Thursday, November 18, 2010

Five books on who terrorists are

Jessica Stern is the author of Denial: A Memoir of Terror, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, and The Ultimate Terrorists.

With Daisy Banks at FiveBooks, Stern discussed five books about who terrorists are, including:
The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

I am intrigued by your next choice, which was one of the three works of literature most cited in the American media two weeks after 9/11 and yet it is set in London in 1886. This is The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad.

Yes, I thought I was being clever and unique and didn’t realise so many other people had made the connection. The book is based on an incident that actually did occur when an anarchist tried to blow up the Royal Observatory. In the novel, a group of hapless anarchists are trying to incite a rebellion. Their main concern is that British society is too liberal and they want to demonstrate that this kind of thing can occur.

What I loved about this book is the cynicism that Conrad has in looking at the zealot. He makes clear that a person may start out as a true believer but over time they are doing work that they may or may not believe it. It is the silliness of zealotry that becomes really clear. Can bin Laden and his close circle of followers really believe that what they are doing is making the world a better place?

Where do you think al Qaeda has evolved to over all these years?

It’s ironic that the mission of this organisation shifts so regularly and is so highly dependent on the audience they are trying to reach that you do question the extent to which bin Laden believes his own rhetoric. Bin Laden started out with the goal of forcing Soviet troops out of Afghanistan. Next he aimed to force US troops out of Saudi Arabia. Next he claims to be representing the interests of all the world’s oppressed. At one point Zawahiri tried recruiting African-Americans with messages referring to Malcolm X. Now al Qaeda claims to be fighting global warming and is urging followers to help those suffering from the floods in Pakistan.

So you think al Qaeda has gone too far in trying to be all things to all people?

Yes, I do.
The Secret Agent also appears among Adam Thorpe's top ten satires and on John Mullan's list of ten of the best professors in literature.

Read about the other books on Stern's list.

--Marshal Zeringue