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A scholar who dares to look terror in the face

Douglas Murray talks to the historian Michael Burleigh about his new book on the culture of terrorism and the West’s craven reluctance to confront the nature of the threat

20 February 2008

12:00 AM

20 February 2008

12:00 AM

Michael Burleigh is riding a career high. The author of the 2000 bestseller The Third Reich: A New History has just published the last of a gargantuan trilogy of books on religion and politics in Europe since the French revolution. Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes took us up to the war on terror. Now, with Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism, Burleigh comes right up to date. Not that Blood and Rage is only about Islamic fundamentalism. As the 52-year-old former academic tells me when we meet at his home in south London, the new book is about terrorism as a culture — as a way of life, and death.

‘I wrote Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes because I was confronted by the prospect before I left academia of spending the rest of my life writing books on Nazi Germany and the second world war, and this was such a grim prospect for me. In a way 9/11 forced us [all] to think about the wider world.

‘The two religion books are in a sense my trying to look at what I think is a very neglected area of modern European history. Most historians are secular. They think there is just an onward march to universal secularity… The thing about the arrival of radical Islam in our midst is that it’s like a sort of sudden traffic-stop to people who think, “Oh well, we’re all going to get more and more secular and we’ll reduce these people to the same level of accepting all the tenets of liberalism”. And suddenly bang, that hasn’t worked out, that’s not the case. So now we have this terrific problem of how societies which understand themselves as becoming ineluctably more secular and more liberal, how they will deal with people for whom very strong religious belief is part of it.’

But what links terrorist organisations across the decades? Nineteenth-century Fenianism, Russian Nihilism, the Baader-Meinhof brigades?

‘Undemocratic minorities, whether in dem-ocracies or in other systems,’ says Burleigh as he lights another cigarette. ‘Twenty-five members of the Baader-Meinhof group wanted to overthrow German capitalism. Well 25 people is not a great democratic caucus, so therefore they resorted obviously to extreme political violence. I wanted to look at these particular groups in various historical contexts and to look at the mindset of why people join them, how the dynamics of the group operate psychologically — that terrorism can become almost a way of life — and particularly to focus on the thing that everybody seems to slightly neglect, which is that the main thing they do is to kill people… I think it’s quite important to establish that and also maybe to say look, there are some terrorists that you can negotiate with… there are demands you can make which at least might diminish the support they might have within given communities, and there are other people whose objectives are completely insane. I mean, we’re not going to abolish Western civilisation on behalf of the jihadists.’

Few of his cultural-cringing contemporaries would make the point which Burleigh then does: ‘The point of the book is that there has been so much public discussion about what the West did right and did wrong in Iraq and we can all legitimately have arguments about that, but the danger of that is that you move away from the fact that the terrorists are the problem.’

Herein lies the rather obvious reason why such a supremely sane mind as Michael Burleigh’s no longer inhabits academia.

‘I’m not going back. I got very fed up with the culture in Humanities departments. If you get into a fight with these people, the lefty university, you’re going to crack up in one way or another, your health will go or you’ll go crazy.

‘I think it’s really interesting about Rowan Williams, who is sort of clever-stupid as the Americans say — an idiot-savant… He reminds me of many first-year graduate students I’ve taught in 20 years… They thought that the more obscure it was, the more clever it must be. What [Williams] needs is a good sub-editor saying, “Tell me in 500 words, Archbishop, what you mean.” I thought it was very revealing that so many critics said he should go back to the universities, where that sort of elliptical crap goes down fine.’

Burleigh’s warm and likeable manner belies a man who has now shown himself more capable than perhaps any contemporary historian of plumbing the depths of the narcissism, wildly misconceived altruism, youth, envy, mental and sexual dysfunctionalism, will to destruction and utopian absurdity which unite terrorists’ actions. As a historian of the present he derides the present government’s unwillingness even to describe our current terrorist threat. Calling the Home Secretary’s recent directive on how to describe jihadi violence ‘the height of absurdity’, Burleigh sighs, ‘This bizarre notion of anti-Islamic extremism [is] utterly absurd because both the government and the news media would have no trouble saying that two tribal gangs clashed in a Soho restaurant and chopped each other up with hatchets. That wouldn’t be a problem. Certainly nobody has got a problem with identifying the fact that here in south London Afro-Caribbeans are involved in gun crime. I don’t think anybody, including the Afro-Caribbeans, is denying that or being upset by it. So why are we pussyfooting around the fact of who is putting bombs in our subway system, and to call it anti-Islamic?’

Despite spending so much time mired in the terrorist mind, Burleigh comes up with some surprisingly hopeful conclusions. Terrorism as a tactic is, he declares, bound to fail. And as the recent death of Imad Mugniyeh shows, we’re certain to get bin Laden in the end.

But we can’t win a war against terrorism, he says, because ‘fighting terrorism is analogous to dealing with cancer. Cancer isn’t going to go away and nor is this.’ But the specific problem of Islamist terror? Can we beat that?

‘I think you can do. I think there are preventive strategies. There are things to build up your immunity or society’s immunity in this case. And I think there are a whole set of different tools in the toolkit which you can bring to bear, both domestically and internationally. I think Angela Merkel was quite right when she said Germany’s frontiers are now on the Hindu Kush.’

Reading Burleigh’s recent work I realised that here, with little fanfare, a supreme conservative-minded historian has completed a trilogy which stands as a resounding technical and moral rebuke to the Hobsbawms and Perry Andersons of his profession — a riveting history of political and religious ideology on our continent over more than two centuries.

As we finish he cites a startling confession by a former German terrorist on his murderous heyday: ‘We read a lot of books which we half understood.’ Anyone who reads Michael Burleigh could not be at such a disadvantage.

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