Peter Oborne

Crying in the wilderness

For 30 years Alastair Crooke was ostensibly a British diplomat working in Northern Ireland, South Africa, Columbia and Pakistan.

Crying in the wilderness
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Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution

Alastair Crooke

Pluto Press, pp. 288, £

For 30 years Alastair Crooke was ostensibly a British diplomat working in Northern Ireland, South Africa, Columbia and Pakistan. Ten years ago he became Middle East adviser to Javier Solana, playing an important role in negotiating ceasefires between Israel and Hamas, as well as helping to end the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in May 2002.

In the summer of that year an Israeli newspaper named Crooke as an agent for the Secret Intelligence Service, and shortly after he was recalled to London. It has been reported that his sympathy with the Palestine cause caused embarrassment to Tony Blair’s government. However, he soon returned to the Middle East to set up Conflicts Forum, a think tank which encourages engagement with Hamas, Hezbollah and other Islamist movements.

Resistance is Crooke’s first book and a work of first-rate importance. He invites the reader to look at Islamism — the creed of political Islam which lay at the heart of the Iranian revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon — in a fresh way.

Mainstream western intellectuals, politicians and journalists habitually denounce Islamism as nihilistic, beyond redemption and dedicated to the violent destruction of civilisation itself. The great strength of Crooke’s book is that he examines Islamism on its own terms: he argues that it embraces an entirely different understanding of humanity to the one that is available in the secular West.

He maintains that Islamism emphasises altruism, love for our fellow human beings and communal social structures in sharp contrast to the selfishness and materialism of modern Britain and America. This involves a radically different way of ‘thinking about thinking’, in contrast to what he denounces as ‘instrumentalist’ Western methods of thought. He argues that the 21st century-struggle between Islamism and the West is in certain respects a return to the battle between the universalist ambitions of the 16th-century papacy and protestantism, with its strong emphasis on individual rather than collective salvation.

Like the medieval papacy, Islamism places religion at the front of all political authority and does not acknowledge nation states. So Crooke adopts the highly contentious position that there is no real distinction between ‘legitimate’ state violence and the ‘terrorism’ practised by non-state actors such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

He argues that much of the hostility from the American Right against Islamism is faked, maintaining that the real target is really liberalism and that the Right is using an illusory Islamist menace to shore up central power and to attack independent institutions, individual freedoms and human rights.

While Crooke argues that Islamism is a positive and enlightened creed, he does not make the same case for the Salafi tradition of Islam of which al-Qua’eda is the most notorious manifestation. He sees the Salafist movements as being truly nihilist and (like the French Jacobins) seeking destruction for its own sake. Radical Salafism, writes Crooke, has concluded that ‘the structure of power relationships controlled by the West had to be destroyed’. He adds that, ‘Only when this was accomplished would an Islamic phoenix, a true Islamic society, purified from its subsequent impurities, emerge from the ashes.’ He demonstrates how al-Qua’eda is bitterly hostile to other Islamist movements: in Gaza, for example, al-Qua’eda has emerged as a menace to Hamas and proclaims that by taking part in elections it is selling out to the West.

The policy implications of this analysis are momentous. Crooke is effectively proposing that British and American governments have created the wrong dividing line in the Middle East. At present Britain and America draw a sharp distinction between so-called ‘moderate’ Islam, which is held to be acceptable and ‘Islamism’, which is beyond the pale. Crooke argues that the real dividing line is between Islamism and al-Qua’eda. Indeed he suggests that by refusing to talk to Hamas Britain and America are effectively bolstering al-Qua’eda.

There are weaknesses in this thought-provoking book. Crooke fails to allow apologists for Western capitalism such as Milton Friedman the sympathetic hearing he reserves for leading Islamist ideologists like Sayyid Qutb. His scepticism fails when dealing with critics of capitalism such as Naomi Klein, who is treated with a reverence she scarcely deserves. He does not engage sufficiently seriously with one of the most potent criticism of Islamism (or ‘Islamo-fascism’, as its more virulent critics like to call it), namely the difficulty in reconciling Islamist teaching with contemporary Western views on the rights of women and attitudes towards homosexuality.

Four hundred years ago an English author named Henry Stubbe wrote An Account of the Rise and Progress of Mahometanism: with the life of Mahomet and a Vindication of Him and his Religion from the Calumnies of the Christians. Crooke, though not an Arabist, stands in the tradition of Stubbe. As Stubbe (whose treatise was not published for several centuries) discovered, this is not always the route to popularity. Dean Godson of the Conservative think tank, Policy Exchange, has asserted that ‘Alastair Crooke’s indulgence of Hamas is a product of late-imperial British defeatism.’ More sensationally, The Spectator’s Melanie Phillips maintains that Crooke is guilty of ‘appeasement of genocidal terror’.

It is puzzling that Resistance has not been reviewed, so far as I can discover, in a single British newspaper. This is a pity because the arguments contained in this weighty, well-constructed and significant work cry out to be fully taken into account by Western policy-makers at a time of impending catastrophe in the Middle East.