We live in a period of such mounting Islamophobia that it became possible for Rush Limbaugh, one of the most venomous right-wingers in the US, to make common cause with Global Research, a website that describes itself as a ‘major news source on the New World Order and Washington’s “war on terrorism”’. Not long after the Sarin gas attack on the people of East Ghouta, Global Research became a hub of pro-Ba’athist propaganda blaming ‘jihadists’ for a ‘false flag’ operation. Limbaugh, who claims that there is no such thing as a ‘moderate Muslim’, touted a Global Research ‘false flag’ article on his radio show demonstrating that when it comes to Islamophobia the left and right can easily join hands.

Therefore the arrival of Akbar Ahmed’s The Thistle and the Drone is most auspicious. It puts a human face on the most vilified segment of the world’s population, the ‘extremist’ with his sharia courts, his ‘backwardness’, his violence, and his resistance to modernisation. The central goal of Ahmed’s study is to subject the accepted wisdom of the punditry on both the left and right, which often descends into Limbaugh-style stereotyping, to a critique based on his long experience as an administrator in Waziristan, a hotbed of Islamic tribal ‘extremism’ and as a trained anthropologist. Reading The Thistle and the Drone can only be described as opening a window and letting fresh air and sunlight into a dank and fetid sickroom.

Akbar Ahmed, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, Brookings Institution, Washington, DC, 2013.

The drone in the title needs no explanation, except for Ahmed’s pointed reference to Obama wisecracking at a press conference. If the Jonas Brothers, a pop music sensation, got too close to his daughters at a White House visit, he had two words for them: ‘predator drone’. The thistle requires more explanation. We learn that this is a reference to a passage in Tolstoy’s neglected novel ‘Hadji Murat’ that takes the side of a Muslim tribal leader against the Czarist military campaign to stamp out resistance to Great Russian domination. Considering Putin’s genocidal war on the Chechens and his support for Bashar al-Assad’s onslaught against his own countrymen, not much has changed since the nineteenth century. The narrator in Tolstoy’s novel attempted to pluck a thistle for its beauty but was ultimately thwarted by its prickly stalk, a perfect metaphor for the experience of trying to subdue proud and independent peoples living in inhospitable desert or mountainous regions.

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