Recently we held the first meeting of Musselburgh Labour Party Book Club, snappy title I know – we are on the look out for a shorter name!
The idea of the Book Club was borne out of a discussion a couple of us had one day following a stall being cancelled due to bad weather.
We were talking about ways that we could have more political discussion in the branch and possibly another way to engage people in the party outwit the usual structure of a branch meeting.
So, having seen a piece on the intranet about the revived Left Book Club we thought we would give our own book club a try.
A book was identified The Age of Jihad by Patrick Cockburn and a date was set at our October branch meeting for the first meeting of our book group.
So, on a Thursday night in November 7 of us met, including 1 new member, at the house of our Branch Secretary to discuss the book.
Here’s what we thought…..
The Age of Jihad by Patrick Cockburn
About the Book
Patrick Cockburn writes for the Independent on the Middle East, his book takes the form of a diary starting in 2001 up to the present day.
The book starts in Afghanistan and concludes in Syria, in between it covers the conflicts that have taken place in Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain.
The book includes interviews with people living in these countries and includes testimonies from shopkeepers, soldiers, families and politicians.
What we Thought
Everyone thought this was an interesting and thought-provoking read.
We did not think that the author took a particularly partisan view about what was happening but let the interviews that he conducted set the scene.
The point was made by a couple of people in the group, that reading the book had reawakened an interest in what was happening in Syria, especially the current situation in Aleppo.
The book sets out in great detail the different factors at play in each of the conflicts that it looks at. Sometimes the conflicts are based on religion, other conflicts are related to tribal loyalty or national identity and at times all of these factors can combine.
In his introduction the author makes the point that ‘these are not black and white situations, good guy against bad.’
Another point that comes across in the book is that whilst the initial military action by the West won relatively easy victories and replaced dictators such as Gadaffi and Sadam Hussein, the aftermath and what might have been required to deliver many of the promises that were made before the conflicts began, such as delivering democracy and a better life for people, have been much harder to realise.
At several points in the book people indicate to the author that things in their view have become worse.
Towards the end of the book the comment is made ‘As the French Algerians used to say the only alternative is the suitcase or the coffin.’ This sums up the despair of some people about the current situation that they find themselves in.
One of the most harrowing examples of this sense of despair is described in the chapter called the Syrian Catastrophe.
In his diary entry for the 9th February 2014 the author tells the story of an Alawite family that lived near Damascus who’s town had been captured by Jihadi rebels. The family make a pledge that rather than face torture and death they will die as a family in their house by detonating a grenade, should it look inevitable that they will be captured.
The diary entry goes on to recount the events leading up to the brother taking a call from his sister, she tells him that the rebels are inside the house and then he hears an explosion on the other end of the phone.
There are other examples throughout the book of people being forced into heartbreaking decisions as they face the realities of the conflicts that they find themselves caught up in.
The latter chapters are taken up with the emergence of Isis.
These chapters underline the dilemmas faced by those seeking to oppose the expansion of Isis and the difficult choices they face in seeking to build an alliance to defeat them. This is highlighted in a section about the government in Baghdad having to consider the deployment of Shia paramilitaries, which the US views as being under Iranian influence and who the US did not want to see fighting in Sunni areas, however Baghdad would appear to have little choice but to do this.
The funding of Isis is also touched on in the chapter on the expansion of the Islamic State. Sir Richard Dearlove sets out that he has little doubt that funding has come through private donors in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The last chapter is the afterword where Patrick Cockburn puts the current conflicts in context referring back to 1914, the Ottoman Empire and other conflicts that have happened in Somalia and Chechnya.
Again the difficulty in describing what is happening in the Middle East and the reasons which lie behind these conflicts is referred to.
It is perhaps best summed up in the quote from Anthony Cordesman, a military expert for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington who states ‘one of the problems is that we keep trying to describe this (situation) as if it were black and white and what we are really watching again is three-dimensional chess with nine players and no rules.’
I think we all felt that this book has helped us appreciate some of what has happened these last few years across the Middle East.
The conflicts that we have seen on the news and that both the US and UK have been involved in are incredibly complex situations.
Since finishing this book Aleppo has been in the news every day and tonight a new ceasefire has been announced to allow Syrian civilians to evacuate.
We live in a time where we have access to more information than ever before through the internet and 24 hours news channels, this book underlines the importance of and how valuable it is to have journalists of the calibre of Patrick Cockburn reporting from the frontline and the voice that he gives to people trying to survive in situations which are all to horribly real, but unimaginable for many of us sitting at home where we have easy access to food, warmth and light.
If you want to understand what you see on your TV a little bit more, then I would urge you to read this book.