the world which has been trouble for every empire foolish enough to try to subdue it over the last twenty centuries, why not develop domestic energy sources to render the slimy black stuff in the ground there impotent and obsolete, secure the borders against immigration from there (except those candidates who demonstrate themselves willing to assimilate to the culture of the West), and build a wall around the place and ignore what happens inside? Works for me.

July 2008 Permalink

Posner, Gerald L. Secrets of the Kingdom. New York: Random House, 2005. ISBN 1-4000-6291-8.
Most of this short book (196 pages of main text) is a straightforward recounting of the history of Saudi Arabia from its founding as a unified kingdom in 1932 under Ibn Saud, and of the petroleum-dominated relationship between the United States and the kingdom up to the present, based almost entirely upon secondary sources. Chapter 10, buried amidst the narrative and barely connected to the rest, and based on the author's conversations with an unnamed Mossad (Israeli intelligence) officer and an unidentified person claiming to be an eyewitness, describes a secret scheme called “Petroleum Scorched Earth” (“Petro SE”) which, it is claimed, was discovered by NSA intercepts of Saudi communications which were shared with the Mossad and then leaked to the author.

The claim is that the Saudis have rigged all of their petroleum infrastructure so that it can be destroyed from a central point should an invader be about to seize it, or the House of Saud fall due to an internal revolution. Oil and gas production facilities tend to be spread out over large areas and have been proven quite resilient—the damage done to Kuwait's infrastructure during the first Gulf War was extensive, yet reparable in a relatively short time, and the actual petroleum reserves are buried deep in the Earth and are essentially indestructible—if a well is destroyed, you simply sink another well; it costs money, but you make it back as soon as the oil starts flowing again. Refineries and storage facilities are more easily destroyed, but the real long-term wealth (and what an invader or revolutionary movement would covet most) lies deep in the ground. Besides, most of Saudi Arabia's export income comes from unrefined products (in the first ten months of 2004, 96% of Saudi Arabia's oil exports to the U.S. were crude), so even if all the refineries were destroyed (which is difficult—refineries are big and spread out over a large area) and took a long time to rebuild, the core of the export economy would be up and running as soon as the wells were pumping and pipelines and oil terminals were repaired.

So, it is claimed, the Saudis have mined their key facilities with radiation dispersal devices (RDDs), “dirty bombs” composed of Semtex plastic explosive mixed with radioactive isotopes of cesium, rubidium (huh?), and/or strontium which, when exploded, will disperse the radioactive material over a broad area, which (p. 127) “could render large swaths of their own country uninhabitable for years”. What's that? Do I hear some giggling from the back of the room from you guys with the nuclear bomb effects computers? Well, gosh, where shall we begin?

Let us commence by plinking an easy target, the rubidium. Metallic rubidium burns quite nicely in air, which makes it easy to disperse, but radioactively it's a dud. Natural rubidium contains about 28% of the radioactive isotope rubidium-87, but with a half-life of about 50 billion years, it's only slightly more radioactive than dirt when dispersed over any substantial area. The longest-lived artificially created isotope is rubidium-83 with a half-life of only 86 days, which means that once dispersed, you'd only have to wait a few months for it to decay away. In any case, something which decays so quickly is useless for mining facilities, since you'd need to constantly produce fresh batches of the isotope (in an IAEA inspected reactor?) and install it in the bombs. So, at least the rubidium part of this story is nonsense; how about the rest?

Cesium-137 and strontium-90 both have half-lives of about 30 years and are readily taken up and stored in the human body, so they are suitable candidates for a dirty bomb. But while a dirty bomb is a credible threat for contaminating high-value, densely populated city centres in countries whose populations are wusses about radiation, a sprawling oil field or petrochemical complex is another thing entirely. The Federation of American Scientists report, “Dirty Bombs: Response to a Threat”, estimates that in the case of a cobalt-salted dirty bomb, residents who lived continuously in the contaminated area for forty years after the detonation would have a one in ten chance of death from cancer induced by the radiation. With the model cesium bomb, five city blocks would be contaminated at a level which would create a one in a thousand chance of cancer for residents.

But this is nothing! To get a little perspective on this, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's Leading Causes of Death Reports, people in the United States never exposed to a dirty bomb have a 22.8% probability of dying of cancer. While the one in ten chance created by the cobalt dirty bomb is a substantial increase in this existing risk, that's the risk for people who live for forty years in the contaminated area. Working in a contaminated oil field is quite different. First of all, it's a lot easier to decontaminate steel infrastructure and open desert than a city, and oil field workers can be issued protective gear to reduce their exposure to the remaining radiation. In any case, they'd only be in the contaminated area for the work day, then return to a clean area at the end of the shift. You could restrict hiring to people 45 years and older, pay a hazard premium, and limit their contract to either a time period (say two years) or based on integrated radiation dose. Since radiation-induced cancers usually take a long time to develop, older workers are likely to die of some other cause before the effects of radiation get to them. (This sounds callous, but it's been worked out in detail in studies of post nuclear war decontamination. The rules change when you're digging out of a hole.)

Next, there is this dumb-as-a-bag-of-dirt statement on p. 127:

Saudi engineers calculated that the soil particulates beneath the surface of most of their three hundred known reserves are so fine that radioactive releases there would permit the contamination to spread widely through the soil subsurface, carrying the radioactivity far under the ground and into the unpumped oil. This gave Petro SE the added benefit of ensuring that even if a new power in the Kingdom could rebuild the surface infrastructure, the oil reserves themselves might be unusable for years.
Hey, you guys in the back—enough with the belly laughs! Did any of the editors at Random House think to work out, even if you stipulated that radioactive contamination could somehow migrate from the surface down through hundreds to thousands of metres of rock (how, due to the abundant rain?), just how much radioactive contaminant you'd have to mix with the estimated two hundred and sixty billion barrels of crude oil in the Saudi reserves to render it dangerously radioactive? In any case, even if you could magically transport the radioactive material into the oil bearing strata and supernaturally mix it with the oil, it would be easy to separate during the refining process.

Finally, there's the question of why, if the Saudis have gone to all the trouble to rig their oil facilities to self-destruct, it has remained a secret waiting to be revealed in this book. From a practical standpoint, almost all of the workers in the Saudi oil fields are foreigners. Certainly some of them would be aware of such a massive effort and, upon retirement, say something about it which the news media would pick up. But even if the secret could be kept, we're faced with the same question of deterrence which arose in the conclusion of Dr. Strangelove with the Soviet doomsday machine—it's idiotic to build a doomsday machine and keep it a secret! Its only purpose is to deter a potential attack, and if attackers don't know there's a doomsday machine, they won't be deterred. Precisely the same logic applies to the putative Saudi self-destruct button.

Now none of this argumentation proves in any way that the Saudis haven't rigged their oil fields to blow up and scatter radioactive material on the debris, just that it would be a phenomenally stupid thing for them to try to do. But then, there are plenty of precedents for the Saudis doing dumb things—they have squandered the greatest fortune in the history of the human race and, while sitting on a quarter of all the world's oil, seen their per capita GDP erode to fall between that of Poland and Latvia. If, indeed, they have done something so stupid as this scorched earth scheme, let us hope they manage the succession to the throne, looming in the near future, in a far more intelligent fashion.

July 2005 Permalink

Smith, Lee. The Strong Horse. New York: Doubleday, 2010. ISBN 978-0-385-51611-2.
After the attacks upon the U.S. in September 2001, the author, who had been working as an editor in New York City, decided to find out for himself what in the Arab world could provoke such indiscriminate atrocities. Rather than turn to the works of establishment Middle East hands or radical apologists for Islamist terror, he pulled up stakes and moved to Cairo and later Beirut, spending years there living in the community, meeting people from all walks of life from doormen, cab drivers, students, intellectuals, clerics, politicians, artists, celebrities, and more. This book presents his conclusions in a somewhat unusual form: it is hard to categorise—it's part travelogue; collection of interviews; survey of history, exploration of Arab culture, art, and literature; and geopolitical analysis. What is clear is that this book is a direct assault upon the consensus view of the Middle East among Western policymakers which, if correct (and the author is very persuasive indeed) condemns many of the projects of “democratisation”, “peace processes”, and integration of the nations of the region into a globalised economy to failure; it calls for an entirely different approach to the Arab world, one from which many Western feel-good diplomats and politically correct politicians will wilt in horror.

In short, Smith concludes that the fundamental assumption of the program whose roots can be traced from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush—that all people, and Arabs in particular, strive for individual liberty, self-determination, and a civil society with democratically elected leaders—is simply false: those are conditions which have been purchased by Western societies over centuries at the cost of great bloodshed and suffering by the actions of heroes. This experience has never occurred in the Arab world, and consequently its culture is entirely different. One can attempt to graft the trappings of Western institutions onto an Arab state, but without a fundamental change in the culture, the graft will not take and before long things will be just as before.

Let me make clear a point the author stresses. There is not the slightest intimation in this book that there is some kind of racial or genetic difference (which are the same thing) between Arabs and Westerners. Indeed, such a claim can be immediately falsified by the large community of Arabs who have settled in the West, assimilated themselves to Western culture, and become successful in all fields of endeavour. But those are Arabs, often educated in the West, who have rejected the culture in which they were born, choosing consciously to migrate to a very different culture they find more congenial to the way they choose to live their lives. What about those who stay (whether by preference, or due to lack of opportunity to emigrate)?

No, Arabs are not genetically different in behaviour, but culture is just as heritable as any physical trait, and it is here the author says we must look to understand the region. The essential dynamic of Arab political culture and history, as described by the 14th century Islamic polymath Ibn Khaldun, is that of a strong leader establishing a dynasty or power structure to which subjects submit, but which becomes effete and feckless over time, only to eventually be overthrown violently by a stronger force (often issuing from desert nomads in the Arab experience), which begins the cycle again. The author (paraphrasing Osama bin Laden) calls this the “strong horse” theory: Arab populations express allegiance to the strongest perceived power, and expect changes in governance to come through violent displacement of a weaker existing order.

When you look at things this way, many puzzles regarding the Middle East begin to make more sense. First of all, the great success which imperial powers over the millennia, including the Persian, Ottoman, French, and British empires, have had in subduing and ruling Arabs without substantial internal resistance is explained: the empire was seen as the strong horse and Arab groups accepted subordination to it. Similarly, the ability of sectarian minorities to rule on a long-term basis in modern states such as Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq is explained, as is the great stability of authoritarian regimes in the region—they usually fall only when deposed by an external force or by a military coup, not due to popular uprisings.

Rather than presenting a lengthy recapitulation of the arguments in the book filtered through my own comprehension and prejudices, this time I invite you to read a comprehensive exposition of the author's arguments in his own words, in a transcript of a three hour interview by Hugh Hewitt. If you're interested in the topics raised so far, please read the interview and return here for some closing comments.

Is the author's analysis correct? I don't know—certainly it is at variance with that of a mass of heavy-hitting intellectuals who have studied the region for their entire careers and, if correct, means that much of Western policy toward the Middle East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire has been at best ill-informed and at worst tragically destructive. All of the debate about Islam, fundamentalist Islam, militant Islam, Islamism, Islamofascism, etc., in Smith's view, misses the entire point. He contends that Islam has nothing, or next to nothing, to do with the present conflict. Islam, born in the Arabian desert, simply canonised, with a few minor changes, a political and social regime already extant in Arabia for millennia before the Prophet, based squarely on rule by the strong horse. Islam, then, is not the source of Arab culture, but a consequence of it, and its global significance is as a vector which inoculates Arab governance by the strong horse into other cultures where Islam takes root. The extent to which the Arab culture is adopted depends upon the strength and nature of the preexisting local culture into which Islam is introduced: certainly the culture and politics of Islamic Turkey, Iran, and Indonesia are something very different from that of Arab nations, and from each other.

The author describes democracy as “a flower, not a root”. An external strong horse can displace an Arab autocracy and impose elections, a legislature, and other trappings of democracy, but without the foundations of the doctrine of natural rights, the rule of law, civil society, free speech and the tolerance of dissent, freedom of conscience, and the separation of the domain of the state from the life of the individual, the result is likely to be “one person, one vote, one time” and a return to strong horse government as has been seen so many times in the post-colonial era. Democracy in the West was the flowering of institutions and traditions a thousand years in the making, none of which have ever existed in the Arab world. Those who expect democracy to create those institutions, the author would argue, suffer from an acute case of inverting causes and effects.

It's tempting to dismiss Arab culture as described here as “dysfunctional”, but (if the analysis be correct), I don't think that's a fair characterisation. Arab governance looks dysfunctional through the eyes of Westerners who judge it based on the values their own cultures cherish, but then turnabout's fair play, and Arabs have many criticisms of the West which are equally well founded based upon their own values. I'm not going all multicultural here—there's no question that by almost any objective measure such as per capita income; industrial and agricultural output; literacy and education; treatment of women and minorities; public health and welfare; achievements in science, technology, and the arts; that the West has drastically outperformed Arab nations, which would be entirely insignificant in the world economy absent their geological good fortune to be sitting on top of an ocean of petroleum. But again, that's applying Western metrics to Arab societies. When Nasser seized power in Egypt, he burned with a desire to do the will of the Egyptian people. And like so many people over the millennia who tried to get something done in Egypt, he quickly discovered that the will of the people was to be left alone, and the will of the bureaucracy was to go on shuffling paper as before, counting down to their retirement as they'd done for centuries. In other words, by their lights, the system was working and they valued stability over the risks of change. There is also what might be described as a cultural natural selection effect in action here. In a largely static authoritarian society, the ambitious, the risk-takers, and the innovators are disproportionately prone to emigrate to places which value those attributes, namely the West. This deprives those who remain of the élite which might improve the general welfare, resulting in a population even more content with the status quo.

The deeply pessimistic message of this book is that neither wishful thinking, soaring rhetoric, global connectivity, precision guided munitions, nor armies of occupation can do very much to change a culture whose general way of doing things hasn't changed fundamentally in more than two millennia. While change may be possible, it certainly isn't going to happen on anything less than the scale of several generations, and then only if the cultural transmission belt from generation to generation can be interrupted. Is this depressing? Absolutely, but if this is the case, better to come to terms with it and act accordingly than live in a fantasy world where one's actions may lead to catastrophe for both the West and the Arab world.

March 2010 Permalink

Spencer, Robert. Islam Unveiled. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002. ISBN 1-893554-58-9.

February 2003 Permalink

Spencer, Robert. The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades). Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2005. ISBN 0-89526-013-1.
This book has the worthy goal of providing a brief, accessible antidote to the airbrushed version of Islam dispensed by its apologists and echoed by the mass media, and the relentlessly anti-Western account of the Crusades indoctrinated in the history curricula of government schools. Regrettably, the attempt falls short of the mark. The tone throughout is polemical—you don't feel like you're reading about history, religion, and culture so much as that the author is trying to persuade you to adopt his negative view of Islam, with historical facts and citations from original sources trotted out as debating points. This runs the risk of the reader suspecting the author of having cherry-picked source material, omitting that which argues the other way. I didn't find the author guilty of this, but the result is that this book is only likely to persuade those who already agree with its thesis before picking it up, which makes one wonder what's the point.

Spencer writes from an overtly Christian perspective, with parallel “Muhammad vs. Jesus” quotes in each chapter, and statements like, “If Godfrey of Bouillon, Richard the Lionhearted, and countless others hadn't risked their lives to uphold the honor of Christ and His Church thousands of miles from home, the jihadists would almost certainly have swept across Europe much sooner” (p. 160). Now, there's nothing wrong with comparing aspects of Islam to other religions to counter “moral equivalence” arguments which claim that every religion is equally guilty of intolerance, oppression, and incitement to violence, but the near-exclusive focus on Christianity is likely to be off-putting to secular readers and adherents of other religions who are just as threatened by militant, expansionist Islamic fundamentalism as Christians.

The text is poorly proofread; in several block quotations, words are run together without spaces, three times in as many lines on page 110. In the quote from John Wesley on p. 188, the whole meaning is lost when the phrase “cities razed from the foundation” is written with “raised” instead of “razed”.

The author's earlier Islam Unveiled (February 2003) is similarly flawed in tone and perspective. Had I noticed that this book was by the same author, I wouldn't have read it. It's more to read, but the combination of Ibn Warraq's Why I Am Not a Muslim (February 2002) and Paul Fregosi's Jihad in the West (July 2002) will leave you with a much better understanding of the issues than this disappointing effort.

November 2005 Permalink

Spencer, Robert. Did Muhammad Exist? Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2012. ISBN 978-161017-061-1.
In 1851, Ernest Renan wrote that Islam “was born in the full light of history…”. But is this the case? What do we actually know of the origins of Islam, the life of its prophet, and the provenance of its holy book? In this thoroughly researched and documented investigation the author argues that the answer to these questions is very little indeed, and that contemporary evidence for the existence of a prophet in Arabia who proclaimed a scripture, led the believers into battle and prevailed, unifying the peninsula, and lived the life documented in the Muslim tradition is entirely nonexistent during the time of Muhammad's supposed life, and did not emerge until decades, and in many cases, more than a century later. Further, the historical record shows clear signs, acknowledged by contemporary historians, of having been fabricated by rival factions contending for power in the emerging Arab empire.

What is beyond dispute is that in the century and a quarter between A.D. 622 and 750, Arab armies erupted from the Arabian peninsula and conquered an empire spanning three continents, propagating a change in culture, governance, and religion which remains in effect in much of that region today. The conventional story is that these warriors were the armies of Islam, following their prophet's command to spread the word of their God and bearing his holy writ, the Qur'an, before them as they imposed it upon those they subdued by the sword. But what is the evidence for this?

When you look for it, it's remarkably scanty. As the peoples conquered by the Arab armies were, in many cases, literate, they have left records of their defeat. And in every case, they speak of the invaders as “Hagarians”, “Ishmaelites”, “Muhajirun”, or “Saracens”, and in none of these records is there a mention of an Arab prophet, much less one named “Muhammad”, or of “Islam”, or of a holy book called the “Qur'an”.

Now, for those who study the historical foundations of Christianity or Judaism, these results will be familiar—when you trace the origins of a great religious tradition back to its roots, you often discover that they disappear into a fog of legend which believers must ultimately accept on faith since historical confirmation, at this remove, is impossible. This has been the implicit assumption of those exploring the historical foundations of the Bible for at least two centuries, but it is considered extremely “edgy” to pose these questions about Islam, even today. This is because when you do, the believers are prone to use edgy weapons to cut your head off. Jews and Christians have gotten beyond this, and just shake their heads and chuckle. So some say it takes courage to raise these questions about Islam. I'd say “some” are the kind of cowards who opposed the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, freeing it from the priesthood and placing it in the hands of anybody who could read. And if any throat-slitter should be irritated by these remarks and be inclined to act upon them, be advised that I not only shoot back but, circumstances depending, first.

I find the author's conclusion very plausible. After the Arab conquest, its inheritors found themselves in command of a multicontinental empire encompassing a large number of subject peoples and a multitude of cultures and religious traditions. If you were the ruler of such a newly-cobbled-together empire, wouldn't you be motivated, based upon the experience of those you have subdued, to promulgate a state religion, proclaimed in the language of the conquerer, which demanded submission? Would you not base that religion upon the revelation of a prophet, speaking to the conquerers in their own language, which came directly from God?

It is often observed that Islam, unlike the other Abrahamic religions, is uniquely both a religious and political system, leading inevitably to theocracy (which I've always believed misnamed—I'd have no problem with theocracy: rule by God; it's rule by people claiming to act in His name that always seems to end badly). But what if Islam is so intensely political precisely because it was invented to support a political agenda—that of the Arabic Empire of the Umayyad Caliphate? It's not that Islam is political because its doctrine encompasses politics as well as religion; it's that's it's political because it was designed that way by the political rulers who directed the compilation of its sacred books, its traditions, and spread it by the sword to further their imperial ambitions.

July 2012 Permalink

Steyn, Mark. America Alone. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2006. ISBN 0-89526-078-6.
Leave it to Mark Steyn to write a funny book about the collapse of Western civilisation. Demographics are destiny, and unlike political and economic trends, are easier to extrapolate because the parents of the next generation have already been born: if there are more of them than their own parents, a population is almost certain to increase, and if there are fewer, the population is destined to fall. Once fertility drops to 1.3 children per woman or fewer, a society enters a demographic “death spiral” from which there is no historical precedent for recovery. Italy, Spain, and Russia are already below this level, and the European Union as a whole is at 1.47, far below the replacement rate of 2.1. And what's the makeup of this shrinking population of Europe? Well, we might begin by asking what is the most popular name for boys born in Belgium…and Amsterdam…and Malmö, Sweden: Mohammed. Where is this going? Well, in the words of Mullah Krekar of Norway (p. 39), “We're the ones who will change you. Every Western woman in the EU is producing an average of 1.4 children. Every Muslim woman in the same countries is producing 3.5 children. By 2050, 30 percent of the population in Europe will be Muslim. Our way of thinking…will prove more powerful than yours.”

The author believes, and states forthrightly, that it is the purest fantasy to imagine that this demographic evolution, seen by many of the élite as the only hope of salvation for the European welfare state, can occur without a profound change in the very nature of the societies in which it occurs. The end-point may not be “Eutopia”, but rather “Eurabia”, and the timidity of European nations who already have an urban Muslim population approaching 30% shows how a society which has lost confidence in its own civilisation and traditions and imbibed the feel-good but ultimately debilitating doctrine of multiculturalism ends up assimilating to the culture of the immigrants, not the other way around. Steyn sees only three possible outcomes for the West (p. 204):

  1. Submit to Islam
  2. Destroy Islam
  3. Reform Islam
If option one is inconceivable and option two unthinkable (and probably impossible, certainly without changing Western civilisation beyond recognition and for the worse), you're left with number three, but, as Steyn notes, “Ultimately, only Muslims can reform Islam”. Unfortunately, the recent emergence of a global fundamentalist Islamic identity with explicitly political goals may be the Islamic Reformation, and if that be the case, the trend is going in the wrong direction. So maybe option one isn't off the table, after all.

The author traces the roots of the European predicament to the social democratic welfare state, which like all collectivist schemes, eventually creates a society of perpetual adolescents who never mature into and assume the responsibilities of adults. When the state becomes responsible for all the things the family once had to provide for, and is supported by historically unprecedented levels of taxation which impoverish young families and make children unaffordable, why not live for the present and let the next generation, wherever it may come from, worry about itself? In a static situation, this is a prescription for the kind of societal decline which can be seen in the histories of both Greece and Rome, but when there is a self-confident, rapidly-proliferating immigrant population with no inclination to assimilate, it amounts to handing the keys over to the new tenants in a matter of decades.

Among Western countries, the United States is the great outlier, with fertility just at the replacement rate and immigrants primarily of Hispanic origin who have, historically, assimilated to U.S. society in a generation or two. (There are reasons for concern about the present rate of immigration to the U.S. and the impact of multiculturalism on assimilation there, but that is not the topic of this book.) Steyn envisages a future, perhaps by 2050, where the U.S. looks out upon the world and sees not an “end of history” with liberal democracy and free markets triumphant around the globe but rather (p. 205), “a totalitarian China, a crumbling Russia, an insane Middle East, a disease-ridden Africa, [and] a civil war-torn Eurabia”—America alone.

Heavy stuff, but Steyn's way with words will keep you chuckling as you contemplate the apocalypse. The book is long on worries and short on plausible solutions, other than a list of palliatives which it is unlikely Western societies, even the U.S., have the will to adopt, although the author predicts (p. 192) “By 2015, almost every viable political party in the West will be natalist…”. But demographics don't turn on a dime, and by then, whatever measures are politically feasible may be too little to make much difference.

November 2006 Permalink

Taheri, Amir. The Persian Night. New York: Encounter Books, 2009. ISBN 978-1-59403-240-0.
With Iran continuing its march toward nuclear weapons and long range missiles unimpeded by an increasingly feckless West, while simultaneously domestic discontent over the tyranny of the mullahs, economic stagnation, and stolen elections are erupting into bloody violence on the streets of major cities, this book provides a timely look at the history, institutions, personalities, and strategy of what the author dubs the “triple oxymoron”: the Islamic Republic of Iran which, he argues, espouses a bizarre flavour of Islam which is not only a heretical anathema to the Sunni majority, but also at variance with the mainstream Shiite beliefs which predominated in Iran prior to Khomeini's takeover; anything but a republic in any usual sense of the word; and motivated by a global messianic vision decoupled from the traditional interests of Iran as a nation state.

Khomeini's success in wresting control away from the ailing Shah without a protracted revolutionary struggle was made possible by support from “useful idiots” mostly on the political left, who saw Khomeini's appeal to the rural population as essential to gaining power and planned to shove him aside afterward. Khomeini, however, once in power, proved far more ruthless than his coalition partners, summarily putting to death all who opposed him, including many mullahs who dissented from his eccentric version of Islam.

Iran is often described as a theocracy, but apart from the fact that the all-powerful Supreme Guide is nominally a religious figure, the organisation of the government and distribution of power are very much along the lines of a fascist state. In fact, there is almost a perfect parallel between the institutions of Nazi Germany and those of Iran. In Germany, Hitler created duplicate party and state centres of power throughout the government and economy and arranged them in such a way as to ensure that decisions could not be made without his personal adjudication of turf battles between the two. In Iran, there are the revolutionary institutions and those of the state, operating side by side, often with conflicting agendas, with only the Supreme Guide empowered to resolve disputes. Just as Hitler set up the SS as an armed counterpoise to the Wehrmacht, Khomeini created the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as the revolution's independent armed branch to parallel the state's armed forces.

Thus, the author stresses, in dealing with Iran, it is essential to be sure whether you're engaging the revolution or the nation state: over the history of the Islamic Republic, power has shifted back and forth between the two sets of institutions, and with it Iran's interaction with other players on the world stage. Iran as a nation state generally strives to become a regional superpower: in effect, re-establishing the Persian Empire from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea through vassal regimes. To that end it seeks weapons, allies, and economic influence in a fairly conventional manner. Iran the Islamic revolutionary movement, on the other hand, works to establish global Islamic rule and the return of the Twelfth Imam: an Islamic Second Coming which Khomeini's acolytes fervently believe is imminent. Because they brook no deviation from their creed, they consider Sunni Moslems, even the strict Wahabi sect of Saudi Arabia, as enemies which must be compelled to submit to Khomeini's brand of Islam.

Iran's troubled relationship with the United States cannot be understood without grasping the distinction between state and revolution. To the revolution, the U.S. is the Great Satan spewing foul corruption around the world, which good Muslims should curse, chanting “death to America” before every sura of the Koran. Iran the nation state, on the other hand, only wants Washington to stay out of its way as it becomes a regional power which, after all, was pretty much the state of affairs under the Shah, with the U.S. his predominant arms supplier. But the U.S. could never adopt such a strategy as long as the revolution has a hand in policy, nor will Iran's neighbours, terrified of its regional ambitions, encourage the U.S. to keep their hands off.

There is a great deal of conventional wisdom about Iran which is dead wrong, and this book dispels much of it. The supposed “CIA coup” against Mosaddegh in 1953, for which two U.S. presidents have since apologised, proves to have been nothing of the sort (although the CIA did, on occasion, claim credit for it as an example of a rare success amidst decades of blundering), with the U.S. largely supporting the nationalisation of the Iranian oil fields against fierce opposition from Britain. But cluelessness about Iran has never been in short supply among U.S. politicians. Speaking at the World Economic Forum, Bill Clinton said:

Iran today is, in a sense, the only country where progressive ideas enjoy a vast constituency. It is there that the ideas I subscribe to are defended by a majority.

Lest this be deemed a slip of the tongue due to intoxication by the heady Alpine air of Davos, a few days later on U.S. television he doubled down with:

[Iran is] the only one with elections, including the United States, including Israel, including you name it, where the liberals, or the progressives, have won two-thirds to 70 percent of the vote in six elections…. In every single election, the guys I identify with got two-thirds to 70 percent of the vote. There is no other country in the world I can say that about, certainly not my own.

I suppose if the U.S. had such an overwhelming “progressive” majority, it too would adopt “liberal” policies such as hanging homosexuals from cranes until they suffocate and stoning rape victims to death. But perhaps Clinton was thinking of Iran's customs of polygamy and “temporary marriage”.

Iran is a great nation which has been a major force on the world stage since antiquity, with a deep cultural heritage and vigorous population who, in exile from poor governance in the homeland, have risen to the top of demanding professions all around the world. Today (as well as much of the last century) Iran is saddled with a regime which squanders its patrimony on a messianic dream which runs the very real risk of igniting a catastrophic conflict in the Middle East. The author argues that the only viable option is regime change, and that all actions taken by other powers should have this as the ultimate goal. Does that mean going to war with Iran? Of course not—the very fact that the people of Iran are already pushing back against the mullahs is evidence they perceive how illegitimate and destructive the present regime is. It may even make sense to engage with institutions of the Iranian state, which will be the enduring foundation of the nation after the mullahs are sent packing, but it it essential that the Iranian people be sent the message that the forces of civilisation are on their side against those who oppress them, and to use the communication tools of this new century (Which country has the most bloggers? The U.S. Number two? Iran.) to bypass the repressive regime and directly address the people who are its victims.

Hey, I spent two weeks in Iran a decade ago and didn't pick up more than a tiny fraction of the insight available here. Events in Iran are soon to become a focus of world attention to an extent they haven't been for the last three decades. Read this book to understand how Iran figures in the contemporary Great Game, and how revolutionary change may soon confront the Islamic Republic.

January 2010 Permalink

Thomas, Dominique. Le Londonistan. Paris: Éditions Michalon, 2003. ISBN 2-84186-195-3.

July 2003 Permalink

Warraq, Ibn [pseud.]. Why I Am Not a Muslim. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995. ISBN 0-87975-984-4.

February 2002 Permalink

Warraq, Ibn [pseud.] ed. What the Koran Really Says. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2002. ISBN 1-57392-945-X.
This is a survey and reader of Western Koranic studies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A wide variety of mutually conflicting interpretations are presented and no conclusions are drawn. The degree of detail may be more than some readers have bargained for: thirty-five pages (pp. 436–464, 472–479) discuss a single word. For a scholarly text there are a surprising number of typographical errors, many of which would have been found by a spelling checker.

April 2003 Permalink

Warraq, Ibn [pseud.] ed. Leaving Islam. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003. ISBN 1-59102-068-9.
Multiculturalists and ardent secularists may contend “all organised religions are the same”, but among all major world religions only Islam prescribes the death penalty for apostasy, which makes these accounts by former Muslims of the reasons for and experience of their abandoning Islam more than just stories of religious doubt. (There is some dispute as to whether the Koran requires death for apostates, or only threatens punishment in the afterlife. Some prominent Islamic authorities, however, interpret surat II:217 and IX:11,12 as requiring death for apostates. Numerous aḥadīth are unambiguous on the point, for example Bukhārī book 84, number 57 quotes Mohammed saying, “Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him”, which doesn't leave a lot of room for interpretation, nor do authoritative manuals of Islamic law such as Reliance of the Traveller, which prescribes (o8.1) “When a person who has reached puberty and is sane voluntarily apostasizes from Islam, he deserves to be killed”. The first hundred pages of Leaving Islam explore the theory and practice of Islamic apostasy in both ancient and modern times.)

The balance of the book are personal accounts by apostates, both those born into Islam and converts who came to regret their embrace of what Salman Rushdie has called “that least huggable of faiths”. These testaments range from the tragic (chapter 15), to the philosophical (chapter 29), and ironically humorous (chapter 37). One common thread which runs through the stories of many apostates is that while they were taught as children to “read” the Koran, what this actually meant was learning enough Arabic script and pronunciation to be able to recite the Arabic text but without having any idea what it meant. (Very few of the contributors to this book speak Arabic as their mother tongue, and it is claimed [p. 400] that even native Arabic speakers can barely understand the classical Arabic of the Koran, but I don't know the extent to which this is true. But in any case, only about 15% of Muslims are Arabic mother tongue speakers.) In many of the narratives, disaffection with Islam either began, or was strongly reinforced, when they read the Koran in translation and discovered that the “real Islam” they had imagined as idealistic and benign was, on the evidence of what is regarded as the word of God, nothing of the sort. It is interesting that, unlike the Roman Catholic church before the Reformation, which attempted to prevent non-clergy from reading the Bible for themselves, Islam encourages believers to study the Koran and Ḥadīth, both in the original Arabic and translation (see for example this official Saudi site). It is ironic that just such study of scripture seems to encourage apostasy, but perhaps this is the case only for those already so predisposed.

Eighty pages of appendices include quotations from the Koran and Ḥadīth illustrating the darker side of Islam and a bibliography of books and list of Web sites critical of Islam. The editor is author of Why I Am Not a Muslim (February 2002), editor of What the Koran Really Says (April 2003), and founder of the Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society.

February 2006 Permalink