- The Losing Battle with Islam
Listed as an historian of ideas at Ruskin College, Oxford University and a free-lance journalist, Selbourne has written this dense, rambling book more as the journalist than the historian. As one who specializes in modern Middle East history and contemporary issues, I can attest that many of the events Selbourne mentions did occur, but he provides no footnotes, sources, or historical context for any incident. Instead, Selbourne wrote the book from "an archive of materials" that he began collecting in the mid-1980s (p. 9). These materials (press and television commentary, speeches, etc.) dealt with developments in the Islamic world and the manner in which the non-Muslim world responded to and depicted these developments. Selbourne excludes scholarship from his sources. The result is a highly personal interpretation of Islam and the West based on Selbourne's personal "archival" collection.
Selbourne's presentation resembles the "kitchen-sink" approach. The details have overwhelmed the author and his analysis, which is highly illogical at times. His examples focus almost exclusively on events or practices that might be judged prejudicial to Islam, honor killings of daughters or wives, terrorism, and the like. But Selbourne presents no examples of inaccurate or sensationalized reportage of such incidents despite the fact that he considers the danger to the West to lie in the tone of Western commentary on Islam and Muslims, the condescension toward and condemnation of Islam as such for the practices of some of its believers.
Selbourne sees a symbiotic relationship between extremist Islam and the Western press and media that covers and reports horrific events. For him, extremist Muslims seek to have the non-Muslim world become aware of the horrors being done, and to have a negative image of Islam and Muslims created [End Page 196] in the non-Muslim world. In Selbourne's words, "For them [extremist Muslims] as for Western news editors, the more abhorrence the better. Here as in many other aspects of this Third World War, extreme interests coincide (p. 48)." This creates a "de facto alliance between Islamism and a media eager for disastrous events" that horrifies Muslims opposed to Islamist goals of restoration of, to them, an intolerant Islamic society governed by religious law, shariah. This alliance between extremist Islam and the Western media is presumably Selbourne's key insight, though he has no evidence to prove it.
One will note from this quote that Selbourne believes that World War III has been underway for some time, in his view since the aftermath of World War II. This is a war between the Arab world's desire for independence from Western imperial rule after 1945, which has transformed itself into a Muslim struggle against Western cultural values, and perceived ongoing efforts to impose Western power over the Middle East, personified by but not solely restricted to the creation of Israel. Here Selbourne conflates Arab nationalism and Islamism when in fact the two were opposed to each other following World War II. It is a major weakness of the book that such historical incomprehension rules the narrative structure despite the fact that the bulk of the discussion focuses on presenting negative images of Islam.
When Selbourne comes to Israel and the Palestinians in a separate chapter, "Israel and Jews," he attempts the same approach. Misrepresentation of the events surrounding the creation of Israel and what followed have been committed by propagandists on both sides. Israel and Jews are seen as exceptional both in their own eyes and by others, but with different implications—either justifying the right to statehood in light of the Holocaust or opposing it because Zionism necessarily meant the displacement of Palestinians going back to the Balfour Declaration. Similarly, what is held to be true by an Israeli or by a Palestinian is deemed to be false by the other (p. 173). Here again the media and its zest for exaggeration serve extremism, leaving the sincere search for common ground and agreement in the dust: "On the barricades the falsehoods of one side serve the...