Thursday, August 09, 2007

Book review: "God's Terrorists" by Charles Allen

It was the subtitle of this book that made me buy it - "The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of the Modern Jihad". I've been trying to understand more about modern Saudi political history, and how the official Wahhabi form of Islam in Saudi Arabia has produced both a very politically conservative form that is absolutely supportive of the Saudi monarchy and the Salafi-Jihadis who want the violent overthrow of the same royal family, and thought the book might have something to say on the background of this. I was to be disappointed.

"God's Terrorists" isn't a bad book, it's just 90% a different book to the one suggested by the cover. See the camels in the picture? And the head scarves? Doesn't that sort of suggest Arabia? But oddly this is a book about Imperial India. Allen is a respected historian of the Raj, and perhaps that should have been a clue, but I would say both the front cover and back cover blurb deliberately set out to suggest this is book about the roots of modern jihadi terrorism and not about Empire-era India. What the meat of the book is about is Muslim radicalism within British-India, generally known at the time as the "Hindustani Fanatics". This is a fascinating story in itself: the origins of this group were Indian Muslims who in the early 19th century had gone to Saudi Arabia and had been inspired by Wahhabi puritanicalism and brought their zeal back with them. They were somewhat involved in the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, but this was not a Muslim thing in particular with Hindu regiments mutinying as well. They fled India to hide out in the mountains of the North West frontier, bringing British and Indian-native forces into various skirmishes and minor wars with Pashtun tribes of the India/Afghanistan border regions. The Pashtuns didn't think much of the British invading their lands, but they didn't think much of the Wahhabis either, with the Imperial forces sometimes doing deals with them to drive the fanatics out - much like the current Pakistani government at times tries to do, co-opting the tribes against various foreign al-Qaeda groups.

This is all very interesting but really didn't have much to do with what was happening in Saudi Arabia at the time. In fact Allen notes that the Deobandi school of Islam, the specifically South Asian school that began in India in 1866, was set up in opposition to the Wahhabi inspired Hindustani fanatics (p.206-7). The Deobandi school has an important role to play in the development of Pakistani Islamism, and more globally because of the influence of Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi, who along with Sayyid Qutb, was central to the development of modern Islamism. The Taliban are also described as Deobandi, although some say the claim is problematic.

There are some chapters that deal with Saudi Arabia, both the beginnings of the Wahhabi sect in 18th century and its more modern history, but they aren't anything I haven't read elsewhere and feel like a basic review of the known history, rather than an a fresh delve into primary sources - diaries, reports, statistical data - that Allen clearly has mastery of in the case of Raj-era India. Perfunctory would be the word. His descriptions of minor battles and skirmishes between the British and Indian Armies and the Pashtun tribesmen at the fag-end of the 19th century are well written military history. This is obviously Allen's 'thing', not Saudi Arabia. I'm pretty certain Allen had a book pretty much written just on Muslim radicalism during the Raj, but then his publishers suggested that if he gets the words al-Qaeda and Taliban in there a few times, and they put the word "terrorist" in the title, it would sell 20 times the amount that a military history of British Army skirmishes in the Hindu Kush a century ago. I bought it, so they were probably right. More fool me.

You will learn lots of things if you read this book. Just not what you expected.


Anonymous said...

Here's something on the Saudis/Wahhabis:

Not exactly a historical treatise, but perhaps a useful resource on recent reporting.

Azooz said...


Pardon my English, been a while.

Just a few thoughts from an "insider" with little knowledge. To get real information on the subject you have to know great Arabic, else it will not make much sence even with great English skills. My information is mostly based on listening to poets rather than Imams or politicans so you have to give me some slack on the details.

The name (wahabi/salafi) is like a lightining rod in that any Islamic sects that teach hate must aim their hate at us first - it is part of the Quran's wording: Beduins are the worst infidals and the worst hypocriyts - it is not hidden and very clear in the Quran and easy to translate so the sects have a set target. We are as described in the Quran, especialy our poets and we are annoying to any Imam who's Arabic language is weak. It is like nothing I can describe in English but it makes all sophistery imposible when they try to explain the Quran wrong and an ignorant Beduin is around.

It works on the non-Arabic speaking sects where their Muslim population need religious authority to tell them what the Quran says. Some sects no longer debate on live TV with Beduins, some of the "talks" are favorites on youtube but you need good grammar to get the fine details of it.

Iran in particular has trouble with us - they solved it by getting rid of the Quran as the main item in their Islam and useing other books instead. This has lead to large numbers of Iranians who do not know good Arabic leaving Islam altogether in Europe and Australia etc. Those Iranians that know Arabic better than me have great faith, that is something I know about them, without Arabic I can not say the same with knowledge. They do have ex Muslim clubs you can check with, but I doubt any of them know even Basic Arabic.

A salafi/wahabi Imam can change to any other Sunni sect with no objections from Saudis, it is more a way of life than a sect. I have never preached it to new Muslim converts and recomend they joing larger Sunni sects. It was a vital sect to Saudi when it first started a few centuries ago becuase Arabia back then had no Islam at all and had reverted back to the days before Islam, it reintroduced us to islam. It was also misused but that is history and politics not my department.

The Arabic part also works wonders on misguided alqaeda members, they are taught Not to talk to Imams, nor their parents - not very Islamic at all really and easily "turned" with a few verses from the Quran.

One advantage is the great advertising to Islam, the publishers you mentioned know it and Hollywood crowd know it to. The English ultra conservative radio and TV shows speak about Islam non stop. What they are saying in fact is that Saudis do not read the Quran enough - that I do agree with a hope to see many more people read the Quran and teach Saudis about it.

The title "God's Terrorists" can not be translated into Arabic, for it goes exactly against a verse in the Quran that teaches Muslims to be afraid of God and not of others, a very rare and intential use of the word "irhab" ie terror. To cause terror one has to drop all fear of God first - a fact you can use against any alqaeda member with great effect. Ask someone to translate that title to Arabic and it will sound horible to their own ears - it does to me.

When you look into the history of Arabia you will find that one is in Arabic especialy in poetry, and the rest has little value - but i admit to being biased here, for the poetic history is much older than the pyramids.

Egypt solved the language problem in the early 7th century. In just 6 years the whole country learned Arabic much better than Beduins, spoil sports :)

The Muslim men you named are all unimportant, all their Islamic books are unimportant to, really. Anything they wrote that goes against the Quran is simply false and they would thank me for pointing it out to them, if I do it from the Quran.

Arabia was fighing wars for over 3,500 years nonstop till Islam came around. We did not need it to learn how to fight, we learned instead how not to fight at any old reason - not in sin (gread, lust etc) and not in agresion against those weaker than us - and to go to war only when we are cornered and have to. The judge of how we fight is God - keeps things honest that way when others use excuse against us :)

Arabic and Arabs are all secondery to the Quran, it is that good of a book. Please do not be put off by nationalistic Saudis like me and try to read it even with a little Arabic, it does help a lot in understanding things.