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You can't teach old dogma new tricks

Great crises are a boon to publishing. Buildings explode, and writers rush in. In the wake of Sept. 11, Tariq Ali has hurried into print with his attempt at explanation. But, like so much postcrisis literature, his "Clash of Fundamentalisms" is mere debris, a farrago of half-baked ideas, irrelevant anecdotes, and pseudohistory.

Ali made his name as a '60s activist, Trotskyist, and peace campaigner. Since then, he's carved out a living as a media personality, the ready voice of the far left.

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He describes himself as a "non-Muslim Muslim," by which he means he shares the culture of Islam but has no truck with the religion. Born in Pakistan to an elite family, he has observed the turbulent politics of that country in sharp focus. He feels that, in the wake of Sept. 11, the West desperately needs to be educated about Islam.

The book is mostly narrative history, sometimes intoxicating, but more often deeply annoying. His thesis is that the world is riven by a clash of fundamentalisms. The first is the Islamic variety. The other is the "American Empire – the mother of all fundamentalisms."

This is quite simply a bad book – a hastily prepared, often ungrammatical rant. On page 202, Ali suggests that what India and Pakistan need is a small war. Ninety-nine pages later, the same paragraph appears with just a few words changed. He claims that the film "Black Hawk Down" was part of "a new initiative to support the war on terrorism," even though the film entered production long before Sept. 11.

Politicians whom Ali hates are described as "fat," "one-eyed," or "stupid." He flaunts his knowledge as a political insider, even when that knowledge is not remotely relevant.

Ali is right. The West does need to be educated about Islam. But this book merely inflames. Ali has used the Sept. 11 crisis to recycle tired Marxist myths and anti-American rhetoric.

• Gerard J. DeGroot is chairman of the department of modern history at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.


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