‘The Muslims are Coming!’, by Arun Kundnani


This article was published in The Financial Times

Review by Tanjil Rashid

A critique of the west’s counterterrorism policies overlooks the roots of homegrown radicalism

The Muslims are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror by Arun Kundnani, Verso RRP£14.99 / $26.95

In Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene tells the story of a vacuum cleaner salesman turned British secret agent. His incompetence results in the absurdity of diagrams for cleaner parts being mistaken on high as a blueprint for a Soviet plot, while official money is ploughed into inventing threats to the UK’s own interests.

In The Muslims are Coming!, a critique of counterterrorism policy by Arun Kundnani, the west’s “domestic war on terror” at times resembles a Greene novel populated by a cast of counterterrorism warriors even unlikelier than a hawker of Hoovers in Havana.
Take, for example, Shahed Hussain, an American petrol pump attendant with a trade in fake drivers’ licences, whom the Federal Bureau of Investigation roped into ensnaring Muslims into terror plots against US targets – planned and financed by the US government itself.

As Judge Colleen McMahon stated in 2011 when sentencing one of Mr Hussain’s catches: “Only the government could have made a terrorist out of [James] Cromitie, a man whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope.” It is a pity the judgment is not quoted in full, for it succinctly exemplifies Kundnani’s argument. “[The government] created acts of terrorism out of his fantasies of bravado and bigotry,” she said, “and then made those fantasies come true.”

Kundnani, a fellow of the Soros Foundation, believes the wider war on terror at home to be founded on a fantasy. The west, he says, “is dedicating tens of billions of dollars a year to fighting a domestic threat of terror violence that is largely imagined”.

Based on years of research from Dallas to Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, this book is the most rigorous account yet of this familiar argument, which British film-maker Adam Curtis called the “power of nightmares”. Kundnani shares Curtis’s view, too, that Muslims have replaced communists as the “phantasm” of policy makers and conspiracy theorists, “a conceptual scaffolding inherited from the cold war”. But to imply vast chunks of government policy are built on fables itself rings of conspiracy theory.

In truth, counterterrorism policies targeting Muslims are a legitimate response to homegrown extremism, from the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby to the 366 (by one count) British citizens waging jihad in Syria. Furthermore, the victims of the 2005 London bombings bear witness to the reality of radicalism bred at home.

At best, Kundnani’s argument is compelling in its dissection of governments’ disproportional responses. He estimates the FBI has one counter­terrorism agent per 94 Muslims in the US, which approaches a Stasi-esque ratio of spies to citizens. He shows that authorities keep drawing spurious lists of suspected radicals; one in the UK included almost 300 children under 15.

A commonplace at the core of Kundnani’s critique is that radicalism is mainly the byproduct of western foreign policy. “Religion had nothing to do with this,” according to Kundnani, citing a conspirator in the London bombings. This view is undermined by the existence of two generations of British Muslims predating the war on terror – men who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and in Bosnia in the 1990s. The diminution of religion’s role in stoking radicalism is as inaccurate as UK Labour politicians’ denial that wars in Iraq and Afghanistan acted even as recruiting sergeants.

Kundnani scrutinises responses to terrorism better than outlining its causes. He probes the mutations of liberalism in the face of Islam, resulting in “war on terror liberals” for whom liberalism “became an ideology of total war”, from the UK Labour party’s interventionist foreign policy to Martin Amis’s innumerate paranoia about Muslim birth rates.

Liberals hold up the Enlightenment, conservatives “campaign to defend Judeo-Christian identity” – both banners explicitly excluding Muslims; both groups inclined, Kundnani writes, to see “terrorists motivated by fanaticism inherent to Islam”.

History offers correctives to these narratives, demonstrating varieties of Islam being as rooted in rationalism as the Enlightenment; the Enlightenment being as tied to terror as Islam (the word “terrorism” itself was first used during The Terror of the Enlightenment-inspired French revolution). The Muslims are Coming! lacks optimism but there is every reason to believe “Muslim” might one day be suffixed to “Judeo-Christian” when de­scribing the west’s culture and values.

Note how one prominent French intellectual writes about Europe’s growing population of a certain religious minority: “All of them are born with raging fanaticism in their hearts.” The author of these unenlightened remarks? Voltaire. His subject? The Jews.

The writer is a freelance journalist


Paperback review

Published in The Telegraph, 12/01/13

Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton

Starting from the premise that God is dead, Alain de Botton nevertheless insists secular society could do with the disciplines and practices enshrined by religion. He argues religion offers boundaries and insights that today’s corporations, universities and buildings lack. A Catholic Mass, for example, is a web of techniques to “strengthen congregants’ bonds of affection” and the Jewish Day of Atonement is a “psychologically effective mechanism” for the resolution of social conflict. Universities with relationships departments and e-Wailing Walls might help replace religion, but in penetrating, stately prose, de Botton ultimately presents religion as the greatest source of practical advice on how to live our lives.

Cambridge in Literature: G. K. Chesterton’s “Manalive”

Published in The Cambridge Student, November 2010

G.K. Chesterton was his friend C.S. Lewis’s only real competitor as England’s greatest Christian apologist, but unlike Lewis, his career as a novelist seems to be less widely acknowledged than his bestselling polemical works, like Orthodoxy and The Eternal Man. But always underlying the novels of both writers was the spirited attempt to affirm a decidedly Christian worldview of fallible Man who by the grace of God might lead a meaningful and fulfilled life. In his 1912 novel, Manalive, Chesterton affirms the Christian message in the character of Innocent Smith (the name is hardly subtle), a Prince Myshkin-like Cambridge graduate, ‘a holy fool’ who is falsely accused of burglary, attempted murder and polygamy: hardly Christlike. After letters from his contemporaries at the fictional Brikespeare College are mined (sarcastic descriptions of which suggest Chesterton’s contempt for 19th century liberal Bible Criticism), it transpires that the house he burgled was his own, the attempted murder merely his habit of firing bullets near people to make them cherish life and the polygamy his kinkily Catholic hobby of eloping with women who are actually his wife posing under various aliases so that they may repeatedly re-live their thoroughly chaste courtship. This irony-laden extract lambastes Cambridge’s spirit of what Chesterton viewed to be a nihilistic scientific skepticism (knowledge of which was likely culled from conversations with Cambridge fellow CS Lewis).

He had been sent to Cambridge with a view to a mathematical and scientific, rather than a classical or literary, career. A starless nihilism was then the philosophy of the schools; and it bred in him a war between the members and the spirit, but one in which the members were right.  While his brain accepted the black creed, his very body rebelled against it. As he put it, his right hand taught him terrible things. As the authorities of Cambridge University put it, unfortunately, it had taken the form of his right hand flourishing a loaded firearm in the very face of a distinguished don, and driving him to climb out of the window and cling to a waterspout. He had done it solely because the poor don had professed in theory a preference for non-existence. For this very unacademic type of argument he had been sent down. Vomiting as he was with revulsion, from the pessimism that had quailed under his pistol, he made himself a kind of fanatic of the joy of life.  He cut across all the associations of serious-minded men.  He was gay, but by no means careless. His practical jokes were more in earnest than verbal ones. Though not an optimist in the absurd sense of maintaining that life is all beer and skittles, he did really seem to maintain that beer and skittles are the most serious part of it. `What is more immortal,’ he would cry, `than love and war? Type of all desire and joy–beer.  Type of all battle and conquest–skittles.’

G. K. Chesterton, Manalive (1912)

A Miracle of Biblical Proportions: 400 years of The King James Bible

Published in The Cambridge Student

Curtains opened on the year 1611 with the soporific masque, Oberon, The Faery Prince and closed with the distressingly debauched drama, John Cooke’s The City Gallant – both now rightly forgotten – while the year’s bestseller was the legendary Coryat’s Crudities, a travelogue so hilariously bad the nation’s leading literarateurs, from John Donne to Ben Jonson, put together a poetic tract devoted to making a mockery of it. Not a good year for literature, then.

Were it not for one book. Published amid little public attention 400 years ago, the King James Version of the Bible has acquired the status of a global literary classic, both by sales, with over a billion copies sold, as well as critical acclaim, considered as it is “the noblest monument of English prose”.

Its cadences are everywhere, from the US Constitution to the lyrics of Paul Simon (just listen to The Boxer). Perhaps more than anywhere in the curious clichés and mixed metaphors of football pundits: how often have you heard, say, Alan Hansen bemoaning a team’s giving up the ghost (Mark 15:47), observing they won by the skin of their teeth (Job 19:20) and lambasting the management as the blind leading the blind (Matthew 15:14)? The KJV’s influence is no less singular in pop-culture than in high culture. Radio 4 may well list it alongside the Shakespeare’s Complete Works on Desert Island Discs (no better arbiter of the literary canon than the BBC of course), but as salt-of-the-earth (yup, there’s another one: Matthew 5:13) a man of the people as Johnny Cash has released a spoken word album of KJV readings.

To what does the KJV owe its phenomenal legacy? To say it holds a prime position in the linguistic lineage of the world’s most widely-spoken tongue is as common a cliché as the hundreds it has bequeathed to us since publication. And there are hundreds. Few, for example, are aware that their casual exhortation at a party to eat, drink and be merry (Ecclesiastes8:15) has solid scriptural sanction. Every time we regret a politician’s tendency to be all things to all men (Corinthians 9:22) or – these banker-bashing days – inveigh against the love of money as the root of all evil (Timothy 6:10), we are quoting the KJV, whose turns of phrase are so ingrained in our everyday speech patterns that we do it unthinkingly. Discovering the extent of this, one might feel like Molière’s bourgeois gentleman, enchanted to learn from an expert that he had been speaking something called “prose” his whole life. We’ve been speaking something called the King James Bible our whole lives.

But it’s easy to overstate the case amid all the excitement of the quatercentennial celebrations. Melvyn Bragg has declared the KJV “quite simply the DNA of the English language”. But DNA is in our every cell; it seems absurd to suggest every word we speak comes from the KJV. The nation’s favourite bearded linguist, David Crystal, is somebody keen to challenge this received wisdom – a fly in the ointment, as it were (Ecclesiastes 10:1, if you were wondering).

In his latest book, Begat, Prof. Crystal examines whether it’s true that no book has wielded a greater influence on our language than the KJV. Personally counting the number of KJV-derived idioms that have entered modern English, he finds only 257 against the usual estimate of thousands. What of the KJV’s rival for the title? A quick count in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations finds Shakespeare ahead: 71 pages against 39.

Yet according toCrystal’s own method – to count only those which have entered modern-day parlance – the KJV can claim twice as many idioms as Shakespeare. But modern parlance has displayed a penchant for fiddling with what was once believed to be the inerrant word of God. According to Professor Crystal, only 18 are exact quotes, the rest corruptions. Isaiah invokes the phrase “No peace for the wicked.” This later became “No rest for the wicked”. Nobody knows why. But, as we know from Shakespeare, the best quotes always are misquotes – the odd missing adjective can surely be forgiven. (The same cannot be said for missing negatives: the 1631 version, printed here inCambridge, made mandatory the practice of adultery, commanding in Exodus 20:14: “thou shalt commit adultery”; the printers narrowly escaped death.)

More iconoclastically, Crystal’s research shows only a minority of these phrases are original to the KJV. Most are found in Tyndale’s 1534 translation or even the 14th century Wycliffe Bible. The OED cites the KJV as first evidence for only 43 words. The Wycliffe, by contrast, originated over 1400.

Nevertheless, it is the KJV that has over 400 years popularised these expressions, even if it didn’t originate them. Indeed, many of these expressions are inept, very literal translations of Hebrew idioms, non-sensical in 1611, but today, so intimately familiar that it’s hard to believe they’re not English in origin. “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for the children of Texas.” So went the slogan spouted by anti-immigrant Republicans in the US, but it actually makes some sense.  And the classics of English literature, from Milton’s Paradise Lost to Waugh’s Vile Bodies, have imbibed the KJV (those titles included), sometimes verbatim. “She gave me of the tree, and I did eat.”Paradise Lost Book X or Genesis?

Curiously, modern English literature’s pre-eminent Christians, CS Lewis and TS Eliot, both shuddered at the thought of considering the legacy of the KJV in such secular terms as language. As the historian Gordon Campbell argues in his recent door-stopper, Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011, the KJV’s enduring allure is religious. “It is the King James Version that has been loved by generations of Christians who have listened to it or read it to themselves or to others.”

Arising out of the arcane theological disputes of 17th centuryEngland, the 54 scholars working on the text (a third here in theUniversity ofCambridge) struck the middle ground between Puritanism and Papism to make the text as amenable as possible. Most British, one might say. Americans, though, beg to differ: according to a TV poll, the KJV is the “most American” book. It was, of course, usually the only book carried by colonists as they trotted the globe, where it’s been taken to heart with as much aplomb. The King James Bible unites the world’s English-speakers more than any other book. Who would have thought as parochial a place as the Divinity Fac. – and four centuries ago at that – could be responsible for so global and timeless a phenomenon?

As former Poet Laureare Andrew Motion extols: “To read it is to feel simultaneously at home, a citizen of the world, and a traveller through eternity”. And as Alan Hansen might say, the King James Bible simply refuses to give up the ghost. Or was it the Apostle Mark?