The People of the Book

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There's a phrase in the Quran, ahl al-kitab, — which roughly translates as "The People of the Book" or "people of an earlier revelation" — that refers to Jews and Christians as people, like Muslims, who belong to a faith that is rooted in a sacred text. Karen Armstrong, in her recent tome "Islam: A Short History," quotes a line from the Quran that reads "Do not argue with the followers of an earlier revelation otherwise than in a most kindly manner..." It's a gentle, nonconfrontational passage that contrasts sharply with the uncompromising rhetoric many Westerners associate with fundamentalist Islam.

In this time of crisis, more Americans are becoming "People of the Book." Not necessarily in that phrase's original religious connotation (though there is anecdotal evidence to suggest increasing numbers of people are finding solace in churches, temples and mosques), but in the sense that they are turning to books for information about the ongoing war on terrorism and its cultural and historical roots. The No.1 book on The New York Times paperback nonfiction bestseller list right now is "Taliban" by Ahmed Rashid; meanwhile, on the hardcover nonfiction list, Armstrong's "Islam" rides high at No.7, sandwiched in between "Germs" (Simon & Schuster) by Judith Miller at No.6 and "Holy War, Inc."(Free Press) by Peter L. Bergen at No. 11.

With all the books out there on the Taliban, terrorism, the Middle East, and other related subjects, it can be difficult to figure out exactly which books to read. The most notable of the new and recently released books can be divided into four main categories. 1)Taliban Tomes, Rashid's "Taliban" and Michael Griffin's "Reaping the Whirlwind." 2)Guides to the Muslim World and the Middle East, Armstrong's "Islam" and her stronger, earlier book "Muhammad"; Bernard Lewis' authoritative "The Middle East," and Geneive Abdo's insightful "No God But God." 3)Bin Laden Bios, "Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America" by Yossef Bodansky and Bergen's "Holy War, Inc." and 4)Relevant History, including "Five Days in London May 1940" by John Lukacs, "Pirate Utopias" by Peter Lamborn Wilson and "The Wars in Barbary" by Donald Barr Chidsey.

Since September 11, there have been a lot of stories in the Western press posing the question "Why do they hate us?" and bemoaning the fact (sometimes with good cause) that madrasahs (religious schools) in the Muslim world often teach their young students stereotypes, half-truths and outright falsehoods about the West. Unfortunately, according to a few tomes currently on the shelves, many people in the West are also shamefully undereducated or just plain miseducated about the history of countries in the Middle East and, in many cases, about history in general. Michael Parenti, in his book "History as Mystery" (City Lights, 1999), writes that a survey conducted in the 1990s by the Gallup Organization found that about 40 percent of American high school seniors did not know when the Civil War occurred and that most couldn't describe the differences between World War I and World War II. Another Gallup poll cited by Parenti found that 60 percent of adult Americans were unable to name the president who ordered the atomic bomb to be dropped on Japan, and 22 percent had no idea that such an attack ever occurred. Parenti also notes that a 1995 survey in the New York Times found that only 49 percent of U.S. adults knew that the Soviet Union had been an ally of the United States during World War II, with the rest either having no opinion or thinking that the Soviets were noncombatant or on the enemy side.

Ignorance about the Middle East runs even deeper, and has a long history. Armstrong, in "Muhammad", notes that during the time of the First Crusades, many Westerners believed that Muslims were idol-worshippers (actually, the Prophet tore down the idols in Mecca). And Dante, in "The Divine Comedy," placed Muhammad in the Eighth Circle of Hell with the schismatics (even pagans such as Plato and Aristotle got relatively better treatment, with placement in the more scenic Limbo). Much more recently, the novelist Fay Weldon ("Affliction") wrote this about Islam: "The Koran is food for no-thought. It is not a poem on which a society can be safely or sensibly based."

Still, the fact that today, for the first time, many American readers are beginning to buy books about Islam and the Middle East in large numbers, is a hopeful sign. Not all the news that people need to know is found in television and in newspapers; often in-depth information is called for. Lukacs, in "Five Days in London," points out that many of the citizens of London, in the days before the German air attacks in World War II, were living in blissful ignorance of the peril they faced: "The people of Britain [were] largely unaware of the immediacy of the dangers that faced them....When it came to secret or sensitive matters the government would rely much less on peremptory state censorship than on the habitual self-censorship of the newspapers' editors and of their reporters." Later Lukacs observes: "Items about the war were often inaccurate, misleading, or even false." Perhaps today, in books, the various Peoples of the Book can finally find some useful information and some common ground. As Parenti writes: "More exiting than learning history is unlearning the disinformational history we have been taught."

The Reviews

  • Part 1: Bin Laden: The Man Who Wasn't There
    "Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America" by Yossef Bodansky

    "Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama Bin Laden" by Peter L. Bergen

  • Part 2: The Rise and Fall of the Taliban
    Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil & Fundamentalism in Central Asia" by Ahmed Rashid

    "Reaping the Whirlwind: The Taliban Movement in Afghanistan" by Michael Griffin

    "The Taliban: War, Religion and the New Order in Afghanistan" by Peter Marsden

  • Part 3: Worlds Apart
    Karen Armstrong, "Islam: A Short History"

    Armstrong, "Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet"

    Bernard Lewis, "The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years"

    Geneive Abdo, "No God But God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam"

  • Part 4: History Repeats
    Peter Lamborn Wilson, "Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs & European Renegadoes"

    Donald Barr Chidsey, "The Wars in Barbary: Arab Piracy and the Birth of the United States Navy"

    John Lukacs, "Five Days in London May 1940