Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Dawkins, Leigh Fermor, and King and Crewe.

An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist, by Richard Dawkins

He is the world’s most famous atheist and evolutionary biologist. Author of The Selfish Gene, responsible for popularising the gene-centered view of evolution, and more recently, The God Delusion; An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist is the first volume of Richard Dawkins's autobiography. The memoir explores both the emotional and intellectual influences that shaped Dawkins's upbringing and young adulthood. It is a journey that takes readers from childhood in colonial Africa, to teenage rebellion and finally, Oxford. Here is a narrative that blends a love of poetry with scientific skepticism, and the result is a mixed response from the critics.

Writing for the Guardian, Richard Fortley praises the authorial style of the scientist, culminating in an account that is “surprisingly intimate and moving”.  “Dawkins's mother is delightfully described,” writes Fortley, “Most geeks cannot write: it is a brutal fact of living symbiotically with machines. But then most geeks do not have a taste for poetry.” An Appetite for Wonder gives readers a window into the personal conflicts and chapters of Dawkins's life, including a memory of a particularly inspiring teacher, “who put the young scientist on the road to zoology and to Oxford, where he has spent more or less his whole life.”

Brandon Robshaw in the Independent is likewise pleased with Dawkins's readability. “The reason Richard Dawkins’s books are so successful is that they are both intellectually rigorous and refreshingly easy to read.” The first volume of his autobiography, we are told, is “no exception”. “The book simply bubbles with ideas,” continues Robshaw, relishing in observations and theories which pepper the memoir. But Robshaw is also pleased with Dawkins's biographical style: “Dawkins studied zoology at Balliol College, Oxford, and he beautifully conveys the tweedy, pipe-smoking atmosphere of intellectual camaraderie”.

Jenni Russell, writing for The Sunday Times, is at odds with the reviews of both Robshaw and Fortley. What Robshaw calls “delightfully described” narrative is reconsidered by Russell to be “jarring awkwardness.” The awkwardness is said to stem from an inability to write about the nuances of human beings. Robshaw notes: Dawkins “isn’t observant, has no gift for conjuring up characters or situations, and is unwilling to reveal anything other than the most superficial emotions in himself.” A “misjudging of tone”, Dawkins is reported to lack “the skills or characteristics of a good autobiographer” which results in a book that is ultimately “self-promotion without self-knowledge”. 

The Broken Road, by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Hailed as one of the greatest British travel writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor began his journey through Europe in 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power. But it was not until middle-age that he wrote up his travels, publishing A Time of Gifts in 1977 and Between the Woods and the Water in 1986. Despite ending the latter with “To be concluded”, his death in 2011 suggested that, sadly, the trilogy would never be completed. But since then, his biographer Artemis Cooper and travel writer Colin Thubron have edited a Leigh Fermor’s unpublished work into The Broken Road.

Writing in the Financial Times, Suzi Feay writes that despite the fact that Leigh Fermor never finished the work, “it’s a surprise to find that the book is so readable”. She hails above all Leigh Fermor’s well-known energy, saying that “The sheer zest with which he delineates each monastery, its history, setting and eccentric monks, is infectious.”

William Dalrymple, writing for the Guardian was also impressed by how polished the book was, despite having to be finished by editors. He writes that “few of us thought it likely that it would contain any material to equal its great predecessors. The wonderful surprise is that, while the book is certainly uneven, and contains some jottings and lists that are little more than raw, unworked data, overall it is every bit as masterly as Between the Woods and the Water”. He concludes that “by any standards, this is a major work. It confirms that Leigh Fermor was, along with Robert Byron, the greatest travel writer of his generation, and this final volume assures the place of the trilogy as one of the masterpieces of the genre, indeed one of the masterworks of postwar English non-fiction.”

The unfinished nature of the book is noted in the Scotsman as well, but the reviewer comments that, although this is effectively a draft, it is a “Patrick Leigh Fermor draft, which makes it superior to the finished work of most other writers. The youthful joy shines through, and the deep cultural learning that was superimposed in later years is there in sufficient quantity to lend wonder to this fragmented tale.” The reviewer concludes that “This will be the last full book by Patrick Leigh Fermor to appear in print. Anybody who loved its two preceding volumes will fall upon it hungrily. Anybody who has not read the two preceding volumes should do so without delay.”

In the New Statesman magazine, Jeremy Seal again acknowledges that "the text sometimes lacks the perfectionist gleam found in Leigh Fermor's earlier work", but overall judges that "these occasional slips barely show through the dazzle". He also hails the editors' "stroke of brilliance" in including Leigh Fermor's separate diary he kept during his exporation of Mount Athos which, Seal concludes, "finally brings the journey to its rightful end in the spiritual heart of the country that was to prove, though the young author did not know it yet, Leigh Fermor's 'real love and destination'". 

The Blunders of Our Governments, by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe

A historical catalogue focusing on the worse errors of governments from the last 30 years, The Blunders of Our Governments shows the British establishment in its worse hours. Authored by a former and current Professor of Government at the University of Essex, this book is probably not the best choice for someone who is deciding whether to embark on a career in British politics.

King and Crewe show where the accountability in our political system lies, as explained by Dominic Lawson in The Sunday Times. “Obviously a government can be punished for its blunders at a general election. But the top civil servants sail serenely on, to collect their knighthoods and fine pensions”.

A big theme of the book is the inability of civil servants and politicians to comprehend people’s lives outside the Westminster bubble. Peter Wilby, in The Guardian, sums it up fantastically concisely: “The causes of the blunders were numerous. In many cases, ministers and their senior officials were simply ignorant – King and Crewe politely call it 'cultural disconnect' – of how large sections of the population lived from day to day”.

Sonia Purnell, in The Independent, describes the cause for the appalling record of blunders. “Part of the problem is a dangerously common desire among politicians to be seen as action heroes whose innate good sense and dazzling cleverness preclude the need to pause to consult or bother with boring detail”.

Self-promotion without self-knowledge? Richard Dawkins. Photograph: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era