Like some dreadful progressive rock album of the 1970s, Tariq Ali's new book seems likely to become better known for its cover than its contents. The cover is intended to illustrate what the author calls "the clash of fundamentalisms" by depicting George W Bush as a mullah and Osama Bin Laden as a US president. It succeeds only in illustrating, unintentionally, this messy book's own identity crisis, caught as it is between Ali's original plan for a history of Islam and his post-11 September attempt to tack on a theory of everything.
Declaring that he wants to "explain why much of the world doesn't see the [US] Empire as 'good' ", Ali outlines how the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington were celebrated not only in the Arab world, but from Latin America to China. He does not mention the rabidly anti-American response from many of his friends on the liberal left in the west, who suggested that the US, and Wall Street in particular, had more or less got what it deserved - as if the office workers and firefighters killed in the twin towers had personally been starving Iraqi babies. This was the left-wing version of the same western self-loathing expressed by right-wing US evangelists, who claimed that 11 September was God's revenge on America for tolerating homosexuality and abortion.
Because nobody has claimed the attacks on America for a specific political cause, everybody has felt free to invent their own interpretation. Ali implies that, as the US is a "veteran imperialist power", this must have been a blow against imperialism. "The subjects of THE Empire had struck back", he says in awe, and this confirmed the "universal truth that . . . slaves and peasants do not always obey their masters".
Let us leave aside the question of whether some disaffected Saudi-born rich kids living and studying in western cities qualify as imperial subjects, slaves or peasants. Ali is saying that even if 11 September cannot be seen as a force for good, it was at least aimed against "the mother of all fundamentalisms: American imperialism". And he warns everybody in the west that, unless we make the world a more fair and equal place, we can expect further "blowback".
Ali has some interesting things to say about the history of Islam, but his central thesis about the present seems badly out of date. He claims that America's "war on terrorism" is simply a continuation of what the "Empire" has done over the past two centuries; the only thing to have changed is that the collapse of communism has deprived opponents of imperialism of a political alternative. So, he suggests, the world is trapped in "the clash between [an Islamic] religious fundamentalism . . . and an [American] imperial fundamentalism determined to 'discipline the world' ".
In truth, reactions to 11 September have revealed a shortage of fundamental beliefs in both Washington and the Muslim world. Most people have demonstrated a distinct reluctance to stand up and fight for what are supposed to be their core principles. The few who do want to fight - the zealots of al-Qaeda, or the Israeli hardliners - are marked by their isolation.
The traditional left might have lost its convictions in the post-cold-war world, but the leaders of the west also find it hard to maintain their old imperial certainty. Far from pursuing a fundamentalist crusade, Bush and Tony Blair have emphasised, time and again, that they are not fighting a war against Islam - which has served only to raise further questions about what they are fighting for.
There is a newly defensive mentality within the western camp, far removed from America's past belief in its own manifest destiny. The arm's-length conduct of the war in Afghanistan - bombing everything from a great height, coupled with a reluctance to gather intelligence on the ground - is shaped by the same uncertainty. Not that this makes it any less dangerous for those on the receiving end.
How do events in the Muslim world today fit into Ali's rigid framework of a clash of fundamentalisms? In a powerful new book, Jihad, the French professor Gilles Kepel argues that 11 September marked a new low for the fortunes of Islamic fundamentalism. "In spite of what hasty commentators contended in its immediate aftermath," he concludes, "the attack on the United States was a desperate symbol of the isolation, fragmentation and decline of the Islamist movement, not a sign of its strength and irrepressible might."
Kepel traces the rise of Islamist movements, through the Iranian revolution of 1979 to the victory of the Afghan mujahedin over the Soviet Union a decade later, and the dead-end into which they had turned by the mid-1990s, from Algeria to Iran, and Malaysia to Indonesia. Kepel identifies 11 September as a desperate provocation, designed to bring the military might of America down on Afghanistan and to rally the Muslim world to the cause of Bin Laden and the Taliban. In the event, however, it only demonstrated the incoherence of the few violent fundamentalists and their isolation from any wider Islamist movement. Why did the Muslim world fail to heed the call to jihad? "To begin with," Kepel writes, "no one has formally claimed responsibility for September 11, or articulated its purpose . . . apart from a desire to inflict damage on the United States, the goals of that cause remain vague."
Since 11 September, an informal global coalition has emerged, uniting everybody who hates western consumer society, from Islamic fundamentalists in the east to the anti-capitalist protesters and poets, whom Ali lauds, in the west. Although some aims of this coalition may appear progressive - for example, solidarity with the Palestinians - the sentiment behind it expresses a reactionary loss of faith in modern society and its achievements, and a conspiratorial view of capitalism.
In the end, Ali seems unable to come to terms with the changes of the present because he is trapped in his own idealised past, as a student activist who came to prominence through the protests against the Vietnam war. He imagines that US foreign policy is essentially the same today as it was in the 1960s - missing, ironically, the impact that defeat in Vietnam had on the imperial mindset.
Ali even claims that the anti-Vietnam movement marked "the high tide of American democracy". We might recall that America staged the world's first national democratic revolution, and abolished slavery after a bitter civil war. But for Ali, it seems that democracy peaked in an era when Americans elected Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger by a landslide over the anti-war movement's candidate. Presumably, he means that the Vietnam years marked the high tide of Tariq Ali, and he appears to have been waiting for it to come in again ever since.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked (www.spiked-online.com)