A Smoother Pebble


Beneath the Skin

Writing my bit on the Porter essay I spent a deal of time flicking through old lives of the 'desert English', the soldier-administrators who built the Raj. Most of their biographers seemed to be the heirs of Parson Weems, famous for his story of Washington and the cherry tree. They make their subjects more like heroes of a boy's adventure story, or plastic figurines of a superhero (with no genitalia) than real men. But when John Martineau in his life of Sir Bartle Frere assured me that he searched in vain for a flaw in the man and found none, that I threw up my hands. I wanted to read a different sort of book by a different sort of man.

Sir Richard Burton was an explorer, soldier, writer, translator, and an extraordinary linguist. According to his own claim, he could 'salute the rising sun in fifty languages'. He disguised himself as a Pashtun medicine-man, entered Mecca and made the Hajj, discovered Lake Victoria and scandalised Victorian society by his disregard for convention and traditional morality. He translated the Kama Sutra and the complete Arabian nights (16 volumes). He claimed to have commited 'every sin in the Decalogue', and when a Victorian Mama asked him what his intentions were towards her daughter replied 'Strictly dishonourable, Madam'. No one has ever tried to turn Burton into a plaster saint.

The book I picked up was his Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah, the story of how he travelled to Mecca, where only Muslims are allowed. If he had been unmasked as a European, he would have been killed for sacrilege. When I was a kid I imagined copying Burton. But, unlike the swarthy short Burton, my appearance would count against me and the growing number of Western converts, or 'reverts', to Islam has spoiled this little game. It's too easy now.

The thing that depresses me most when I think about the Global War on Terror (yes, it is a war, and one we must, must, win) is that I can't even imagine how we could win it. We could win World War II by invading Germany and killing Hitler. But in this war against the jihadists, there is no Central Command to bomb, no regular armies to defeat, no enemy leader whose death remove the threat. Israel can and must destroy Hezbollah as an armed force, but another such organisation will just take its place. There are millions and millions of Arabs who want 'Death to Israel and America', and we can't win without somehow changing their hearts and minds.

Burton had a definite goal he wanted to reach, the Ka'aba. In the Cold War, we were facing the Red Army. There was a global communist conspiracy and it had an organisation and a headquarters. When the USSR collapsed, that was the end of the communist threat. We were not left facing hostile millions who still wanted communism. But if the Saudi royals were overthrown, the population would still be as hostile as before. Compare out situation with the plot of John Buchan's silly but gripping novel Greenmantle:

SPOILER ALERT: During World War I, the Germans try to launch a pan-Islamic Jihad against Britain by enlisting a prophet to unite the entire Islamic world. The prophet dies of cancer, so the plan is abandoned. END SPOILER ALERT.

If Osama bin Laden died of renal failure tomorrow, what would it change? There are jihadis in Waziristan and in the capitals of the West. They are Shia and Sunni, rich and poor, some illiterate and some with graduate degrees, some who have never seen an infidel in the flesh and some who have lived amongst us their whole lives.

I remember September 12th 2001. At my school, even the hard core leftists were in shock, but one kid calmly said that America deserved it. I'll call him Mehmet. I often think of him. He was intelligent, he came from Turkey, the nearest thing to a secular, humane state in the Muslim world. He lived in Australia, as near as men have come to an ideal society, was attending the most prestigious school in the entire state, socialised every day with non-Muslims, and it hadn't changed a thing.

I thought I'd known Ahmed, just as Burton's companions on his pilgrimage had thought they knew who that Afghani, Abdullah, was. Mehmet and I started at the school on the same day, sat next to each other in class, had chatted many times. I'd assumed, without even noticing I'd assumed, that because we were superficially the same, fundamentally we were the same; just as the men surrounding Burton only saw the surface, and didn't realise how different he was beneath his henna-dyed skin.

Whenever I hear George Bush assure us that bringing 'democracy', 'hope' and 'freedom' to the Middle East will solve the problem of jihad, I think of Ahmed. We could make every Muslim government as democratic as Australia's, give every Muslim the wealth of the Saudi royal family and the Western education and exposure of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Mohammed Atta - and the problem would remain.

The West has already seen off an ideology like Islamism. The victim culture, the desire to blame Jews and foreigners for one's own woes, the fantasies of global conquest and triumph, are all reminiscent of Germany in the 1920s and 30s.

One of the main causes of World War II was German resentment at the loss of World War I. It was a widespread belief that Germany had been stabbed in the back by a hidden conspiracy of Jews and Socialists. The Versailles treaty left hundreds of thousands of Germans in Eastern Europe in the new Slav nations, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine. Slavs were subhuman, peasants, animals. They were unfit to rule over Aryan Germans. The existence of Poland especially, like the existence of Israel, was intolerable.

Why were these ideas so popular with the German people before the war, and so unpopular after? Because the Allied victory killed the hard-core fascists who were fighting for the Third Reich - after we won, they were either dead or in Argentina. Because the war made the German people feel the cost of trying to conquer the world. What the Germans had done to the capitals of Europe was done to the cities of Germany. Nazism was no longer attractive.

There suggests a possibility for us. Islamism could similarly be rendered unattractive by winning a vast and total war in the Middle East, killing millions of Islamists and showing the remaining population the full might of America.

I don't think that any of you considers that acceptable.

But a nuke in Manhattan could change all that.

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