Charles Allen is one of the most celebrated travel writers and historians of his generation.
Allen joins 9/11 to his long-standing interest in the soldier/scholar adventurers of the British Raj and turns up some interesting nuggets on Islamic fundamentalism.As early as the 12th century, writes Allen (The Search for the Buddha, 2003, etc.), radicals sought to turn Islam into a militantly unaccommodating faith. Against the backdrop of the Mongol invasions of the Arab world, a Syrian jurist named Ibn Taymiyya declared Muhammad wrong to suggest-or so ecumenical clerics had determined-that jihad was an internal struggle for purity as much as a war against enemies of the faith. No, said Ibn Taymiyya: Jihad was literal, an unrelenting struggle against all who stood in the way of Islam's destiny. That militant stance was revived in the 18th century in the Arabian backcountry, when fundamentalist Bedouins preached fire and brimstone. At first, the Wahhabi cult didn't make much of a dent outside of the kingdom of the Saudis, rejected and condemned as schismatic. Still, where Islam was felt to be threatened, as in India, when brought under British rule, new adherents were easily recruited, particularly among young males from among the poor and ignorant (preferably prepubescent orphans) who could be easily indoctrinated. So it was in the Raj, when cadres of Islamic assassins set out to murder as many Britons as they could, retiring to the schools called madrassas to read scripture in their off hours. The same demographic category, writes Allen, fueled the Taliban, which emerged seemingly from nowhere in 1994 to seize power in Afghanistan, soon to be allied with al-Qaeda. Both movements grew from the same fundamentalist roots, the author asserts, adding that others will follow unless grievances such as the lack of education and opportunity for young Muslims-to say nothing of the lack of a Palestinian state-are neutralized.This narrative has a grafted-on feel, but it is still of use to those seeking to understand the origins and growth of Islamic extremism. (Kirkus Reviews)