Academic troops shore up the information front in war on terror

May 17, 2002

The desire to understand the events of 9/11 has been a commercial boon for scholarly works from specialist presses, writes Karen Gold.

In the summer of 2001, when New York's twin towers seemed to stand invincible, terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna telephoned his publisher. Should he, he wondered, add an extra chapter to the draft of his book on terrorist organisations such as the IRA and Tamil Tigers? Might people want to read about a group of shadowy Muslim militants called al-Qaida?

It was not a tough question for Michael Dwyer, director of Africa, Asia and Middle East specialist publisher C. Hurst and Co. "I said don't bother. Al-Qaida wasn't well known, and it was so nebulous. I thought it would just muddy the waters."

And that was that - until about September 13, when Dwyer stopped kicking himself long enough to reach for the phone. Gunaratna's general book was thrust onto the back burner. Instead, the former principal anti-terrorism investigator for the United Nations, now research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrews University, had six months not only to write up ten years' research on al-Qaida in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Soviet Central Asia, but also to incorporate a mass of new material that was emerging daily.

Inside al-Qaeda: Global Network of Terror, with a US first print-run of 20,000 and with French, Dutch and Asian publishers already bidding for translation rights, will be published next week. It is a quite different book from what Gunaratna would have written before September 11. "Before 9/11," he says, "a lot of the information in the book would have been classified. Since 9/11, there has been unprecedented security and intelligence cooperation. People want to share information, so we can do long-term threat assessment. I have visited Algeria, Indonesia, Singapore - places where al-Qaida is operating. I have spoken to governments, to intelligence officers, to police interrogators, to al-Qaida members in custody. We know two or three times as much as we did before."

Like many academics caught up in the September 11 fallout, Gunaratna has not only written a different book but also begun a different life. For three months last year, the St Andrews centre was besieged by the media. Phones had to be taken off the hook. Journalists from newspapers, magazines, television and radio beat a path to academics' doors, begging them to explain the cascade of unknown events, people and places. And publishing houses were close behind.

First off the mark in the UK was Fred Halliday, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, who offered his publisher, Saqi Books, a mix of already-written academic and press articles and new work within days. Two Hours that Shook the World came out in late November, sold 9,000 copies, and was translated into Arabic and serialised in a London-based Arabic newspaper by mid-December.

Unsurprisingly, a stream of other books has followed. Some are new. Over the next few months we will see works by prominent academics on Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Islamic fundamentalism, as well as Afghanistan and the Taliban. But old books have also been popping up in strange places and in unusual numbers. As soon as the impact of September 11 was realised, academic publishers scoured their backlists, says Tim Burton of Oxford University Press. OUP reprinted Malise Ruthven's short introduction to Islam and its four-volume Encyclopaedia of the Islamic World. It also shipped into the UK and US books published by its Pakistan and India offices that would never normally get an international readership.

At the same time, Cambridge University Press's Marigold Acland, commissioning editor for Middle Eastern, Asian and Islamic studies, was ordering updated editions of Charles Tripp's history of Iraq and Ira Lapidus's History of Islamic Societies, and a new history of Afghanistan.

The motive for all this is in part ruthlessly commercial: CUP's New York office, for example, has insisted that the Lapidus book be on the shelves by September 11 this year. Acland admits: "In a way, we are trying to cash inI by spending money updating and marketing the Tripp book, which is a wonderful and very important book, we are gambling on America invading Iraq." But, she insists, there is more to the dash for publication than that. "Academic presses have a mission here and can add something very singular to the debate, because they can give a perspective; they can interpret events in a measured and intelligent way."

Andre Gaspard of Saqi Books agrees. "Academics are the voice of reason. It's very important not just to have politicians and emotional voices discussing these matters. I don't say academics don't talk crap sometimes, but when George Bush is talking about crusades or kicking butt, it's very important for academics to be there to explain and reason and analyse."

Some people are reading academic books on these subjects for the first time because they want to hear new, reasoned arguments, Acland says. "There is a new market opening - particularly in the US, but also in Europe - of people who feel impelled to understand something they didn't think they needed to understand before."

And academics have a responsibility to explain it to them, says Oxford University's Middle East specialist Avi Shlaim: "It is what Edward Said has called the role of the public intellectual: our duty is not just to students and the academic community but also to the public. Like any international crisis, the current Middle East one has historical roots, and people need to know the background to make sense of what is going on."

In recent weeks, Noam Chomsky - who has written a chapter of Palgrave's Worlds in Collision, due out next month - has noted new audiences at his public lecturers in the US and a new readiness to hear different arguments about international relations. Shlaim says he too has noticed this. "There is more questioning of the official line now in the US, though they have a very long way to go. I have been asked to write a couple of articles by the International Herald Tribune about Ariel Sharon. They have been very hard-hitting, the kind of articles that would not previously have been published in an American paper, but because of the change in the political climate, they were commissioned and I wrote them, and they were published in January and in April."

Arguably the task of informing public debate can be done through journalism rather than through books and with world events moving so fast, it might be argued that these books' only future value will be to record academic instant analyses as they stood in 2002. Halliday disagrees: "I think one of the first responses we have all had is to reach for the freezer and see if there's anything in there ready-cooked that we can use. Now I think everybody is asking themselves 'what is the longer view?' Some of these issues will recede. For example, initially we were all asking what the implications were for the world economy, and the answer seems to be not much. But some of the other questions will remain: the relationship between Muslims and the West, the nature of American power, the nature of terrorism and anti-terrorism, the crucial question of what does an intelligent, thinking person in the East or West do about this phenomenon? I think all these are worth chipping away at now."

And they will remain so, says Ken Booth, who is professor of international relations at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and editor, with Tim Dunne, of Worlds in Collision. "The war against terrorism is going to be the defining paradigm for thinking about international politics for years to come. If the only superpower says this is the dominant agenda, then it is the dominant agenda, even if other people think it is not."

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