24 January 2012
I purchased a copy of the original hardcover version of this book on 8 November 2006. I can be so precise because I have just visited the Amazon.co.uk website to look for the short review that I wrote after reading it and the website tells me that was the date when I bought it! Unfortunately the review itself is no longer on the site. However I recall having written that there were no factual errors in the book apart from transposing the greater and lesser jihad, which I also discuss below.
Opinions about this book are very polarised. I have met Muslims who, because of this book, regard Mr Gove as if he were the devil incarnate. Conversely when I joined Conservative Friends of Israel, I was given a free paperback copy.
Accordingly I decided to revisit the paperback version (published in 2007) to see what the fuss was about, as my memory of the hardback version had faded over time.
Before the numbered chapters, Mr Gove begins with an introduction. The vivid title is obviously an adaptation of Bill Clinton's famous sticker "It's the economy stupid" that he kept in his campaign bus in 1992 to remind him of the issue that he should always focus on when campaigning. I have used the phrase myself, both on television and in my website piece “Preventing people becoming terrorists”. I suspect that I invented it for myself, based on the Bill Clinton original, although it is of course possible that my memory might have retained it from reading the hardback version.
On the first page, Mr Gove reminds us:
"But in all the debate about how Islam finds its way in the modern world, a crucial distinction is in danger of being lost. This book has sought to make that distinction clear, and underlining its importance. The distinction is the difference between Islam, the great historic faith which has brought spiritual nourishment to millions, and Islamism, the specifically twentieth-century ideology which twists the religious impulse into submission to a new totalitarianism."
As explained elsewhere on this website, in my pieces “Time to retire Islamism?” and “Why we need to stop using the word ‘Islamism’” I dislike the word "Islamism". At its simplest many Muslims unfortunately only hear or see the first five letters when Islamism is criticised or attacked. I suspect that many of the Muslims who have negative views of Mr Gove fail to adequately distinguish his criticism of Islamism from a criticism of Islam.
Mr Gove goes on to remind us that on 10 August 2006 a terrorist conspiracy to blow up many airliners (using liquid bombs, the reason there are now controls over passengers carrying liquids) was disrupted and revealed.
"The very next day a coalition of influential British Muslims sent an open letter to the Prime Minister blaming his foreign policy for offering 'ammunition to extremists' and putting British lives 'at increased risk'. The signatories included three Labour MPs, the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain. They argued that Mr Blair had to 'change our foreign policy to show the world that we value the lives of civilians wherever they live and whatever their religion. Such a move would make us all safer.'
Twenty-four hours after British nationals had been arrested for plotting the mass murder of their fellow citizens, and the man the Muslim Council of Britain places in the dock is the Prime Minister. While the rest of the country was struggling to come to terms with the enormity of what had been planned the Muslim Association of Britain already knew where the moral culpability lay – with a government arrogant enough to believe in supporting democracy against terror."
In 11 chapters, Mr Gove explains the origin of the problem as he sees it, before giving his recommendation for the way forward. In this short review it is not practical to summarise the book but there are some points I would like to mention. The headings below are chapter headings from the book.
Mr Gove begins by reminding us of the 7 July 2005 London bombings and 9/11. He writes extremely vividly although sometimes gets carried away, for example in the closing sentence of this chapter:
"The world in which young men who graduate from Leeds Metropolitan University make it their ambition to become mass murderers, and students of town planning from Hamburg University dream of dying with the screams of airline passengers in their ears as they pilot hundreds of tonnes of molten steel into an office building, is a world we must remake."
I entirely share Mr Gove's sentiments as expressed in the above sentence. However the chartered accountant and pedant in me cannot resist pointing out that the aeroplanes were not "molten" at the point at which they were flying into the office building, and furthermore aeroplanes are primarily made from aluminium rather than steel.
I have laboured this point because it illustrates Mr Gove's use of English. As a former journalist he writes extremely clear text, very well, but is perhaps too focused on exciting the reader.
Mr Gove reminds us of the many terrorist outrages before 9/11. He makes the key point:
"Islamism is not Islam in arms; it is a political creed that perverts Islam, just as fascism degrades nationalism and Communism betrayed socialism."
Mr Gove reminds us that Islamism is essentially a twentieth-century phenomenon and gives us a brief introduction to its three main thinkers, the Egyptians Hassan Al Banna and Sayyid Qutb and the Pakistani Abul Ala Mawdudi. I have not read their work, although for several years an unread copy of Sayyid Qutb’s “Milestones” has gathered dust on my bookshelf. However what I have read in secondary sources suggests that Mr Gove's narration of their views is reasonably accurate.
In these three chapters Mr Gove sets out his views on Israel which are very supportive and no doubt the reason why Conservative Friends of Israel gives new members a free copy of the book.
His most powerful point is that many people get extremely concerned about the alleged wrongdoings of Israel while being almost silent about many other wrongs elsewhere in the world which are by any objective measure much worse than what Israel is accused of.
In this chapter Mr Gove covers what he regards as three particular errors that have characterised Britain's mistaken approach to the Islamist threat:
"The first has been the willingness to extend a 'covenant of security' to known Islamist activists within the UK.
The second has been the determined playing down of the Islamist terror threat. Instead of recognising the scale of the challenge mounted by political Islam, the British state persisted for years in believing that those who posed a direct danger to the country were a tiny renegade minority with no important connection to a broader ideological network.
The third has been the failure to scrutinise, monitor or check the actions, funding and operation of those committed to spreading the Islamist word within Britain."
Mr Gove then goes on to discuss specific situations including Abu Qatada who the government, many years later, is still trying to deport from the UK.
This chapter summarises his assessment of the problem:
"Even among those Muslims who are economically more successful, or more visibly integrated into the patterns of the rest of British life, there may be a sense of guilt at 'leaving behind' traditional patterns of life in order to succeed on Western terms.
Radical Islam and its advocates have become adept at playing on these feelings of separation, alienation and anxiety. Islamists will tell their listeners that yes, they are different. And so they should be. Islam sets them apart. They are possessors of a superior revelation that places them not just at a distance from, but above, the rest of British society. Western society is antagonistic to Islam, as all rotten and decadent societies are antagonistic to movements that threaten their assumptions. And that is why Muslims suffer prejudice, or discrimination. It is because the West is trying to put them down, along with their faith. Muslim uncertainties and anxieties spring from attempts to live by Western rules, which are not just rigged against them, but harmful to the soul."
This is an excellent concise summary of the way that the message of radical Islam is often presented. The message "Radical Islam" promulgates is of course utter rubbish, most simply refuted by looking at the growing numbers of Muslims who can be found rising in all parts of British society, such as politics, sport, the media, finance, the professions and corporate life. Unfortunately there are too many gullible Muslims, usually young, who can still be taken in by such nonsense.
The greater and lesser jihad
In my review of the hardback copy of “Celsius 7/7” I pointed out that Mr Gove had mistakenly transposed the greater and lesser jihad. I was basing this on the hadith (saying of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) widely quoted by Muslims: “When returning from the Hunayn expedition, the Prophet had declared "We are back from the lesser Jihad (effort, resistance, struggle for reform) to the greater Jihad." A Companion asked "What is the greater Jihad, Messenger of God?" He answered: "It is fighting the self (the ego, inner struggle of the soul, Jihad against one's self)."
For this new review, I wanted to give a citation. Tariq Ramadan reports this Hadith in 'The Messenger: The Meanings of the Life of Muhammad', as a "Hadith reported by al-Bayhaqi". However, the validity of the hadith, and the underlying concept, is hotly disputed on the internet. There are two broad camps:
I have given the above descriptions rather than other more common descriptions which are often regarded as pejorative. I share the views of Camp B. I have given just three citations below to illustrate the divergent views.
The views of this camp are summarised in the Islamic Awakening forum. To condense some extensive coverage, they regard the hadith quoted as invalid, quoting for example:
“Ibn Taiymiyyah said in Al-Furqan PP. 44-45: "This hadith has no sources and nobody whomsoever in the field of Islamic knowledge has narrated it. Jihad against the disbelievers is the most noble of actions and moreover it is the most important action for the mankind."”
Essentially this camp believes that there is only one type of jihad, which is fighting.
“The lesser jihad is not restricted to battlefronts, for this would narrow its horizon considerably. In fact, the lesser jihad has such a broad meaning and application that sometimes a word or silence, a frown or a smile, leaving or entering an assembly—in short, everything done for God's sake—and regulating love and anger according to His approval is included. In this way, all efforts made to reform society and people are part of jihad, as is every effort made for your family, relatives, neighbors, and region.
In a sense, the lesser jihad is material. The greater jihad, however, is conducted on the spiritual front, for it is our struggle with our inner world and carnal soul (nafs). When both of these jihads have been carried out successfully, the desired balance is established. If one is missing, the balance is destroyed.”
I was also struck by the discussion on the Sunnah.org website.
This chapter concludes with the only specific error that I noted in the book when I first read it:
"The call being issued was for purity, and purification, personal internal reform and external political change, the lesser and the greater jihad."
I suspect that Mr Gove's categorisation in the quote above is based on his own personal views rather than checking with Islamic sources. My review on Amazon.co.uk was quite short and religious citations were not needed. However for this review I decided to validate the common saying amongst Muslims that self-purification is the greater jihad. As indicated in the side panel, as with many religious questions the answer is not as simple as one would first expect.
The closing chapter states that the threat faced by the West has many similarities to the threat once posed by communism, but also obvious differences.
"There are, of course, many differences between the threat we faced from communist totalitarianism and the challenge posed by Islamism. There are no Islamic armoured divisions ready to strike through the Fulda Gap at a moment’s notice. Instead we face a daily threat of terrorist violence from an enemy prepared to strike without notice or warning, to slaughter without limit.
Given the scale of the challenge we face, the response required has to be similarly broad, thoughtful and, above all, resilient."
There is nothing to disagree with above. As the book was written while the aftermath of the Iraq invasion still dominated the news, much of the chapter deals with an assessment of what had happened in Iraq and whether it had been successful.
Mr Gove goes on to emphasise the importance of spreading democracy in the Middle East, something I support entirely. He points out that democracy "…is the best solvent yet devised for Islamism." Even though the Arab spring has currently led to Islamist governments in Tunisia and Egypt, I believe that Mr Gove’s proposition will be proved valid as the exigencies of having to run a government will inject some realism into the Islamic parties concerned, just as it has elsewhere. Otherwise they will be voted out of office in the next elections.
Mr Gove concludes:
"More broadly, we also need to rediscover and reproclaim faith in our common values. We need an ideological effort to move away from moral relativism and towards moral clarity, as well as a commitment to build a truly inclusive model of British citizenship in which divisive separatist identities are challenged, and rejected.
If we choose this path sensitivities will be offended, special interests upset and powerful voices raised in opposition. But unless we show that we are serious about defeating the forces that have encouraged Islamist terrorism, then Islamist terrorists will have many opportunities in the future to prove just how serious they are about using force to defeat us."
In my view Mr Gove is correct. The key requirement is to defeat the ideology that inspires the terrorists and that requires emphasising those values which make us all common British citizens rather than emphasising those features which might otherwise divide us into separate isolated communities.
As a former journalist, Mr Gove writes extremely well. His style is never dull and the reader is pulled along. Unfortunately the short length of the book (138 pages in the paperback version excluding notes) and the vast area covered allows no scope for nuance. Everything is painted in black and white whereas in the real world Islamists come in many shades of grey with Osama bin Laden at one end of the spectrum and fully democratic political parties which draw their inspiration from Islam (just as European Christian Democratic parties draw their inspiration from Christianity) at the other end of the spectrum.
Given Mr Gove's comments about Israel, it is easy to see why Conservative Friends of Israel are enthusiastic about the book. Conversely there are many Muslims in this country who are intellectual disciples of Hassan Al Banna and Abul Ala Mawdudi. It is no surprise that they object to Mr Gove's criticism of those thinkers. Hence the polarised opinions about the book!
With the passage of time, as with all books that focus on contemporaneous events, "Celsius 7/7" is slowly fading into history. As I wrote in my piece “Reflections on 9/11” I believe that Al Qaeda's time has passed and the threat of Islamist terrorism is slowly fading away. However as we have seen with the many bombings carried out by Boko Haram in Nigeria, the ideology concerned still retains the power to inspire mass murder. It is not enough for Muslims to condemn such acts of terrorism; they also need to condemn the underlying ideology and declare it to be utterly un-Islamic in the way that Shaykh-ul-Islam Dr Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri has done with his “Fatwa on Terrorism and Suicide Bombings".