Wrong War

Issue section: 

Review of 'God's Terrorists', Charles Allen, Little, Brown £20

Since the 11 September attacks on the US there has been a raft of books on the Middle East, Islam and terrorism. Most of them have been churned out to justify the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, or to inform us that Saudi Arabia (a major US ally since 1933) is run by religious fanatics. That there should be so much rubbish in the bookshops is not unexpected, but when respected historians are tempted to reinterpret history to suit modern prejudice we need to sit up and take notice.

Unfortunately this is exactly the route that Charles Allen, a leading authority on British rule in India, is travelling. God's Terrorists is a sad testimony to declining standards, as Allen sets out to prove that Wahhabism, a puritanical interpretation of Islam that emerged in 18th century Arabia, was behind every revolt in the Middle East and Asia since 1853.

The Indian and Afghan revolts against British rule in the 19th century are reinterpreted to fit the modern narrative of Jihadi terrorism. Thus we are led to believe that Osama Bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar are the political descendents of the tribal chiefs who led the revolt against Britain in the 1850s.

Ignoring that the Indian and Afghan revolts in general, and the Indian Mutiny of 1857 in particular, were popular uprisings that drew together Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, Allen reworks Britain's defeat in the North West Frontier to a plot hatched by fanatics inspired by Wahhabism.

Leaving aside that the Muslim tribes who took up arms against the British were mainly adherents of Sufism (a branch of Islam hated by the puritanical Wahhabis), Allen's book is full of glaring factual inaccuracies (he locates Jerusalem's Golden Dome mosque in Egypt, for example). The ridiculous logic Allen uses suggests that those who flew passenger airliners into the Twin Towers were Wahhabis, therefore those who took up arms against the British must also be Wahhabis. For Allen, the problem is not imperialism, but that those in revolt are Muslims.

There is an even darker side to Allen's conversion to the doctrine of the "clash of civilisations". He quotes at length the racist rantings of British colonial officials to serve as a backdrop to US failure in Afghanistan, and even leads a chapter with the quote, "One is inclined to sum up the causes of the outbreak [of rebellion] under three heads, fanaticism, fanaticism, fanaticism."

Where is Allen going with this? The answer, we discover, is that the failure of reconstruction in Afghanistan today is not the fault of US imperial misadventure, but of the Afghan character, which is susceptible to the machinations of Wahhabi fanatics.

Allen is rewriting history to fit modern prejudice. And in doing so, he has debased and compromised both himself, and his work - shearing away any historical insights and reducing India and Afghanistan's histories to a racist stereotype.