Saudi Arablia: reconciling tradition with modernity.

The Saudi regime’s main criterion for success in balancing their traditional religious values with modernization has been holding on to power. To ensure their survival as rulers of Saudi Arabia, the ruling faction of the Al-Saud family have harnessed advances in technology and embraced new techniques of governance. These transformations, which have been largely facilitated by the enormous wealth that the discovery of oil has brought, have, at times, brought the regime into conflict with representatives of religious tradition, or orthodoxy. The regime’s close relationship with, and patronage of Islam as ‘Guardian’s of the Holy Cities’, drawing on popular traditions, has resulted in a society steeped in Islam, which is drawn on as a source of legitimacy. Islam as a rallying force beyond narrow tribal allegiances, played a vital role in Abdel Aziz ibn-Saud’s formation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. Later, the promotion of Islam was used to counter the threat to the rule of the Al-Saud posed by Arab nationalism and communism, secular ideologies which threatened their rule. Throughout the twentieth century religious leaders, and adherents, objected to the introduction of modern innovations such as the telegraph, the radio, and the television, but, until recently, religious representatives have not questioned the legitimacy of the regime. The threat to the House of Al-Saud posed by what has been labelled “Islamic fundamentalism” in the West, has been caused by a number of factors, not least the pronounced difference in wealth between the ruling princes and the rest of the population. In the absence of alternative political outlets, Islam has provided the idiom for revolution in Saudi Arabia.

The precise definitions of modernity and modernization are keenly disputed, especially in the Islamic context. Hopwood offers one:
‘Modernization is the introduction into society of the artefacts of contemporary life – railways, communications, industry (less often nowadays), technology, household equipment. Modernity (modernism) is a general term for the political and cultural process set in motion by integrating new ideas, an economic system, or education into society. It is a way of thought, of living in the contemporary world and of accepting change.’
This definition is insufficient, as it fails to recognise the modernizing effect of advances in technology. For example an “artefact of contemporary life” like the internet can give rise to “new ideas”. Likewise, a transition to mass literacy falls into the lacuna. Thus, it is unsatisfactory to attempt to draw a distinction between the terms “modernity” and “modernization”. A more adequate working definition, to be used in this paper, is supplied by the ‘Concise Oxford Dictionary’ where the term “modern” encompasses both meanings:
“of, or relating to the present or to recent times; characterized by or using the most up-to-date techniques, equipment, etc; denoting a recent style in art, architecture, etc, marked by a departure from traditional styles and values ”.

A common presumption made in Western discourse is that modernisation of Islamic societies amounts to a convergence with Western norms. In such a dialectic, Islam is taken as the tradition in opposition to the modern secular forces of liberal-western democracies. This leads to frequent description of Islam as a conservative force particularly within Saudi society . This view downplays the extent to which interpretations of Islam, based on the same sources, have varied considerably throughout its 1,400 year history. Especially in a situation where
“Islam lacks a single canonical authority or a fixed story that holds together all the elements of a religion such as Christianity and imparts to them legitimacy .”

Therefore, to characterise all manifestations of Islam as simply “traditional” is misleading. In fact this paper posits that the forces of Islam emerging in Saudi Arabia are “modern”. Saudi society has radically changed since the Second World War and Islam has responded to meet the fears, desires and aspirations that living in such an altered society entails.


The writings and practices of Muhammad Abdel Al-Wahhab (1703-1792), a religious scholar brought up in the Hanbalite school , have given rise to the description Wahhabi , the “traditional religious value” of Saudi Arabia. Al-Wahhab repudiated what he viewed as heretical practices such as saint veneration, a common practice among Shi’a, and exalted the doctrine of tawhid – “God’s uniqueness as omnipotent lord of creation and his uniqueness as deserving worship and the absolute devotion of his servants ”.

In 1744 Al-Wahhab entered into an accord with the tribal lord Muhammad Al-Saud. The politico-religious alliance generated vast conquests as previously warring tribes were united under the banner of Islam. In exchange for ideological justification and recruits for the conquests, shari’a, religious law, as interpreted by the ulama, the religious scholars, was imposed on the territories. In his writings Al-Wahhab emphasised that obedience to rulers is obligatory even if the ruler should be oppressive. The commands of the ruler (the imam – the commander of the faithful) should only be ignored if they contradict the rules of religion . Al-Wahhab also appointed the mutawia, who served as the enforcers of justice and were financed by the public treasury. The mutawia enforced a strict system of orthodoxy where repeated abstention from public prayers invited reprimand or penalty . Beyond the zakat, the mandatory religious tax of just 2.5%, and the payment of the mutawia and ulama, Al-Wahhab could not have envisioned a radical redistribution of the assets of the state, including the booty gained through conquests. Al-Wahhab’s pre-modern interpretation of Islam certainly did not envision the state performing a ‘welfarist’ role.

The Wahhabist tradition of government envisions a divide within the state between the religious and the temporal domains. In practice, the balance of power was eschewed in favour of the charismatic figure of Al-Wahhab and “it was said that no camels were mounted and no opinions were voiced by Muhammad Al-Saud or his son Abdel Al-Aziz without his [Al-Wahhab’s] approval ”. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has persisted with the Wahhabist template but a shift in the balance of power has seen the temporal authorities, bolstered by oil wealth, largely dictate to the ulama. This has led Lackner to opine that “the fiction of Wahhabism which has lost its real roots with the destruction of the age old desert culture can only be maintained by an intellectual petrification ”.

The Ikhwan

In order to understand the extent to which the Al-Saud draw legitimacy from traditional religious values it is necessary to examine the formation of the Saudi Arabian Kingdom. Ibn-Saud began life as an exile in Kuwait, as the Al-Saud clan had been superseded by other forces in their Najd heartland. In 1902 he set off on a legendary expedition, with a handful of men, and captured Riyadh where the ulama swore allegiance to him. Although the original Al-Saud empire had disintegrated, the Wahhabi tradition had continued to flourish in Arabia. The remaining mutawia “needed a politico-military figure, a symbolic Imam to endorse their cause ”. Consequently
“Ibn Saud enlisted them in the service of his domain as he employed them and paid them their salaries in cash and kind… In return [he] was guaranteed the political submission of the Arabian peninsula under the guise of submission to God .”

In collaboration with the mutawia, Ibn-Saud created an altogether new force, the Ikhwan. Beginning in 1912, settlements were created for the Islamic indoctrination of nomadic Bedouin. This provided Ibn-Saud with “an ascetic, military force which could be mobilized and demobilized swiftly and which combined the mobility of the Bedouin with the political reliability and loyalty of the villagers ”. This new force played a vital role in Ibn-Saud’s conquest of what was proclaimed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, including the Hijaz, which contains the Holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Renowned for ferocity, the threat of the Ikhwan, ready to be unleashed against Mecca, was sufficient to bring about its surrender .

The formation of Saudi Arabia represented an acceptance of the modern order of the nation state. This led to conflict with the Ikhwan who, already suspicious of the introduction of modern technology, wished to continue what they viewed as a jihad against infidels. As a result, an uprising occurred in 1928 that was suppressed by the forces of Ibn-Saud, who was supported by the British, irked by Ikhwan raids on their Iraqi colony. Crucial to Ibn Saud’s victory over the Ikhwan was the support of the ulama who ruled that the issue of jihad remained the prerogative of the ruler .

The ulama’s support for Ibn Saud signalled their submission to him as it had
“became clear to those distinguished among them that if they were to play a role in the country they would have to accept the subordination of religion to politics. They also understood that their eminence was dependent on restraining their former students, the mutawia ”

Thus, the ulama were co-opted by the regime, a process that would become more pronounced under Ibn-Saud’s son Faysal. Consequently, although the ulama were not in favour of the introduction of artefacts of modernity such as the radio and the telegraph, they accepted Ibn-Saud’s authority. Ibn-Saud had revived the Al-Saud-Wahhabi alliance but in the twentieth the religious authorities, lacking the charisma of a figure like Al-Wahhab, were subordinate to the will of the temporal ruler. Nonetheless, Ibn-Saud’s role as the imam continued to be essential to his authority. An Arab visitor to Saudi Arabia 1928 observed
“The ulama are the power that holds the sultan and his people together – the medium of control. But they seldom meddle in politics .”

King Faysal

1953 saw the death of Ibn-Saud, the patriarch of the Saudi Royal family. His sons continue to rule Saudi Arabia. The first to ascend to the throne was King Saud, who proved an inept ruler. In 1964 he was moved aside by means of a ‘Palace Coup’ which brought King Faysal to the throne. Vast oil wealth allowed Faysal to oversee a rapid expansion of the Saudi State and he is the principal architect of modern Saudi Arabia.

The period 1945-1975 witnessed a rapid modernization of Saudi society. Mass education caused a rapid transformation of the literacy rate , and controversially included women. Urbanization, and the arrival of millions of foreign migrants to work in the oil industry affected profound changes to Saudi society.

In the era of Nasser’s charismatic appeal to pan-Arabist sentiment, Faysal’s “Islamic rhetoric came to the forefront mainly as a counter discourse to current Arab political trends associated with Arab nationalism ” which “threatened the very foundation of Saudi rule. ” The threat to Faysal emanated not only from the restive Saudi population but also from within the Royal Family, where a number of ‘Republican Princes’ emerged, though these renegades were soon exiled. Faysal’s opposition to Arab nationalism led to alliance with the United States, however the United States’ close relationship with Israel began to place strains on this relationship, Tension over the Palestinian issue, led the regime to play a leading role in the OPEC oil crisis of the early 1970s. Nonetheless, throughout the reign of Faysal, Arab nationalism and communism were trumpeted as the main threat to the regime. Moreover, vast wealth accrued from a cordial relationship with the West dictated a symbiosis. Nonetheless, in a situation where Israel was seen as anathema to Islam and pan-Arabism, rapprochement of the sort undertaken by Sadat at Camp David would not have been feasible, and there is no evidence to suggest that it was desired.

Traditional religious forces continued to resist Faysal’s rigorous modernization programme, which included the education of women and the introduction of television, but no serious opposition movement emerged based on a defence of traditional religious values. This can be explained by a fear, amongst traditionalists, of “modern” political forces, particularly the secular force of nationalism, represented by Nasser’s Egypt, which seemed to threaten the role of religion in society, as exemplified by the fate of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, thousands of whom were imprisoned. Therefore
“As Islam… was widely interpreted as a revolt against modernity, and as the… [monarchy was] interpreted to be more traditional and less modernized than most of the republics, there appeared to be less of an incentive, or need, to revolt against them in the name of Islam, “traditional values” and “authenticity. ”

The regime and the religious authorities viewed one another as allies against a common foe. The ulama, while displeased by certain aspects of the regime’s modernization programme, nonetheless allowed themselves to be co-opted by the regime to an unprecedented degree. The establishment of the Ministry of Religion was the most important aspect of this process for it “locked the senior ulama in an official role. ”. Although, “the most uncompromising among the ulama were ousted and denied the privilege of becoming civil servants. ”. In return for co-option, religious universities were established which replaced the informal centres of learning around the mosque school. As a result, during the reign of King Faysal, religion penetrated society to an unprecedented degree. However, below the surface, interpretations of Islam were shifting beyond traditions. This was facilitated by mass literacy that eroded the traditional role of the ulama as the intermediary between the text and the predominantly illiterate people, and considerably increased the number of religious scholars. In such circumstances it became more difficult for the regime to control the interpretation of Islam. The historical parallel of the emergence of Protestantism in response to mass literacy in the Europe of the sixteenth century may be drawn.

The Post Faysal Era

The assassination of King Faysal in 1975, by a disgruntled member of the royal family removed a charismatic and effective rule. The monarchs who have followed Khalid (1975-1982) and Fahd (r.1982) have persisted with Faysal’s, pro-Western policies and emphasis on Islam as a source of legitimacy, especially in response to the seizure of the Grand Mosque and the rhetoric of the Iranian Revolution. However, since the 1970s Islam has become “a two edged political instrument – as the kingdom’s primary medium of self-legitimisation, and as the main venue of protest for opposition elements ”. Given that formal political protest, in the shape of political parties, has never been tolerated it is not surprising that opposition should emerge in this religious guise. Furthermore
“Saudi Arabia is a very traditional and Islamic country it is natural that most opposition from dissatisfied sectors of the population would find it most appropriate to articulate their difficulties in the Islamic idiom .”

However, such Islamic opposition is a departure from Wahhabi tradition as it should be recalled that in his writings Al-Wahhab emphasised that obedience to rulers is obligatory even if the ruler should be oppressive. The commands of the ruler should only be ignored if they contradict the rules of religion. As the regime has upheld shari’a, this is not a charge that can be levelled against them. It could be argued that western notions of the state and even Kingship, are inconsistent with Islam, both, however, were accepted in the 1920s by the ulama, the representatives of religious tradition.

“Islamic” grievances against the government emanate from two broad sources: the regime’s foreign policy and socio-economic problems afflicting Saudi society. Since the 1980s, the Islamist opposition has been highly critical of the regime’s pro-Western orientation, especially during the Gulf War. To many Saudis “the United States represents materialistic Christian values and power, which challenge Islamic values and Muslim power. ” Consequently the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War became increasingly unpopular, especially as the plight of Iraqis enduring US-led sanctions was brought home to the Saudi population. Antipathy towards the United State’s can also be explained by the United State’s support for Israel against the Palestinians . Indeed, with the demise of the Soviet Union, global Islamic discourse has tended to represent the United States as its greatest foe. In such an era of ‘globalisation’, these grievances have given rise to support for Al-Queda, and fifteen of the nineteen hijackers who perpetrated the September 11 attack against the ‘Twin Towers’ were Saudis. The violent US response to September 11 has served to ratchet up anti-American sentiment, providing fertile grounds for recruitment into radical Islamist organisations. This Islamic criticism of the regime’s foreign policy contradicts the judgement of the ulama of the 1930s who asserted that the issue of jihad remained the prerogative of the ruler.

The emergence of Islam as a subversive force can largely be attributed to the socio-economic problems afflicting contemporary Saudi Arabia. A rapidly expanding population and a downturn in the price of oil has created significant unemployment that today stands at around 20%. This has led to poverty that is in stark contrast to the opulence of the coterie of princes and technocrats who monopolise the vast resources of Saudi Arabia. In response to these inequalities, preachers have drawn on Islamic sources to indirectly criticise the regime. A non-Saudi Muslim scholar who visited the country during the 1980s remarked that “the sermons at Friday prayers at Mecca and Medina are filled with parables of Omar, the second caliph, who was known for simple living and humility .” Even the establishment ulama have challenged the unequal distribution of wealth; in 1991 a petition was drafted, and signed by senior ulama that argued “Public wealth must be distributed fairly among all classes and groups ”. The Wahhabite tradition does not envision such redistribution and the shift in emphasis is a further example of how Islam is responding to the discontent of its adherents.

In response to Islamic criticism, the regime has suppressed opposition and renewed emphasis on Islamic legitimacy. Thus, for all important decisions, especially the decision to allow American soldiers to use Saudi Arabia as a base during the first Gulf War, fatwas, or religious rulings, have been secured. This has opened up a cleavage between the establishment ulama and radical Islamists, who have ceased to support the current system. The regime has also attempted, by the establishment of a consultative council in 1994, to use the often Western-educated middle class technocrats as a counterweight to recalcitrant Islamists.

As has been mentioned, mass literacy has given rise to a population with personal access to the texts of Islam. The availability of the internet further erodes the establishment ulama’s interpretative authority. As
the very testing of authority that the internet provokes makes the boundaries of digital Islam more porous and subject to change than those of it predecessors .

London based organisation like the Campaign for the Defence of Legitimate Rights (1993) and the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (1996) have used the internet to challenge the authority of both the regime and the establishment ulama. These organisations have called for fundamental changes to Saudi society. Indeed Al-Faqih, one of the new leaders, has argued in favour of a rule by religious scholars that has been compared to the Iranian model of the velayat-i faqih (rule of the religious jurist) . To view these organisations, that harness modern technological innovation and who argue for a change to the Wahhabist system of government as representatives of “traditional religious values” is to fail to recognise the modernisation of Saudi Islam.


Islamic legitimacy was of critical importance to the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the survival of the Al-Saud family as rulers, especially when confronted by the threat of Arab nationalism. The regime drew from the Wahhabist template that emphasised loyalty to the ruler. During the first fifty years of the state, the regime maintained a delicate balance between the traditional religious values, and modernization. At times, this caused resentment, but with the exception of the Ikhwan rebellion, no large-scale movement emerged to challenge the regime’s Islamic legitimacy. This can be explained by the state’s patronage of the ulama and maintenance of shari’a, as well as the Islamist’s fear of modern, anti-secular forces However, since the death of King Faysal, Islam has provided an outlet for opposition.

Much Western commentary on Saudi Arabia often simplistically portrays Islam as representing traditional forces within Saudi society. It assumes the immutability of Islam, and fails to take into account how the radical transformation of Saudi society, which has seen a predominantly poor and nomadic people become urban and relatively wealthy, has coloured interpretations of Islam. Mass literacy, has diminished the interpretative authority of the establishment ulama who are no longer the sole intermediaries between the text and the people. This process has been accelerated by the internet, which is now the main forum for protest against the regime. Since the 1980s, a declining economy and reliance on the United States have led to rising discontent with the regime. In a country, steeped in religion, that suppresses all political opposition, Islam has modernized to become the channel and idiom for this discontent.

Today, the House of Saud stands at a difficult crossroads. King Fahd, has been invalided by a stroke while the Crown Prince and de facto ruler Abdullah, is in his eighties. The prospect of a succession crisis looms. Such a crisis could see rival factions emerging from within the House, one representing radical Islamic views, drawing on support from the economically marginalised, the other a secularist outlook, supported in the main by the technocratic bourgeoise. Neither the secularists nor the Islamic radicals favour the continuance of the status quo and the quid pro quo for support from either side would probably be a check on the autocratic rule of the Al-Saud Family.



Abir, M. Saudi Arabia: Government, Society and the Gulf Crisis. London, 1993
Cooper, John (editor): Islam and Modernity: Muslim Intellectuals Respond. London 1998
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Hoover, S. and Schofield-Clark, L. (editors) Practising Religion in the Age of Media – Explorations in Media, Religion and Culture. Columbia, 2002
Jerichow, A. The Saudi File: People, power and politics. London, 1997
Kostiner, J. (editor) The Middle East Monarchies: The Challenge of Modernity. Boulder-Colorado, 2000
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Al-Rasheed, Madawi A History of Saudi Arabia. Cambridge, 2002


Bligh, A ‘The Saudi Religious Elite as Participants in the Political System’ International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 17, 1985
Dekmejian, H. R. ‘The Rise of Political Islam in Saudi Arabia’ in Middle East Journal 48 (1994) and ‘Saudi Arabia’s Consultative Council’ in Middle East Journal 52 (1998)
Albright, Madelein ‘Greed that feeds terror’ in The Guardian, November 27, 2003

Other Sources
BBC Radio 4 ‘Crossing Continents’ 8/12/2003

(essay, 2004)

The origins of Likud Ideology

The origins of Likud Ideology

(Published in Village Magazine, December, 2014)

It has been said that there are two possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: one realistic the other miraculous. The realistic solution involves divine intervention; the miraculous, a voluntary agreement between the parties.

The latest round of conflict is, mercifully, largely over. On August 26th, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) accepted a ceasefire agreement after a 50-day Israeli assault on Gaza had left approximately 2,100 Palestinians dead and vast destruction in its wake; just over 71 Israelis were killed, all but 5 soldiers. The agreement calls for an end to military action by both Israel and Hamas, as well as an easing of the ongoing Israeli siege of Gaza. Essentially, nothing has changed.

To explain the conduct of the Israeli authorities it is important to understand the ideology behind the Likud party, the dominant political force in Israel since its foundation in 1977 under the leadership of Menachem Begin. Although Ariel Sharon split with the party and formed Kadima in 2006, relegating Likud to fourth place in the ensuing elections, they have since returned to power under the enduring figure of Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Arab-Israeli wars which began with the foundation of Israel in 1948 have resulted in comprehensive Israeli victories, especially in the 1967 Six-Day War. This ascendancy has been consolidated by the demise of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the US, Israel’s Cold War patron, as lone Superpower. The Palestinian case was further weakened by PLO support for Iraq before the first Gulf War.

But despite accords with Egypt and Jordan, Israel faces perpetual conflict with neighbouring countries as most Arab people have a fixed view of Israel as a colonial, oppressive presence in the region. It is only continued autocratic rule in Egypt and Jordan that keeps these sentiments in check. Arguably the key juncture was the 1956 Suez Crisis when Israeli forces joined the French and British in attacking Egypt.

The Israeli electorate has consistently favoured leaders unwilling to countenance concessions, and the expansion of settlements has become a fixed policy. The withdrawal from Gaza in 2006 was a simple realisation that it was untenable to maintain 10,000 settlers inside a grossly over-populated strip of land containing over a million and a half Palestinians. There were bigger fish to fry in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

To explain the intransigence it is necessary to understand the ideology underpinning the Likud Party. Likud ideology can be traced to three principle sources: first, the writings of the Revionist Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky; second, the experience of the Holocaust; and third, the emergence of religious Zionism after 1967.

Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky (1880-1940), a Russian born Jew, is generally viewed as the spiritual founder of the Israeli Right. In 1923 he wrote a still influential article entitled “On the Iron Wall (We and the Arabs).” In it he asserted that a “voluntary agreement between us and the Arabs of Palestine is inconceivable now or in the foreseeable future” since: “Every indigenous people… will resist alien settlers as long as they see any hope of ridding themselves of the dangers of foreign settlement.”

In response to resistance Jabotinsky advocated “an iron wall” of military might which “they [the Palestinians] will be powerless to break down.”
With military ascendancy achieved Palestinians would be ready to yield and only then “will they have given up all hope of getting rid of the alien settlers. Only then will extremist groups with their slogan “No, never” lose their influence, and only then will their influence be transferred to more moderate groups.” At that point limited political rights could be granted.
Such an analysis ordains that negotiations can begin only when the Palestinians produce a malleable leadership willing to accept their permanent exclusion. Jabotinsky’s metaphorical ‘iron wall’ was given a literal interpretation by Sharon’s construction of the ‘security fence’ that runs through the West Bank. Mahmoud Abbas was perhaps viewed by Sharon as a leader who would acquiesce to Israeli demands, but Hamas most certainly was not.

But Jabotinsky’s analysis was flawed as it ignored how the policy of the ‘iron wall’ could generate fatalistic extremism in the form of suicide bombing and the use of civilian shields for rocket attacks. He also failed to foresee the internationalisation of the Palestinian cause.
The second major influence on Likud, and Israeli society in general, is the trauma of the Holocaust experience. The collective memory of Jewish passivity in the face of genocide mandates a policy of fierce reprisal in response to the taking of Jewish life. Restraint is characterised as appeasement.

The leadership of the Israeli Right manipulates this latent fear of destruction, appealing to an international as well as a domestic audience.
In his book ‘A Place Among the Nations’ Benjamin Netanyahu dwelt on the lessons of appeasement of Nazi Germany and the betrayal of Czechoslovakia by the Western powers for the contemporary Middle East. Arabs are likened to Nazi Germany, Palestinians to the Sudeten Germans, and Israel to the small democracy of Czechoslovakia, the victim of Chamberlain’s 1938 deal with Hitler. For Netanyahu the lesson is clear, to grant concessions to Palestinians is to endanger the survival of the state of Israel.

This Holocaust motif was also employed by opponents of Yitzhak Rabin after he signed up to the Oslo Accords. Inside the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) two Likud deputies proceeded to open black umbrellas comparing Rabin’s peace deal to Chamberlain’s capitulation, while effigies of Rabin dressed in SS uniform were set alight at right wing demonstrations.

Suicide bombing and rocket attacks cunningly target this traumatic inheritance, perpetuating a cycle of violence that is difficult to contain, and generated support for the extremists on the Palestinian side. The loss of Israeli life calls for harsh reprisal, which in turn radicalises the Palestinian population. Acting out of the core Likud dogma, Netenyahu must respond to an attack even if this completely discredits moderate Palestinian leaders. The ferocity of Israel’s response to terrorism works against the moderate leadership that Jabotinsky’s model requires. Likud policy exceeds the idea of the ‘iron wall’.

The last major influence on Likud is the rise of religious Zionism, especially generated by the 1967 Six-Day War. The enormous territorial gains of this war were interpreted as a sign of divine favour and settlement of the land became a religious imperative.

Politically, this generated a raft of religious parties in the Knesset in the 1970s. The Likud was also strongly influenced by this messianic message and still relies on the support of religious parties. The principle at work is that anyone prepared to entertain abandonment of the sacred land is a traitor to the Jewish people.

Its force was demonstrated by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which effectively de-railed the Oslo Peace Process. Rabin’s killer was a young extremist by the name of Yigal Amir. During his trial Amir told the court that according to halacha (Jewish law), a Jew who gives his land to the enemy and endangers the life of other Jews must be killed.

The political durability of the religious right was shown by Sharon’s difficulty in removing settlers from Gaza, that ultimately saw him leave Likud, forming Kadima and entering into coalition with Labour. The difficulty of removing settlers from Gaza would be magnified ten-fold if it were attempted on the West Bank, containing the Biblical province of Judea as well as a third of Israel’s water supply, let alone sacred Jerusalem.
The Likud Party has thus moved to the right of its ideological founder, Jabotinsky, who envisaged some form of political settlement. Policy is hamstrung by paranoid reprisals born out of a cathartic need for pro-activity in response to provocation and a religious right that interprets sovereignty over land in religious terms.

In such circumstances it is hard to hold out any hope for peace, but there has been at least one instance where Israel was moved along the road to compromise. Under George Bush snr. ten billion dollars worth of loan credits were denied to them which forced the then Likud government under Yitzhak Shamir to the negotiating table.

A clear message, with financial clout behind it, that the international community, including the United States, will not tolerate continued intransigence could lead to electoral success for the more pragmatic Labour party and other secular parties. Unfortunately, however, the prospect of America leaning on Israel seems slight. In such circumstances the European Union should consider withdrawing the preferential trade status currently enjoyed by Israel under the EU-Israel Association Agreement.

Fatah have their bottom line, which is the 1967 borders including partial control over Jerusalem, and for any peace to hold there would also surely have to be concessions to the 1948 dispossessed. Whether Hamas would sign up to recognition of the state of Israel is not clear, although there have been suggestions that this could happen. Indeed it has been suggested that the latest round of conflict was motivated by fear of the unity government between Fatah and Hamas. It serves Likud ideology to confront corresponding intransigence.

A Likud administration will never allow a viable Palestinian state to emerge, and in the current circumstances the dominance of the Likud party will remain. In the meantime the peace process stalls, and the suffering of Palestinians continues to be a source of regional and global instability.



(Published in Village Magazine, April 2016)

Michel Aflaq (1910-1989) was the principle ideologue of the pan-Arabist Ba’ath Socialist party still ruling Syria and previously Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Although born Christian he believed Islam to be proof of Arab genius and allegedly converted before his death in Baghdad.
The Arabs were a motley collection of illiterate warring tribes inhabiting the Arabian Peninsula until the Prophet Muhammed (570-632 CE) and his successors built an enduring empire with extraordinary speed. The early Muslims were not only successful warriors conquering territory from Spain to Persia but also projected a ‘soft’ power allowing them to convert subjugated peoples. The era brought great advances in philosophy, art and mathematics and was marked by a tolerance unknown under Christendom.
The Qu’ran itself was the first book written in Arabic, and according to the historian Albert Hourani Muslims believe Arabic is revealed in it; it certainly ushered in a great era of literacy. It is perhaps unsurprising that contemporary Arabic political movements have expressed themselves in the idiom of Islam however diverse that inheritance is.
Furthermore the failures of Arab nationalism especially under Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-70) appeared to make Political Islam the answer to the project of throwing off the economic and cultural shackles of imperialism, and confronting Israel. The brutalisation of the Middle East through internal repression and outside intervention has shaped the emergence of ISIS, but its unsophisticated ideology has an historical trajectory.
Likewise Christianity has had a lasting influence on the idea of Irishness: first because Christianity’s arrival in Ireland brought with it literacy (ogham script hardly qualifies) that generated a seismic cultural awakening; second, and another source of pride, Irish Christians performed vital missions in restoring Christianity to Britain and other parts of Europe; third, the Reformation in Britain occurred simultaneously with its second wave of colonisation of Ireland creating an effective method of creating a ruling caste; fourth, the decline of the Gaelic language left Catholicism as the only obvious point of cultural differentiation between the Irish and English.
Thus in George Moore’s novel The Lake Father Moran opines: ‘religion in Ireland was another form of love of country, and that, if Catholics were intolerant to every form of heresy, it was because they instinctively felt that the questioning of any dogma would mean some slight subsidence from the idea of nationality that held the people together’ He continues: ‘Like the ancient Jews, the Irish believed that the faith of their forefathers could bring them into their ultimate inheritance’.
Moore himself eventually renounced Catholicism, just like the main character in the novel Father Gogarty who says: ‘my moral ideas were not my own. They were borrowed from others and badly assimilated’. Gogarty bemoans the Church’s attitude to women recalling how ‘at Maynooth the tradition was always to despise women.’
Well before Irish independence in 1922 the Catholic Church held a firm hold over Irish society especially in the crucial sphere of education. Maynooth was established in 1795 and Irish primary education had become increasingly denominational by the end of the nineteenth century. To some extent this suited the British administration as it recognised the Church as a force of conservatism that would protect private property against social revolutionaries.
James Joyce also violently repudiated Catholicism. He wrote to Nora Barnacle in 1904: ‘Six years ago I left the Catholic Church, hating it most fervently … Now I make war upon it by what I write and say and do. I cannot enter the social order except as a vagabond.’ In Portrait he resolves: ‘I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile and cunning.’
It took artists of the stature of Joyce and Moore to escape their Catholic upbringings. Unfortunately most of the revolutionary generation rapidly conformed and thereby stamped out the pluralism, feminism and even vegetarianism that animated the more free-thinking period before hostilities began. One of the most powerful ministers in the first government Kevin O’Higgins remarked: ‘we were probably the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a revolution.’
That it should have been an Easter Rising that kicked off the affair is revealing. There was an obtuse connection drawn between the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and the blood sacrifice and emergence of an Irish nation state. Remarkably, in the wake of the Rising such illustrious revolutionaries as Roger Casement, Countess Marckieviez and James Connolly converted to Catholicism.
The Civil War between two children squabbling over the spoils of a new state had no relevance to the relationship with the Church. Observers were already noting the ‘sombre bodyguard of priests’ surrounding de Valera as he ascended political platforms in the early 1920s; and the first Cumann na nGaedheal administration (1922-32) alienated many erstwhile progressive supporters, including W.B. Yeats, by bringing in a ban against divorce in 1925.
We now know that the Catholic Church was virtually untouchable in its position of power in Ireland until the 1990s when the staggering effect of sexual repression and a culture of impunity became apparent. The same sex marriage referendum last year affirmed that the once vice-like grip was no more: only Roscommon voted against the proposal despite the Church’s opposition. It remains firmly entrenched in education but such is the prevailing distrust for priests in particular that this situation is unlikely to endure much longer.
Moreover, Irish people are no longer drawn to the priesthood or convent as they were in droves. The Church simply does not have the personnel to project its message any longer. Of course there are residuals defenders of Catholic Conservatism in the Iona Institute and the broader Pro Life movement. But the abuse scandals seems to have changed the bulk of Irish people’s outlook and the Pro Life movement now looks more like a pale shadow from the US Tea Party. Considering the margin of victory – the vote in favour was 62% – in the same sex marriage referendum it seems likely that even the eight amendment will eventually be repealed.
But we may ask what is left when we throw away the chains? If Irish politics is anything to go by Irish people are quite lost at this point electing parties that oversaw the countries delivery into the hands of the Church, and then the IMF, alongside a raft of vacuous independents. The Far Left is a shrill irrelevance and the nationalist left fatally compromised by direct participation in atrocities during the Northern Troubles.
Could something be recovered from Ireland’s longstanding relationship with Christianity? Might the revolutionary ideas expressed in the Gospels and the lives of the saints rejecting materialism, promoting equality and pacifisms – and even containing seeds of environmentalism in the legacy of St Francis – actually inform a new political consciousness.
The Irish people are increasingly mired in neo-liberal confusion, which could be linked to the spiritual void in most of our lives. Increasingly Eastern thought is turned to for assurance and contemplation; but perhaps we have native idioms more comprehensible to us in our midst.
I do not write this as a spiritual person but as one who wishes to see a change of heart in the country which will allow us to realise a society that it is fairer and more sustainable. It seems to me that the language of religion conjoining poetry and prophesy speaks to people in a more powerful way than empiricism. Even Marx acknowledged the elixir.
One does not have to Believe in order to believe in its effect, though perhaps a measure of faith helps. As the philosopher Bartholomew Ryan puts it in his book Kierkegaard’s Indirect Politics: ‘There is no completion, but for pointing towards the elusive faith, but that faith remains incommensurable and we forever falter when we try to talk about it (otherwise it would not be faith).’
People sometimes grow nostalgic about Pagan Europe. At a musical festival you might be urged to embrace your pagan spirit. But life was often pretty brutish in pre-Christian Europe. Here is an account of human sacrifice by an Arab traveller to Scandinavia in the tenth century:
Then the girl was pulled into the tent and the men started to beat on the shields so her screams could not be heard. Six men entered into the tent to have intercourse with the girl, after which they put her onto her master’s bed. Two men grabbed her hands and two men her wrists. The angel of death put a rope around her neck and while two men pulled the rope, the old woman stabbed the girl between her ribs with a knife.
Undoubtedly worse atrocities even have been committed in the name of organized Christianity from Cortez to the Crusades but those acts were utterly at variance with the ideas expressed in the gospels, rather than a component of ritual or doctrine as in many Pagan practices. In particular by dignifying each life Chrisitianity was crucial to the demise of slavery. Ireland, as a land of saints and scholars helped extend that idea, and early Irish nationalists drew on this as a source of inspiration. We should be loath to dispense with it peremptorily.
There have been many powerful critiques of organised Christianity not least from Edward Gibbons who wrote that: ‘The pure Deism of the first Christians … was changed, by the Church of Rome, into the incomprehensible dogma of the trinity’.
One of the most savage attacks on the Church of Rome came from Fyodor Dostoyevsky whose omniscient Idiot exclaims: ‘In my opinion Roman Catholicism isn’t even a religion, but most decidedly a continuation of the Holy Roman Empire, and everything in it is subordinate to that idea, beginning with faith. The Pope seized the earth, an earthly throne and took up the sword; and since then everything has gone on in the same way, except they’ve added lies, fraud, deceit, fanaticism, superstition, wickedness. They have trifled with the most sacred, truthful, innocent, ardent feelings of the people, have bartered it all for money, for base temporal power. And isn’t that the teachings of the Antichrist?’ But Dostoyevsky was a deep believer and his novels invariably invoke the redemptive power of a Christian faith removed from temporal power.
Frederick Nietszche went much further opining that: ‘Christianity has been up till now mankind’s greatest misfortune’. In response the Irish poet-philosopher John Moriarty writes: ‘As though the Europe he grew up in was purely idolatrous Mexico and he a Cortez who came ashore. Nietzsche proceeded to smash and roll Christianity down the steps of its own pyramid temples. In its place he set up actuality, recurrence and will to power.’ And ultimately Nietzsche’s vision is associated with madness and Fascism.
Moriarty proposes that: ‘It is as necessary that we realize a past out of which to grow as it is to realize a present and future into which to grow’. In his Dreamtime he paints an ecumenical mythological inheritance out of which this growth in individuals and across a wider society might be realised. The Christian experience is reclaimed and reordered.
It seems that just as the key to defeating the doctrine of ISIS will emerge from within Arab-Islamic idiom rather through sustained bombing campaigns, similarly the key to creating a more compassionate, thoughtful and proactive Irishry may lie in re-engaging with our mythical inheritance, and that includes a re-imagined Christianity.

The Scapegoat

(version in Village Magazine, May 2015)

The Charlie Hebdo attacks by individuals purporting to represent Islam have again linked that religion to violent behaviour anathema to Western, liberal values. From stoning of adulterers to beheadings and burning alive of infidels, flogging bloggers and even female genital mutilation (fgm), a picture registers of a religion stubbornly rooted in a barbaric past, even if those practices have little or no justification in Islam.
What we generalise as ‘Islam’ is a constantly evolving and diverse set of beliefs influenced by the varying settings of its over one billion global adherents.
Sociologist Emile Durkheim claimed that religions are: “a system of ideas with which the individual represent to themselves the society of which they are members”. This follows Aristotle’s dictum that: “men create the gods after their own image”.
A contrasting view, articulated by another sociologist Max Weber, is that religions of themselves generate cultural conditions: most famously he argued that Protestant work ethic led to modern capitalism.
This focuses the question on whether religious violence flows from the teachings of the religion itself or whether religious discourse is simply used to justify violence that has deeper roots in human nature.
Engagement with the ideas of René Girard might shed some light on this question. Girard identified a universal tendency towards what he termed “acquisitive mimesis”. By this he meant that humans copy each other’s consumption (a version of ‘monkey see, monkey do’) which naturally leads to rivalry over scarce resources.
Moreover, and unlike other animals, humans evolved an ability to employ deadly weapons, beginning with stone projectiles. With this capacity for wreaking destruction early humans found it necessary to resolve potentially fatal conflicts brought about by competition for resources.
Girard identifies the mechanism of the scapegoat across a whole range of cultural contexts which intermittently becalms the violent tendencies that bedevil human societies. Jesus Christ’s crucifixion is an obvious example, but he found this to be a near-universal feature of tribal societies.
Religions play a prominent role. According to Girard: “The sacred is violence, but if religious man worships violence it is only insofar as the worship of violence is supposed to bring peace; religion is entirely concerned with peace, but the means it has of bringing it about are never free of sacrificial violence.”
He also claims that: “Prohibitions are intended to keep distant or to remove anything that threatens the community.” Adding: “There is no prohibition that cannot be related to mimetic conflict.”
This is consistent with Robert Harris’s thesis on why pig meat is taboo in Islam: the Middle East (where Islam emerged) does not contain forests as Europe has (or had at least) where pigs could feed on acorns and other foods generally inedible to humans. In contrast in the arid conditions of the Middle East pigs would have to compete with humans for their food. The conversion of food into flesh diminished its value and so it became haram (forbidden). The prohibition therefore decreased competition for food, and its potential for violence.
With this in mind we may explore the origins of violence in Islam where the socio-cultural context is important to our understanding of how that faith is articulated.
The harsh desert environment of post-nomadic Saudi Arabia where literacy was rare and violence endemic preserves religious practices that we in the West consider barbarous. The discovery of enormous oil reserves after World War I thrust unimaginable wealth into the hands of the new state, and the fundamentalist Wahhabi form of Islam has been used by the ruling Al-Saud family to legitimate their rule.
Today, a range of interpretations of Islam are found in different countries. Most Muslims in the West find little difficulty reconciling their lifestyles with the norms of their societies, albeit they may be highly critical of the foreign and domestic policies of their governments.
When we ask why individuals embrace terrorism a consideration of their life prospects and the nature of their societies is an important consideration. Would-be-terrorists observe a global environment where disproportionate wealth (ergo power and munitions) lies in the hands of Western states whose foreign policies have often been directed against Muslim countries. Jihad is interpreted to suit these conditions: extreme and seemingly gratuitous violence balances the wealth and power differential.
It is also instructive to recall Christianity’s history of justifying the Crusades, the Inquisition and oppression of minorities. The Bible was even used to justify slavery before the American Civil War.
With peace reigning in Western societies, at least internally, a more harmonious Christianity has been articulated. The corpora of works that constitute both Christianity and Islam contain a wide range of possible interpretations.
But Weber’s view of religion should not be dismissed entirely. The often intolerant Wahhabi teaching emanating from Saudi Arabia over the last decades have had a strong and worrying influence on many of the global umma. The values of a violent, desert society remain influential.
Reflecting on the nature of, and differences between, global religions is instructive. One distinguishing feature of the monotheistic faiths of Christianity, Islam and Judaism is they firmly place man at the centre of the universe with dominion over all life.
This extends to how we consume food which involves a fundamental relationship with the earth. In contrast most forms of Buddhism and other Eastern traditions see humans as one among other animals and advocate restraint on the unnecessary killing of other animals for food.
At face value these prohibitions may seem irrelevant to inter-human violence, but if a religion restrains intentional killing the level of inter-human violence in that society could decrease. Advances in weapon-technology were also linked to human predation on other animals.
Perhaps prohibiting violence towards animals can temper a need to scapegoat other humans. Through denial of what many consider a natural inclination to consume the flesh of other animals we might begin to reverse the acquisitive mimesis that brings humanity to the brink of self-destruction.
Rene Girard observed: “Man is not naturally a carnivore; human hunting should not be thought of in terms of animal predation.” He said that “What impelled men to hunt was the search for a reconciliatory victim.” And concluded: “The common denominator is the collective murder, whether attributed to animals or men, rather than the hunted species or various techniques employed.” He also argues that animals were first domesticated for their use in sacrifice, not for their value as food.
Thus the consumption of animals is, at least in its origin, unnecessary and symbolic. A means of resolving our “acquisitive mimesis”. By curbing this behaviour societies diminish the “collective murder”; more so when we consider how the demand that consuming animals places on scarce resources and how it is now often undertaken as a form of competitive display; eating a steak can be an affirmation of wealth or manhood.
The twentieth century witnessed the emergence of a form of politics divorced entirely from violence. This great achievement is especially identified with Gandhi who guided Indians to throw off the shackles of the British Empire through non-violent resistance.
Pacifism and vegetarianism often go hand in hand. Leo Tolstoy another who recognised the need to reverse the acquisitive streak in human nature claimed that: “as long as there are slaughterhouses there will be battlefields”. The cycle of violence could begin at the dinner table.
Gandhi explicitly connected his political philosophy with how other animals were treated when he said: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” This moral progress we assume involves the development of a society where other human beings are valued and not seen in competitive terms: a curbing of the tendency towards acquisitive mimesis.
Of course a person may renounce animal products and still exhibit psychotic tendencies, as Adolf Hitler did. The motivation for any forbearance counts. But it is also not beyond the bounds of possibility that it will be discovered that the consumption of flesh, especially from cruelly treated animals, has an effect on our mental state. Perhaps by renouncing animal products an individual becomes more sensitive to suffering of all kinds.
The monotheistic faiths also acknowledge the violent stain of consuming other animals. The Christian obligation to avoid meat on the once numerous days of religious observation might be viewed as simple self-denial but Christian ideas on the subject can be traced to the (1st Century AD) Stoic philosophy of Musonius who claimed meat was suited to wild beasts and regarded it as a “heavy” food that dulls the intellect and “darkens” the soul.
Stoicism influenced the 4th century theologian St Jerome who claimed that animals were not originally created for human consumption and that only after the Great Flood, when God saw that humans were wicked and greedy, were they given the freedom to eat it. Abstinence ‘lightens’ the soul and brings the Christian to a state suitable for prayer.
More so than their Christian counterparts, Muslims and Jews have strict laws regulating consumption of other animals. The defilement of eating meat is avoided by strict ritual prohibitions. That Christianity does not also ordain these rituals can be traced to St Paul’s rejection of Jewish dietary laws.
It is easy to cast the Muslim as the aggressor against our civilised Western societies, but when we examine the devastating effect that Western capitalism wreaks against the natural world and the often concealed violence that is brought to bear against the Third World resistance is understandable, even justifiable. But the demand for the collective murder of the scapegoat victim contrasts with the truly revolutionary pacifism of Gandhi’s political philosophy.
Where resistance is articulated through a religious discourse it is relevant that some religions offer approval for violent reaction whereas others may temper that behaviour. Ultimately curbing the tendency for acquisitive mimesis by a mechanism other than the scapegoat offers the only prospect of saving humanity from interminable conflict.
But simply abandoning all our religions and embracing secular ideologies such as socialism will not necessarily achieve this outcome as the corruption of Communism exhibits. So Girard observed: “Human beings are soon moved to make religion itself into a new scapegoat, failing to realize once more that the violence is theirs. To expel religion is, as always, a religious gesture – as much so today when the sacred is loathed and abhorred in the past when it was worshipped and adored.” Curbing a human capacity for violence that arises out of our greed is what needs to be addressed.
A prohibition on animal consumption may engender compassion for all living creatures and reverse a long-standing human tendency to mimic the consumption of those around us. This may offer a guide to resolving the human capacity for highly destructive behaviour and potentially curb the acquisitiveness that generates a perceived need for a victim. It might also help curb the spiralling consumption that endangers the human presence on earth.

The Satements of Osama bin Laden

(Unpublished, 2005)

“There is no reason, based on the information at hand, to believe bin Laden is anything other what he appears: a pious, charismatic, gentle, generous, talented, and personally courageous Muslim. As a historical figure viewed from any angle, Osama bin Laden is a great man, one who has smashed the expected unfolding of universal post-cold war peace.”

This encomium to Osama bin Laden emanates from an unlikely source; Michael Scheuer head of the CIA unit charged with hunting him. After seemingly orchestrating the destruction of the Twin Towers, bin Laden has generated an era of uncertainty, the ‘propaganda of the deed’ mesmerising television viewers across the globe.

Above all, bin Laden has achieved his infamy through mastery of the new media of satellite and internet, indeed a Google search throws up over eleven million responses (a similar search for Nelson Mandela offers a mere four million). Therefore, it is long overdue that bin Laden’s writings and broadcasts should be accessible to the English reader, instead of their being presented in distilled sound bites.

Messages To The World. The Statements of Osama Bin Laden translated by James Howarth, and edited by Bruce Lawrence contains twenty-four statements attributed to bin Laden, and what is revealed is a polemicist of skill, though prone to exaggeration, who projects a message of implacable hostility to the current world order.

America, as the upholder of this order is the target-in-chief. Already by 1998 he says: ‘For as long as I can remember I have felt tormented and at war, and have felt hatred and animosity for Americans.’ He also states in the same year: ‘To kill the Americans and their allies – civilian and military – is an individual duty incumbent upon every Muslim in all countries, in order to liberate the al-Asqa Mosque [in Jerusalem] and the Holy Mosque [in Mecca] from their grip, so that their armies leave all the territories of Islam.’

Bin Laden’s message to the American people is simple; as you voted for the US government you share responsibility. In 1997 he warns ‘A reaction might take place as a result of the US government’s targeting of Muslim civilians… the American people they are not exonerated from responsibility, because they chose the government and voted for it despite their knowledge of its crimes in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and other places.’ Bin Laden thus characterizes Islamic terrorism as merely a response to the aggression of the US and its allies. He draws particular attention to the plight of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation and the situation in Iraq where hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children are thought to have died under UN sanctions.

In one of his last broadsides in 2004 bin Laden seems to confess to perpetrating the September 11 attacks. He states that the idea of attacking the World Trade Centre ‘came to me when things went just too far with the American-Israeli alliance’s oppression and atrocities against our people in Lebanon.’ He continues ‘As I looked at those destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me to punish the oppressor in kind by destroying towers in America, so that it would have a taste of its own medicine.’ However, given that the attack on Lebanon occurred in 1982 when bin Laden and his fellow jihadists were in the pay of the CIA fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, this is not entirely credible, but the memory seemed to leave a lasting impression.

Bin Laden revels in the deployment of Islamic sources hostile to those of other religions and creeds. In so doing he occludes the peaceful elements to Islam. He cites the Qu’ran; “You who believe, do not take the Jews and Christians as friends.” (Qur’an 5:51) but disregards specific Qu’ranic injunctions against the taking of innocent lives. In October 2001 he states: ‘so we kill the innocents – this is valid both religiously and logically, this forbidding of killing children and innocents is not set in stone, and there are other writings that uphold it.’

Bin Laden capably rebuts much of the simplistic propaganda that has emerged from the White House since the ‘War on Terror’ began. In response to Bush’s claim that bin Laden and his acolytes hate freedom he responds: ‘Perhaps he can tell us why we did not attack Sweden for example.’ He also makes light of Bush’s description of Ariel Sharon as a ‘man of peace;’ ‘If Sharon is a man of peace in the eyes of Bush, then we are also men of peace,’ and given Sharon’s background as architect of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, it is difficult to dispute this assertion.

Bush’s most seismic gaffe was to utter the phrase ‘crusade against terror’ on the White House lawn after the September 11 attacks. This was an error of staggering proportions given the resonance of that word in the Islamic world. Bin Laden states ‘So Bush has declared in his own words: “Crusade attack.” The odd thing about this is that he has taken the words right out of our mouth.’

Bin Laden’s awareness of the extent to which combating terrorism can be achieved through the application of ‘soft power’ is revealed; ‘it has become clear to us during our defensive jihad against the American enemy and its enormous propaganda machine that it depends for the most part on psychological warfare.’ The message seems to be; invading countries won’t combat us. He also advocates that ‘the youth should strive to find the weak points of the American economy and strike them there.’

Bin Laden’s greatest failing in confronting his foe was over-confidence; having witnessed the defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan he felt sure that American wings could be similarly clipped. Drawing on the experiences of jihadists in Somalia he repeatedly portrays the American soldier as weak and cowardly, but failed to anticipate the extent to which the national calamity of September 11 inured the American population to the loss of service men and women on foreign campaigns. He also ignores the extent to which mujahadin in Afghanistan were reliant on foreign patrons especially the United States.

On a conciliatory note bin Laden in an address to the people of Europe commits ‘to cease operations against any state that pledges not to attack Muslims or to intervene in their affairs, including the American conspiracy against the entire Islamic world.’ Quite where this leaves Ireland, which allows US military flights to pass through Shannon, is unclear. Moreover, given bin Laden’s disregard for innocent civilians it would be difficult to take him at his word.

Overall, the impression that emerges of bin Laden from his statements is that of a character lacking in compassion and entirely dogmatic in his views. Bin Laden’s world-view is one-dimensional, involving a crude demarcation between East and West which fails to take account of the millions of Muslims and Christians living on either side, and the extent to which the histories of East and West have always been intertwined, a process accelerated in an age of globalisation.

Nevertheless, it is clear that in order to counter bin Laden’s rhetoric which serves as a clarion call to would-be-terrorists, more careful language and tactics are required. It is also appropriate to concede that he often makes valid criticisms of US foreign policy especially that of the Bush administration.

The last statement of Bin Laden was broadcast at the end of 2004, it may be that a rumoured kidney complaint has led to his death or infirmity, but there is no doubt that his words and deeds continue to influence the world.

September 11

(Published in La Vanguardia online, translated by Alvaro Reynolds, 2001)

It is exceptional that a news story produces shock waves across the world. An event like the death of Princess Diana dominated the media, at least in the United Kingdom but it was somehow parochial, pop cultural, and at times comical. Even those who lit their ‘candle in the wind’ must have realised that Diana’s death did not have the potential to alter the course of human history.

Similarly, it is possible to read about two and a half million deaths in the Congolese Civil War, or about the threat of global warming, and find these happenings somehow uninvolving. Undoubtedly, it is terrible that two and a half million people have died in the Congo but it is so far away, unrecorded, unconnected with the wider world. Likewise, one can worry about global warming and its attendant threats, but it is a bit like the character of Vitalstatix in Asterix who feared that tomorrow the sky will fall on his head, but tomorrow never comes. So we carry on, taking aeroplane trips, driving cars, heating houses. What can we do? The luxuries have become necessities.

When September 11 occurred it felt like it could be the end of the world as we knew it. The attack on the epicentre of capitalism revealed the fragility of the global economy. Those of us who had consistently criticised the “World Order”, who bemoaned the crass commercialisation of our age; the McDonaldisation of our culture; the instillation of MTV values, suddenly realised that we too had been become dependent on the fruits of commercial progress. How would it be possible to live without flying away to other countries, without the opium of televised football and the succour of culinary variety? Even worse, one had to contemplate the terrifying spectre of war, the poison of chemical and biological weapons and the Armageddon of nuclear catastrophe.

The television images that came before us were horrifyingly hypnotic, perversely satisfying. Across the world people were transfixed. Most had a clip that stood out for them. My own personal was the sight of one of the aeroplanes disappearing altogether into the vastness of the tower, like sperm implanting an egg. The events became a movie blockbuster played out across the news media. Somehow each one of us was a character in the movie, caught inside the buildings, jumping out the windows, powerless, vulnerable.

Many people have their own personal involvement with what happened. My sister was in New York at the time. On September 10, less than twenty-four hours before the first plane hit its target, she visited the World Trade Centre took the lift to the top and appreciated the view like so many other tourists had done before her but will never do again. At the bottom of the tower, she purchased her brother a t-shirt in The Gap. Now that t-shirt is mine, my own little part of history, my own fragment of Berlin Wall.

How times have changed since September 11 is a question that will fill vast quantities of newsprint over the course of the forthcoming week. In reality little has changed, there are still two worlds, the North and the South, one aspiring to be the other. September 11, beyond the three thousand innocent people killed and their families, has only really affected a change in perception. A realisation that history is not at an end, that the steady march to prosperity could be de-railed.

A moment of high drama captivated a planet. Two of the great phallic symbols of capitalism rendered impotent. It seemed to be inaugurating an era of uncertainty, but instead we went back to work, to watching football, to eating Indian food to taking trips to far off places, but it did shake us and forced conclusions to be drawn.

In exchange for the pleasures that we derive from the liberal economy so we must accept the dominance of the US Superpower. The torture of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay or the deaths of Afghani civilians may trouble us but we learn to forget very quickly as such occurrences do not imperil our existence. In all likelihood we won’t do anything beyond mutter disapproval if the US affect regime change in Iraq. The US government is the guardian of the wealth and material comfort to which we have become accustomed, and most of us, including myself, are, in the final analysis, unwilling to countenance the alternative. That is what was scary about September 11.

Perhaps Ireland can learn from Muslims

(Unpublished, 2005)

In a recent article (8/3/2005) Kevin Myers contends that Ireland ‘lacks any real awareness of the enormously complex problems which lie ahead of us as our cities are being transformed by immigration’ before proceeding to offer a typically superficial analysis of what he deems this “complex problem”.

The target of Myers’s ire is what he terms Islamic fundamentalism (a term rejected by most Muslims – though the Arabic neologism usuliyyah has crept into usage). This is presented by Myers as an ideology similar to Communism and Nazism that rejects the diversity at the heart of the liberal order.

Myers’s particular grievance is against the wearing of the veil by women, which he describes as ‘misogynistic and dehumanising’ and ‘a step towards Pharaonic circumcision’ – whatever that is.

The implicit suggestion contained in the article is that the Irish government should adopt the policy of the French government who banned the wearing of the veil by school girls, an injunction that has given rise to violent clashes and has heightened a sense of exclusion among French Muslim as well as pandering to the extreme right of Le Penism.

Myers falls into the same trap as the fundamentalists he fulminates against by demanding that Muslims abide by the potentially totalitarian moral norms of an aggressive secularism. Surely a true liberal, as Myers seems to style himself, wouldn’t object to the hardly totalitarian idea of an individual making free choices regarding their code of dress. One wonders whether he excoriated his sister-in-law for the choice she once made to take a veil as a nun.

A more nuanced understanding of the contemporary Islam is called for. Take the views of sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi who comes in for honourable mention in Myer’s piece.

Much of Qaradawi’s writings are to be found on the English language website where eminent clerics issue online fatwas (legal rulings) in response to questions posed by Muslims living in the West. Some of the topics addressed are surprisingly explicit including; ‘a divorced woman using a vibrator,’ or ‘undergoing a penis enlargement operation,’ as well as intimate ‘sucking a wife’s breasts,’ while others are more banal such as; ‘animals slaughtered without mentioning Allah’s name.’ One can hardly imagine a Catholic priest addressing such themes, and the frankness of the exchanges between clerics and their followers are indicative of the extent to which Islam retains its relevance to people’s lives.

Qaradawi’s approach to the question of suicide bombing is also more complex than Myer’s indicates; participation in the martyr operations carried out in Palestine given the status of the land as an occupied territory in addition to a lot of sacrilegious acts perpetrated by the Jews against the sanctuaries – is one of the most praised acts of worship.

Standard stuff but he goes on to say; Our target should be military personnel and not civilians when Israel does not attack our civilians. But as we can see nowadays, they violate the lives of all Palestinians civilians or non-civilians. Thus Qaradawi advocates that once Israel refrains from acts such as indiscriminate ‘targeted’ assassinations the taking of Israeli civilian life should cease.

Closer to home, Qaradawi unequivocally condemns recent suicide attacks against Western civilians. Trully our heart bleeds for the attacks that targeted the World Trade Centre… despite our strong opposition to America’s biased policy towards Israel. Since; Haphazard killings… where innocents are killed along with the wrongdoers is totally forbidden in Islam. Here Qaradawi seems to be offering contradicting interpretations since he previously endorses suicide operations in Israel which invariably lead to the deaths of innocent civilians, including children.

While Myers’s entreaty to deal with the issue of the arrival of Muslims in Ireland is welcome, surely the issue doesn’t always have to be addressed in terms of the constantly magnified danger it poses. His simplistic rendering of a relatively sophisticated phenomenon shows no understanding of the Islamic Revival that is occurring in Europe.

According to one of its leading lights Tariq Ramadan, who has been described as the Luther of Islam, ‘We are currently living through a veritable silent revolution in Muslim communities in the West’ because ‘Muslims may feel safer in the West, as far as the free exercise of their faith is concerned, than in some so-called Muslim countries.’

Ramadan calls on European Muslims to interact with their fellow citizens in the following way; ‘it is a question of entering into an authentic dialogue as between equals, with all our fellow citizens with respect for the respective universality of our respective values, willingly open to mutual enrichment and eventually to become true partners in action.’

The arrival of Muslims in Ireland calls for dialogue and interaction, rather than goading polemics. Certain interpretations of Islam such as justification for the physical chastisement of wives offend against universal codes of human rights but it is important to look below the surface and recognise the variety of interpretations.

Moreover, perhaps Irish people can learn from the values espoused by Muslim such as emphasis on the family, a much needed asceticism in the face of an over-weaning booze fuelled culture, and a re-activation of a humanitarianism that has been abandoned in the quest for mammon.

Life Under Assad

(Published in Village Magazine November, 2012)

I think I may be one of only a handful of people, not engaged in espionage, to have travelled overland on the same day from Jerusalem and Damascus since the foundation of Israel in 1948. Then, in 2003, Israeli border officials allowed travellers to avoid permanent stamps, but the Jordanian entry visa I had been issued, to traverse that country, must surely have given my whereabouts away.

After crossing the border I spent a few uncomfortable minutes inside Syrian territory without my passport which was in the hands of the border guards. The temperature outside was about forty and I was sweating from the inside out; visions of being accused of spying were coming to mind. Eventually I admitted visiting ‘Palestine’, flashed some dollars and beseeched the official to let me through. He gave me a toothy grin and relented. I was to find the inconsistency of Syrian border officials less charming in future.

At least I was given leave to enter what was an instantly fascinating country. A tangle of east and west removed from history, an oriental Cuba frozen in time.

On that first visit, I saw some of its remarkable sites: Crac de Chavalier, a Crusader castle of lore; Palmyra’s ruins, a lost Hellenic city in the dessert; and of course Damascus, the longest continuously inhabited city in the world. There Roman ruins mingle with an Islamic heritage that includes the stunning Umayyad mosque as well some recent ugly additions inspired by close relations with the USSR. Alas, I never made it to Aleppo, where the battle for Syria now rages, on this or my subsequent visit.

I returned a year later to improve my Arabic, a project that was sadly de-railed. It is said to take 20 years to master the Arabic language. I never got passed year two, but in that time I at least gained some appreciation of what life was like in Syria.

The first point to emphasis is its religious diversity. This is inherited from centuries of Ottoman rule which ended abruptly after World War I. Under that Empire confessional communities joined together into semi-autonomous millet. The leader of each was the patriarch or chief rabbi depending on denomination; he would regulate relations between that community and the sultan’s officials.

It was a system that functioned successfully for centuries. Though Sunni Muslims dominated and did not pay the zakat a tax levied on religious minorities, there was a degree of toleration not seen in Europe until the nineteenth century. But it left a patchwork of self-contained communities when state boundaries were clumsily forged by the French and British who divided the Ottoman carcass between them. The League of Nations Mandates as these new arrangements were termed, were a cloak for imperialism.

The French, who conquered Syria from nationalists seeking to build a pan-Arab state under the Hashemite King Faisal, set about dismembering the old Ottoman province of Syria, creating the state of Lebanon with a Christian population sufficiently large to dominate its affairs. This left a Syrian rump, reduced further when Antioch (now Anatakya) was effectively transferred to Turkey in 1938 to ensure their neutrality in the forthcoming war.

The French preserved religious identifications but eschewed the traditional ruling Sunni notables in favour of the religious minorities; perpetuating sectarian differences in the process. Alawis, an Islamic offshoot, who formed under 15% of the population were invested with particular responsibility. Centuries of marginalisation ensured their antipathy to the Sunni ruling class and many were made officers in the new army. When independence was achieved after World War II their group solidarity endured and their positions in the military gave them serious clout.

After a succession of coups, the country became a stable military dictatorship in 1970 under Hafiz Al-Assad who surrounded himself with a loyal coterie of Allawi. Substantial Christian communities (20%) and a smaller Druz (below 5%), also identified with the regime. There are ethnic differences too with substantial Kurdish and Turkmen minorities to the north but these groups are too distant from the urban centre of power to play a significant role in national politics.

The Syrian Arab Republic is an avowedly Arab nationalist state under the Ba’th party. Pan-Arab nationalism was a useful ideology for a fractured, irredentist polity where a religious minority held the reigns of power.

Carefully selected Sunni Arabs were co-opted and placed in visible positions of authority, though the bulk of the population did not identify with the regime, as the recent revolt shows.

Syria proved a durable presence in a dangerous neighbourhood, between Iraq and Israel,  under the canny and often brutal leadership of Hafiz Al-Assad. A Cold War has been maintained with Israel since the Yom Kippur War of 1973, with Lebanon being the scene of proxy conflict where. Syria, along with Iran, have supported Hizbullah. The presence of an external enemy has served the regime’s interests, drawing attention from the fractured nature of Syrian society. A sense of paranoia over Israeli espionage was fostered; we learnt to refer to it as ‘the country with no name’.

On my second visit in 2004 I again arrived overland, this time from Turkey. I was to spend three months learning what life was like in Damascus under the dictatorship.

The first thing that struck was how safe it was. Crime was virtually non-existent, at least in the historic medina I lived. The greatest threats emanated from fleets of taxis that sped recklessly through narrow streets emitting cloud puffs of intoxicating smoke and horns beating Satanic rhythms.

Life seemed straightforward for most; artisans plied trades that would be undertaken in factories in the West. There were an extraordinary number of barbers, juice bars, and of course falafel or shwarma at every street corner. It’s a charming city of tea rooms where narguila pipes emit fragrant odours, and old men sit along roadsides playing endless games of backgammon. There is also the impressive Souk Al-Hamidiyeh where the bullet holes of French soldiers could still be seen. One wonders whether recent events are adding to those patterns.

In any business or government office there was always a smiling picture of the then young president Bashar Al-Assad, the son of Hafiz who assumed power in 2000 after the death of his father. This cult of the leader was firmly entrenched.

There was a tedium to life under the dictatorship: bookshops were a rarity and internet use highly circumscribed, at least at that time. Whenever I was lucky enough to receive a phone call from my parents there was always a muffled sound as if someone was snooping on the call, they must have grown bored by the accounts of what we ate for dinner.

There were more sinister aspects that I caught a glimpse of. Militants were said to ‘disappear behind the sun’ and mukhabarat agents were rumoured to abound. I once saw a chain gang of prisoners; but the regime did not generally air its dirty laundry in public.



When my university course finished and it was time to leave, I took a taxi, as you did, to the Lebanese border in order to catch my plane in Beirut. There my problems began as the military officials at the border told me I couldn’t leave. I was now in serious danger of missing my flight, or worse, so I rushed back in another taxi to Damascus and scurried around a number of government buildings, waking up officials en route before someone in the tourist ministry made a phone call to allow me through. At that point I resolved not to return as had been my intention.

I could not live in a country where my rights were so impeded. It is hardly surprising that so many Syrians drew the same conclusion after seeing there Arab brothers and sisters taking to the streets in Tunisia and Egypt. I hope they succeed in their struggle, but that diversity and religious tolerance in that country is preserved.


(Unpublished, 2005)

Living in Syria the relentless barrage of anti-Israeli propaganda is exhausting. Zionist agents apparently lurk on every street corner and foreigners avoid the unwanted attention of moustachioed Mukhabarat agents by referring in public to Israel as the “country with no name.”

Syrian television features programmes depicting the bloodstained excesses of the Israeli Defence Forces while ordinary Syrians express an almost reverential fear of Israel ’s military capability. The state nurtures these sentiments, that border on racism: The Merchant of Venice is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays to feature on the school curriculum, with the character of Shylock, the archetypal medieval Jewish villain, informing the political consciousness of Syrian youth.

Antipathy to Israel is understandable with a Palestinian population (those displaced by the foundation of Israel and their descendants) numbering close to a million, living in limbo between a grudgingly accepted state of residence and a cherished homeland.

Meanwhile the memories of the wars of 1967 and 1973 are still fresh, not to mention the Israeli occupation of Syrian territory in the Golan Heights, incorporated into Israel in 1981. But implacable hostility also serves to preserve national cohesion in a country containing potentially destructive sectarian tensions.

A trip to the city of Qunetra on the Israeli border goes some way to showing why hostility towards Israel is such a binding force.

After negotiating the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of Syria ’s Interior Ministry that is always accompanied by the smiles of bewildered officials invariably drinking tea who show all the decorum that Arabic hospitality requires before leading you on yet another wild goose chase, a visa was secured to this restricted area.

We set off from Damascus on a grim winter’s morning; the harsh desert climate mingling with the fumes of the antiquated motor cars of Soviet vintage that throng the city.

Qunetra is situated an uncomfortable hours journey from Damascus and the cost of the trip aboard a rickety service taxi is all of ten Syrian pounds – or €0.15. As we enter rural Syria , the poverty is palpable. Ramshackle buildings offer little respite from the elements while livestock seem to share the facilities of their owners. Away from the relative sophistication of the metropolis an increased social conservatism is evident on our bus as passengers carefully maintain a segregation of the sexes.

At last we reach the settlement beside Qunetra close to the Israeli border. Pristine UN four-wheel-drives parked around the town signal the presence of the multinational forces that maintain a precarious peace. Above, the Golan Heights, source of Syria ’s conflict with Israel, loom strategically.

We are ushered into a small checkpoint which includes the bunk beds of the bored conscripts of the Third World army that George W. Bush seems intent on destroying. After refusing the kind offer of some of the unappetising concoction that the cold and hungry men are cooking on their miserable gas stove, we move on outside to await the Mukhabarat guide detailed to show us around.

Our guide welcomes us with the usual etiquette but it is apparent that he is bored by our presence which has seemingly interrupted his slumber.

Qunetra was once a stop off on the road between Jerusalem and Damascus with a population of over thirty thousand that included both Muslims and Christians. During the 1973 war it was captured by the Israeli, but in 1974 Henry Kissinger (of all people) brokered an interim agreement that led to Israeli withdrawal from this portion of Syrian territory. What was left behind serves as an indictment of Israeli methods.

We pull into the town which remains uninhibited since the Israeli departure and immediately are struck by the desolation. It feels like a ghost town, almost every house has been systematically levelled, the flat Arabic style roofs in one piece above the rubble.

Among the few buildings that remain structurally intact is what was once a hospital, but this omission was clearly not motivated by a sense of humanity on the part of the Israeli army for every square foot of the building is riddled with bullets, in a wanton act of vandalism. Left, like the tortured survivor of an otherwise massacred army, to serve as a warning against future rebellion.

The mountainous landscape, the grey sky and the apparent ethnic cleansing are all evocative of the excesses of the Balkans, this is Israel ’s Dirty War that the world doesn’t see.

From a European vantage it is hard not to have the idea that the Israelis are civilised and Western, above the barbarity of the suicide bombing Qur’an thumping Arabs, but a visit to Qunetra suggests otherwise.

A Revolution in Work

Contemporary job insecurity is more than a response to dominant neo-Liberalism. The pace of technological change gives less of a role for human beings with millions of jobs predicted to disappear. With the advance of third and even fourth level education a serious mismatch has emerged between skill sets and the requirements of our economies. Only a revolution in work will allow for greater fulfillment and individual autonomy in this changed environment.

Theodore Zeldin’s latest work: The Hidden Pleasures of Mankind: A New Way of Remembering the Past and Imagining the Future offers a profound examination of the failings of contemporary corporations to offer dignified employment to their workers. He mines history for alternative responses to contemporary challenges.

The book is an extension of Zeldin´s non-profit Oxford Muse foundation that provides an online platform “to stimulate courage and invention in personal, professional and cultural life“. It is a forum where ideas are flashed before participants offering a kind of intellectual Tinder. Proceeds from the book go to that project.

In terms of originality and variety, Zeldin –  born to Jewish-Russian parents in 1933 – is arguably the preeminent historian of his generation in Britain. His lack of a deserved public profile derives perhaps from concentration on the history of France although his Intimate History of Humanity (1994), like this work, provided a staggering global range of sources in his exploration of the human condition in different historical circumstances. But as well as providing a collection of portraits that yield insights into historical processes, in his latest work he looks explicitly at how contemporary societies might offer greater satisfaction for beleagured citizens.

He is a trenchant critic of large corportions and trends towards privatisation. In spite of this, Ikea allowed him to conduct research into its modus operandi which he criticises for a ruthlessly expansionary appetite and inability to nurture the hidden talents of many of its workers. Zeldin harks back to an economy composed primarily of micro businesses operating at all levels of society resulting in greater communication, and a personal relationship with money as opposed to one mediated by impersonal banking institutions.

Zeldin argues that individuals must overcome an inability and unwillingness to share deep thoughts attributing this to how: ´Many are schooled to believe that they need to be hypocrits. The hidden thoughts in people´s heads are the great darkness that surround us.´ For Zeldin the utility of the historical knowledge he has accumulated over a long and impressive career is apparent: ´I juxtapose people and ideas from different centuries and backgrounds so as to find new answers to the questions that perplex the earth´s present inhabitants.´ The hidden pleasures of life lie in the exchange of creative ideas that have brought satisfaction through history.

He is also a restless soul himself. He says: ´I do not wish to spend my time on earth as a bewildered tourist surrounded by strangers, on holidays from nothingness, in the dark as to when the holiday will end, stuck in the queue waiting for another dollop of ice-cream happiness.‘ It appears that a life of climbing the greasy academic pole accumulating honours has proved insufficiently rewarding for the author.

He wonders what the great adventure of our time should be, recalling (eurocentrically) that in the sixteenth century it was the discovery of new continents; in the seventeenth questions of science challenged great minds; while in the eighteenth equality was the great idea that gripped energetic individuals.

Echoed across history he has already listened to a widespread contemporary concern to live less self-centered existences; or in harmony with all the earth’s creatures; or “a quest for beauty, and its appreciation in many forms.” But the great idea of our time remains elusive during an epoch when more people than ever seek a purpose to their lives, and where dominant corporations offer scant reward for skill and artistry, preferring instead a form of ‘teamwork’ where orders are taken from on high.

Later in the book Zeldin considers that giving new meaning to work could be the great adventure of our time: “so that it is more than the exercise of a valued skill, more than the enjoyment of collaboration with others, more than a price that has to be paid in search of security and status, means using work to redefine freedom.” Zeldin is calling for a subtle but far-reaching evolution. Quite what this “freedom” is not explicit but he favours the more haphazard arrangements that once obtained to the formality in most work environments today. The latter sees individuals carry masks into their daily lives.

He traces the origins of the companies that now dominate the world’s resources, recalling how for over a century between 1720 and 1825 in England, during an era of seismic development, it was a criminal offence to start a company. He draws attention to how in the United States until the nineteenth century there were two competing ideas regarding the purpose of companies: the first were those with charters restricted to the pursuit of objectives in the public interest such as canal building; the other regime issued charters of a general character allowing companies to engage in whatever business proved profitable. The latter category remains the dominant form, divorced from responsibility for fellow-citizens, it has carried all before it.

Zeldin quotes Adam Smith, the founding father of modern economics, who predicted that the tedium of performing monotonous work renders an individual: “stupid and narrow-minded. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in rational conversation, but of conceiving generous, noble or tender sentiment; and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning even the ordinary duties of private life.” History certainly shows how many individuals have risen above their lot as unskilled workers, nonetheless a life of unceasing monotony can have disastrous effects. But one wonders whether there ever was, or can be, a fabled ‘New Jerusalem’ or ‘Holy City of Byzantium’ where physical work and mental engagement attain a balance; an artisan creativity inhabiting all fields. Of course that elusiveness should not stop us striving towards it.

It is apparent that multinationals such as Ikea and Walmart, biographies of whose founders (Ingvar Kampard and Sam Walton respectively) he explores, have gobbled up huge numbers of smaller enterprises. Zeldin found that before the nineteenth century villages and towns contained multiple businesses which demanded a wide variety of skills rather than the narrow specialisation that bedevils contemporary life. Peasants found many outlets outside of the season of the harvest. He argues that: “Without a Reformation of Work the wonderful aspirations of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity cannot grow to more than an incomplete slogan.” Many workers now lack a sense of fulfillment in their jobs, their real passions and talents not recognized and nurtured by remote employers.

The book has chapters with surprising questions such as “How many nations can one love at the same time?” and “Is ridicule the most important form of protest”. He provides short biographical accounts of a range of diverse characters: artists, businessmen, philosophers and scientists who have already sought answers to some of the questions that he pursues. At times these biographies might seem cursory but the breadth of his knowledge ranging across eras and continents allows what may seem broad brush history to form a vivid picture, and assuredly a guide to different forms of life.

Albert Einstein was among those who bemoaned the dominance of specialization in his field. He decried how it is “providing an ever-widening gulf between the intellectual worker and the non-specialist”; even going so far as to joke that “since the mathematicians have invaded the theory of relativity I do not understand it myself anymore”.

Zeldin himself argues that: “Specialisation has been responsible for innumerable improvements in skill and knowledge, but it now only bears fruit when it is pollinated by seemingly unconnected visitors from other specialities and when it can escape from being paralysed by bureaucratic medication.” He disparages the legacy of a century of academic growth: “I did not foresee, however, nor did anyone else, the huge cloud of ignorance that the explosion of university education would spread across the world.’ Insightfully he writes: “every time I want an answer to some questions … I risk being buried under a torrent of responses, a hurricane of facts never imagined before, and an onslaught of ever-more ingenious explanations, each from a different point of view. The more information there is, the more ignorance there is.” He seems convinced that most academics have lost sight of the big picture.

The author provides an interesting analysis on the history of the hotel trade. He argues that this sector could become “a significant force in promoting a better understanding of enigmatic strangers and mysterious neighbours”. But these institutions have changed considerably since the nineteenth century when in most parts of the world meals were served at communal tables. That was until Ellsworth Milton Statler (1863-1928) began to offer “a bed and a bath for a dollar and a half,” and standardized the experience in the way Henry Ford did cars. The hospitality industry was born.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic Cesar Ritz was building imitation palaces as hotels that parodied aristocratic rituals of ostentatious opulence for newly ascendant bourgeoisie. The cumulative result is over-priced and impersonal institutions rapidly reaching obsolescence. Unsurprisingly, many people choose the more social and often cheaper experience of Airbnb, or even couch surfing.

As part of his research into the Future of Work, Zeldin examined the experience of hotel workers and guests. Fascinatingly, in light of the recent terrorist attack, one of the hotels he researched was in Tunisia. He found that “In a Tunisian seaside resort, most hotel guests on holidays were too exhausted by their jobs to want to do anything more than rest, and never spoke to the locals; they went back knowing very little about the country they had visited, while the locals who cleaned their rooms and served their meals felt insulted by their lack of interest.” Unfortunately, one local took it into his head to respond to insult with injury. It is a depressing thought that cheap air travel only seems to accentuate differences between cultures.

It is obvious that we need to develop new economic models that allow greater human flourishing and exert less demands on the environment. Zeldin’s book is an important contribution to these debates, especially his critique of corporate culture and the ‘management science’ that guides its leaders. Perhaps one failing of the book is that it tries to do too much: exploring important questions such as gender relations and the capacity for religions to change dilutes its core enquiry into the evolution of work practices and their possible reform.

Finally, Zeldin’s draws an interesting analogy between the importance of human connections and the cells in our bodies billions of which die and are replaced inside our bodies every day: “They are born with a capacity for suicide, which they trigger when they fail to exchange signals with their neighbours; they survive when they succeed in combining with other cells to produce something more than themselves. Cells are constantly transforming themselves, and the proteins in them adapt to the other proteins around them, like dancers joining a ballet.” Humans flourish through social interaction and revelation. Working life should nurture this but often it has the opposite effect. Political rights conferring freedom are of little relevance if individuals are not free in themselves. A revolution in how we work, as well as the economic system that underpins it, is overdue.