Freedom’s laughter

Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash

Just went to a fascinating seminar with my wife on ‘teacher retention and recruitment’, part of this year’s Cambridge Festival.

No, fascinating it really was. There were perhaps a number of messages but one struck home. Those with long memories have seen every trend in education come, go, and come again.

We are apparently–hopefully– at ‘peak prescription’. That is, teachers are being told (prescribed) how to teach. Teachers who mentor early career teachers are (it is feared) being told how to mentor them, the right framework, the right steps.

Never mind that children are complex, teachers are complex, solutions are complex and based on a teacher’s own style and personality. The teaching force is being trained like an army, and delivering a lesson is taught like cleaning and assembling a rifle, this way, or the wrong way.

The panel of speakers were lamenting that joy and laughter was disappearing – the joy and laughter that had kept some of them in the classroom for 30 years. It’s a bad sign when the laughter dies away.

Next to me, I could sense my normally-calm wife stirring in agreement. (As P G Wodehouse might have said of Jeeves, the eyebrow was raised a full quarter-inch).

There were other complaints. Pay has diverged from graduate equivalents in the past handful of years – – ten years ago, that wasn’t a problem. Workload has eased but still teachers aren’t given the opportunity to learn, grow, take on board the current research, deepen their practice. Management needs improvement. An HR department might help.

But how many times do we have to go round this? Central control looks like a short-cut to widespread efficiency, but it stifles the creativity that makes teachers excel. Education is not the same as training. The very thing you want to unleash (flourishing in staff and students) is flattened and numbed by standardization and mechanization. The shortcut, the quick way, runs into the sand.

Then look at other pieces of our austerity-savaged public services. Junior doctors? Defence lawyers? Pay, conditions, space, respect. Saving money has cost us so much.

person wearing blue and black blazer holding bag
Photo by Godisable Jacob on Pexels.com

The slow-step of freedom

If you like to control things, you do not do well with freedom. You don’t have to look far to see this. You may see it in your workplace or even your home. We certainly see it in nations.

In some countries (Egypt, Pakistan, Eritrea, North Korea for example but even in these days, the New York City subway apparently), people call in the army to do non-military stuff. The army is efficient, or cheap, or a machine capable of being ordered around, people believe. And they like it for that reason.

In Egypt and Pakistan, generals, proper generals who have been exposed to army for a lifetime, and should know better, believe the army is efficient, so they give it jobs like building airports or retailing soap-powder. It is perhaps no surprise that these same generals also have the IMF Bailout Department on speed-dial.

I am a fan of freedom, but I am also my culture’s child. I like living in a country where you can say most things without a van turning up at your doorstep filled with people who mean you harm. I like the way people can start businesses without having to look over their shoulders in case the state (or the Party) seeks control or the army has already cornered that part of the market.

But is there an argument for freedom as a good thing in itself, a way to make a society prosper, despite freedom’s raucous and rowdy ways, so disturbing to the serenity of the autocrat’s pillow?

Michael Polanyi (1891-1976), whom I heard about because of Lesslie Newbigin, was a Hungarian polymath. After earning cojones as a scientist (two of his students and one of his sons won Nobel Prizes), he changed roles at the University of Manchester from Professor of Physical Chemistry to Professor of Social Studies. He was a Catholic Christian. And he started writing about freedom and knowledge.

One of the ways to get wonderful things to emerge, he wrote, though I paraphrase, is to:

  1. set some boundary conditions
  2. let free agents do their stuff, freely, within the boundaries set.

It is (I think) classic liberal economics. It is also (as Polanyi taught), the driver of great science:

S]cientists, freely making their own choice of problems and pursuing them in the light of their own personal judgment, are in fact co-operating as members of a closely knit organization.

Such self-co-ordination of independent initiatives leads to a joint result which is unpremeditated by any of those who bring it about.

Any attempt to organize the group … under a single authority would eliminate their independent initiatives, and thus reduce their joint effectiveness to that of the single person directing them from the centre. It would, in effect, paralyse their co-operation

Michael Polanyi quoted, yes, in Wikipedia, which sort of proves the point.

I like this, a lot, because it is a rationale for freedom, not just in economics or science, and a rationale that goes beyond the idea that freedom is generally a nice thing to have. It is, given good guardrails, the way to get human societies to thrive and flourish further and wider than any single individual is capable of imagining or delivering. Being a herd, rather than being led by a demogogue, is our superpower.

Freedom looks inefficient, and slow, and awkward, and a roundabout way of getting things done– particularly if you like the idea of being in control. But it is not nearly so inefficient as the army.

Compounding

Photo by Edward Howell on Unsplash

My grandad was disabled because, as an 18-year-old, a month or two before the Armistice in the first war, he was gassed. He ended up losing a lung. All his life he had a mighty cough, and he never slept lying down. I knew him and look like him and apparently act like him.

Possibly he would have praised the power of compounding that meant his life was easier than his father’s. My great-grandad was bedridden with gangrene, cared for by his wife, in a small house with few luxuries beyond a piano. (There were not enough chairs, for example, so my grandad ate his meals standing up as a child.)

The compounding wealth and compounding technology had meant my grandad had a job and a comfortable home, all supplied by the council, and electricity and water and TV and a pension and holidays. The boy who’d run down the street when someone said, ‘Look, a car!’, grew to be the old man who watched Neil Armstrong step on the moon, and he was amazed and grateful for it all.

My memory of him is seated in his chair, by the coal fire, books by his feet, reading, reading (though not when we grandchildren were around when his sense of fun gave full rein). He was a keen socialist, and a Methodist preacher, and he belonged to that era when town councils and public funds supplied things for the common good–like libraries and education–and socialism and the welfare state sort-of worked.

Two generations on and what has compounding achieving? Economic compounding means welfare benefits are more generous and people’s means are on average greater. Technological compounding means I have computers and the internet, an electric bike and electric buggy, a pacemaker in my chest that supplies the heartbeats I need. Today we test drove a new car and I’ve recently joined a gym, whose machines adjust themselves to me, work out a fitness scheme, and lead me into it. None of this is merited. I have just floated on the rising tide of compounding: other people making little steps to make things good or better, to do things well, repeated and repeated and repeated.

Surely this points to the power of quiet revolution, of patient progress, of slow purposefulness. This tide is rising all over the world, subverted constantly by evil, but rising, rising.

Carl Honore: ‘In praise of slow’

The slow philosophy is not about doing everything in tortoise mode. It’s less about the speed and more about investing the right amount of time and attention in the problem so that you can solve it. Carl Honoré

My wife pointed this quote to me, which reminded me I’d read Carl Honoré’s book In Praise of Slow many years ago. I’d forgotten; but it surely influenced me a lot.

I also found this interview with him, which I think is public domain, and indeed used in publicity for his book. So I hope it’s OK to reproduce it here.

Q&A with Carl

What is In Praise of Slow about?

It examines our compulsion to hurry and chronicles a global trend toward putting on the brakes. It is the unofficial handbook and bible of the Slow Movement. It is published in more than 30 languages and has been a bestseller in many countries. It was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week and the inaugural choice for the Huffington Post Book Club. It also featured in a British TV sitcom, Argentina’s version of Big Brother and a TV commercial for the Motorola tablet. The Financial Times said In Praise of Slow is “to the Slow Movement what Das Kapital is to communism.”

Is the Slow Movement anti-speed?

Of course not! I’m not an extremist of slowness. I love speed. But faster is not always better. Being Slow means doing everything at the correct speed: quickly, slowly or whatever pace works best. Slow means being present, living each moment fully, putting quality before quantity in everything from work and sex to food and parenting.

Has our obsession with speed has gone too far?

It’s reached the point of absurdity. You can now do courses in Speed Yoga or attend a Drive Thru Funeral. A magazine in Britain even published an article recently on how to bring about an orgasm in 30 seconds! So even in the bedroom it’s, “On your marks, get set, go!” Our speedaholism is out of control, and we all know it.

What inspired you to embrace Slow?

A personal wake-up call. When I caught myself admiring a book of one-minute bedtime stories (Snow White in 60 seconds!), I suddenly realised I was racing through my life instead of living it.

But if we slow down, surely life will pass us by?

On the contrary. Life is what’s happening right here, right now – and only by slowing down can you live it to the full. If you are always rushing, you only skim the surface of things.

How has slowing down changed your life?

Every moment of my day used to be a race against the clock. Now I never feel rushed any more. I do fewer things but I do them better and enjoy them more. I am healthier and have more energy. At work, I am much more productive and creative. I also have time for those little moments that bring meaning and joy to life – reading to my children, sharing a glass of wine with my wife, chatting with a friend, pausing to gaze at a beautiful sunset. I feel so much more alive now.

Why do we live so fast today?

Lots of reasons. Speed is fun, sexy, an adrenaline rush. It’s like a drug and we are addicted. At the same time, the world has become a giant buffet of things to do, consume, experience – and we rush to have it all. The modern workplace also pushes us to work faster and longer while technology encourages us to do everything faster and faster.

What is the main obstacle to slowing down in this fast world?

Fear. Thanks to the powerful taboo against slowness, even just thinking about slowing down makes us feel afraid, guilty or ashamed. Add to that the fear of being alone with our thoughts. Speed is often an instrument of denial, a way of avoiding deeper problems. Instead of facing up to what is going wrong in our lives, we distract ourselves with speed and busyness.

Slowing down can be the antidote to that. It allows us to reflect on the big questions: Who am I? What is my purpose? What sort of life should I be leading? How can I make the world a better place? Such questions can be uncomfortable but confronting them ultimately brings greater depth to our lives.

Is the Slow Movement also gaining ground in the workplace?

Very much so. Forward-thinking companies all over the world are looking for ways to help their staff slow down. By giving them more control over their schedules so they can work at their own pace, accelerating and decelerating when it suits them. By limiting working hours. Or by creating quiet spaces for doing yoga, massage or even take a short nap during the workday. The boom in meditation or mindfulness in the corporate world is another sign that business is waking up to the power and wisdom of slowing down. Not long ago the Economist magazine told its readers: “Forget frantic acceleration. Mastering the clock of business is about choosing when to be fast and when to be slow.” And that’s the Economist singing the praises of slowness in the workplace; it’s not Buddhist Monthly or Acupuncture Weekly!

What are the tell-tale symptoms of living too fast?

When you feel tired all the time and like you’re just going through the motions, getting through the many things on your To-Do list but not engaging with them deeply or enjoying them very much. You don’t remember things as vividly when you rush through them. You feel like you’re racing through your life instead of actually living it. Illnesses are often the body’s way of saying, “Enough already, slow down!”

What is the future of the Slow Movement?

The good news is that the Slow movement is growing fast! And as the world gets faster, the need for a counter-current of slowness will grow too. I feel more optimistic now than I did when In Praise of Slow first came out.

But what do you say to people who claim that the world will inevitably go on speeding up and that a Slow revolution is pie in the sky?

I say look at the history books. Take the rise of feminism. In the 60s, when feminists said the world was unjust and the moment for change had come, the mainstream reaction was: No, the world has always been this way. You can’t change it. Go back to the kitchen! But look at the world today. Obviously there is a long way to go to create a world of perfect gender equality, but a woman today could hardly imagine how severely life was limited for her grandmother. I look at my sister and my grandmother and marvel at the change in just two generations. And the green movement has followed a similar arc: it was dismissed as a plaything for hippies and tree-huggers thirty years ago but today is near the top of the political agenda. The message is that the world can change, if we want it to. For a cultural revolution to occur, you need three factors: the need for change; an awareness of the need for change; and people willing to put that change into practice. We now have all three factors in place for the Slow revolution to push on. I think the Slow movement is at the same point as feminism or green-ism was 30 or 40 years ago. We won’t change the world, or make it Slow, by next year. It will take time. The Slow revolution will be slow. But I believe it will happen.

What will a Slow world look like?

It will be a world that is healthy, happy and humane. But you have to realistic. I am no utopian. I am a skeptic by nature. I don’t believe we will ever create a world where everyone does everything at the right speed and no one ever feels rushed. That’s just a fantasy. The world is too complex and interconnected for that. It’s impossible in a world where we have to interact with others. Impatience is also part of being human. I suspect even the Dalai Lama rushes unnecessarily sometimes! Even I forget to slow down from time to time. I face a barrage of requests to give speeches, do interviews, etc from all over the world every day and it’s hard not to get caught up in the frenzy. But at least our starting point should be to seek the tempo giusto and to expect others to do so too.

What do you hope readers will take away from In Praise of Slow?

I hope that they will pause and reflect on how they lead their lives and how their lives affect the people and the world around them. I guess what I really want is for readers to grasp the very counter-cultural idea that the best way to survive and thrive in the fast-paced modern world is not to speed up but to slow down. And it seems to be working. Every day I open up my inbox and find a few emails from readers around the world who say the book has changed their lives. It’s exciting, and humbling.


My bookshop

I suspect this is the magnificent Toppings bookshop in Ely, Cambridgeshire, arguably the finest bookshop in the East. (And much better than my online effort.) Thanks to Phil Hearing on Unsplash

I’ve been busy for the last few months moving all my blogs to Substack — slowly, as it happens. Once it’s done I’ll let you know. Part of this involves putting all the books I’ve recommended over the years into my own bookshop at Bookshop.org. This site enables you to buy books by post much as you would through Amazon or someone, but a bit from each purchase goes to support independent bricks-and-mortar bookshops. (And some in theory comes to me.)

Creating your own bookshop with all the books that lit you up and changed how you think, or just were great, is the most enormous fun, like surrounding youself with old friends. My shop is still a work a progress but I thought you might like a sneako peeko.

Here’s my bookshop and here’s In Praise of Slow in my bookshop.

The quiet revolution in the churches (part 2)

Photo by Bikash Guragai on Unsplash

This is something fascinating going on in Britain (and, I suspect, in the rest of Europe and the Western world):

  • Society is relying more on the social contribution of churches
  • Church attendance is declining
  • Churches are discovering that social action, church growth and discipleship belong inextricably together, and together open the way forward for a season of fresh growth, relevance and impact for the Church.

It is a quiet, slow-burn, patient revolution, my favourite type. It is not centrally organized, but spontaneously has arisen all over the nation. It developed through a decade of austerity and was shocked into further action by the pandemic. I think in a career of observing church trends in the UK, it is the most encouraging thing I have ever seen. It builds on and with other trends in the UK that have moved the needle: the rise of beautiful worship; the flourishing of the alpha course; the development of church-planting churches, networks and movements. There is probably a bunch of dying that the Church still needs to do, but perhaps for the first time in a generation, or longer, there are railway tracks heading into a bright future, and the Church is riding on them.

Here’s a quote from a report produced by the Theos thinktank in 2020, just as the worst of the pandemic was being felt:

Over the past decade, the contribution that the Church of England makes to society through its social action has increased, reflecting an increase in the demand and expectation for it. At the same time, church attendance in the country has continued to decline; by most key metrics, attendance at Church of England services fell between 15% and 20% from 2009-2019. This is the paradox facing the Church of England in 2020: the national church of a nation which is increasingly reliant on its social action and yet less and less spiritually connected to it. 1

The report noted that ‘the Church grows in number and depth when it is present in and connected to its local area, which may be manifested through its social action.’ Its longevity and presence make it well placed. Hospitality and generosity are significant. And ‘participation in social action can also offer a practical route into faith for people who weren’t previously part of the church community.’2

Exciting stuff. And it doesn’t involve massaging church statistics until something positive is squeezed out. It’s everywhere. I see it in the Christmas letters I receive from friends. I see it in my own church which, in other ways, is not exactly a picture of glowing health. I see it elsewhere in Cambridge. And I read it in reports like this one.

A quiet revolution in the churches (part 1)

In the last dozen years, as government cuts have taken hold, churches have stepped in to provide help to some of the most needy in the country. This has been a widespread, nationally significant movement, and politicians are beginning to notice. If this work continues and develop, it could transform our national life and our politics.

This was the summary of a message we heard from Sir Stephen Timms MP, who spoke at our Christmas Men’s Breakfast in my local church, St Martin’s in Cambridge in December 2023.

Hope made visible

He described a colleague of his (now a life peer on the Labour front bench in the House of Lords), who had become chairman of the Refugee Council.

Her job entailed visiting projects supporting refugees all over the country. The most remarkable ones, often involving sacrificial service by the volunteers, were run by churches.

‘To her complete surprise, she found lives characterized by the fruitfulness that Paul writes about in his epistle to the Galatians.

‘[Maeve Sherlock] decided to find out more about this; she attended church in Islington, then an Alpha course. In 2010 she became a member of the House of Lords; in 2018 was ordained a deacon and from last year became non-stipendiary minister in St Nicholas’ church in central Durham, as well as being on the Labour front bench in the House of Lords.’

Sir Stephen went on:

‘What I want to argue this morning is with things in the country in such a depressing state, and with so many things apparently not working as they should do, more and more people are looking to the churches, and are finding something different there, something better, something more hopeful … we need that fruitfulness to transform our politics.’

Supercharged by the pandemic

He described when he was leader of Newham council, more than twenty five years ago, that they were always polite to churches, but they never worked with them as partners.

The pandemic revealed a different picture than the common picture of church decline. He described getting two emails from constituents saying they had no food; and another email from the current elected mayor of Newham saying that a certain vicar, if contacted before 10am, would get a food parcel delivered before 6pm that day. Stephen tried this at the beginning of the lockdown, Good Friday 2020, and it worked. Many people, with no prior connection to the churches, became dependent on the churches for the basics for living.

The all-party group on faith and society commissioned a report, available on their website, published in Nov 2020, about faith groups and local councils in the pandemic, revealing that all over the country, faith groups were the ones providing help.

This was a surprise. The default for council officers was that working with faith groups was too difficult and complicated; either faith groups would spend any money given on converting people, or they’d favour their own adherents. ‘But come the pandemic lockdown, there wasn’t anybody else …

‘Faith groups uniquely had the premises, the volunteers, and the motivation, and the connection with people needing help that no-one else had.

‘Far from [churches] being “on the way out,” it turned out, in this decade, when the crunch came, communities became completely dependent on their churches.’

Foodbanks

All the Trussel Trust foodbacks are based in churches. Churches were unique in their capacity to help. They exemplified the ‘big society’.

Christians against poverty

Another high-impact Christian initiative is ‘Christians against poverty‘, founded in Bradford. They support people in debt and train church members as debt counsellors. Sir Stephen also mentioned churches providing shelter for the homeless, and welcoming refugees, and facilitating street pastors.

Nationally significant

MPs are noticing these developments. Nowadays the Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast, once desultory, now packs Westminster Hall.

Quoting a historian:

Between 1780 and 1850, the English ceased to be one of the world’s most agressive, rowdy, outspoken, cruel and bloodthirsty nations and became one of the most inhibited, polite, orderly and goodly-minded …

‘I think that transformation was a really really positive transformation which all of us are continuing to benefit from to this day and how huge were the benefits of that fruitfulness which exploded all over the country, including the transformation of our politics.

‘And I think that the state we are in now requires another awakening on a similar scale and on the same lines. And I am one of those who thinks it could happen and who hopes that it will.’

Not many of the recipients of those services are coming to faith. But people are coming to faith but in a different way. Theos [the thinktank] found that others in the community, seeing what the churches are doing, offer to help out.. and they are the ones who end up coming to faith.

‘Churches are doing the heavy lifting to support their communities in very very difficult times.’

Sir Stephen’s talk is available here.

The power of the small

I wrote some years ago about fractals, objects that are similar whether viewed on large scale or a small scale. For example, the way trees branch is the same whether you look at a whole tree or just a small portion of the branch. They are ‘self-similar across scales’, which is to say, fractal.

photo of bare tree under clear blue sky
Mathematically and theologically significant. Photo by Chris F on Pexels.com

Everything is infinitely small compared to God so (to God) the pattern presumably matters more than the size.

So it isn’t surprising that fractal behaviour crops up whenever we consider God at work. Parables–picturing God at work–are self-similar across scales. Is the parable of the sower about the history of nations? Or of a single small tribe? Or of a single human heart? It’s self-similar across scales, so it applies equally to all of them.

The pattern matters more than the size

Faithfulness is fractal. If you are faithful in a little thing, you will be entrusted with much. One who is faithful in small things will be understood to be faithful in big things too. The pattern is the thing; the size doesn’t much matter in the eyes of God.

This is a stunning fact when you hold it up against our desires for prestige or respect or generally just to be associated with big stuff. Two things stand out to me, one of them relevant to this advent season.

  1. The young woman caring for the infant Jesus, wiping his bum, burping him, rocking him to sleep, was supplying exactly the faithfulness needed at that moment; enough faithfulness to save a whole Universe.
  2. Our smallest faithful actions shine out in God’s eyes like stars– a secret of a life of patient revolution.

Book reviews for Christmas

I suppose you can get people presents that are other-than-books.

But why would you?

Justin Brierley: The surprising rebirth of belief in God

Justin Brierley is as good as anyone observing the fickle winds of fashion in thought.

For many years he hosted the podcast Unbelievable which moderated match-ups between atheists and Christians. Moderated is the right word, since Brierley kept the peace and ensured, most times, the conversations were fruitful. You can’t help thinking that if the BBC had the sense to match their reach, they would have headhunted him years ago, a brilliant natural broadcaster with unshowy erudition. Still.

This book takes us through some of what he’s learnt from his ringside seat watching thought-leaders’ wrestle. Mostly it’s a careful account of the disintegration of New Atheist teaching, and some notes on what’s replacing it. He finds a new respect for theism; a renewed respect for the Bible; and some of the people he’s met has, to their surprise, either become committed Christians or thoughtful and sympathetic observers of the Christian faith. It’s a fascinating contemporary summary, leveraging his superpower of finding influential thinkers and inviting them onto his show.

If you, like me, wander into bookshops and have been occasionally surprised by finding sympathy for the Christian faith in unexpected places, this book gives a comprehensive and better researched summary of the shifting weather. It’s super and (for the Christian) heartening.

Justin Brierley offers three exhortations to the church near the end of the book – three things to cling tightly to:
1. Faith and reason
2. The mystery – the Christian faith quickly wanders into a dark woodland of paradox, the beyond-understanding, the ancient, the gnarly, all accompanied by the sound of worship (‘Church bells beyond the stars heard’ George Herbert wrote). Some of those turning to the faith enjoy all this, much more than they do Christian pseudo-rock concerts, or people ‘being discipled’ through a short course of study.
3. A forgiving, accepting community, a powerful force, now that social media has made witch-burning popular again in the outside world.

Super book for anyone wanting to keep up. Grab a copy.

Book reviews for Christmas

This book has very little to do with the theme of this blog, except, perhaps, at a stretch, the quest to make stuff beautiful. Makes a great present though for a certain type of person, and you’ll know someone.

Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This book is just enormous geeky fun. It’s all about the fonts that surround us every day, their history, their designers, some of the fashions and controversies. It is true that after reading it, you’ll never look at printed words the same way again. I started, for instance, noticing what an unhealthy, disjointed font-nightmare a hospital corridor is. The same goes for the average British high street. But when people curate and corrall and design fonts, and put them together on a page, yummy.

I took ages to finish it, and (if I had a shelf for this purpose) would probably file it as ‘good loo reading.’

All of us know someone who’ll like this — the same people who read Lynne Truss’s ‘Shoots, eats and leaves’ for example.

I gave it four stars instead of five because, I mean, it’s quite a lot about the fiddly bits on the end of letters.



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Book reviews for Christmas

Here’s another one, though frankly a bit grim to find under your tree.

Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East by Kim Ghattas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This wonderful book gets under the skin of what happened to the Arab and Muslim world in the past 40 years and gives a voice to the writers, lawyers, media types, thinkers, critics, imams and others who resisted the ‘black wave’ of religion-shrouded revolutionary terror.

Kim Ghattas, a Lebanese, and therefore heir to those who watch (and often trade with) the great tidal forces sweeping around them, sees 1979 as the point the Arab and Muslim worlds collectively departed from their pluralistic senses. That year was the year of the Islamic revolution in Iran; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which led to jihad (sponsored by America and funnelled through Pakistan); and the attempted takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by religious zealots.

Out of this came the breakdown of a sleepy, plural, varied, tolerant Islam and its replacement with state terror (in Iran), the rise of the Wahabhis in Saudi, and these overlapped with the Islamism that Zia ul-Haq was imposing on Pakistan, to that country’s loss. Out of all that came the sprawling Saudi-Iranian rivalry with each outdoing the other in Islamicness; assassinations, war, and Sunnis and Shias killing each other: Muslim shall make war on Muslim. Ripples of it spread through the West: book burnings on English streets and the carnage of the twin towers. But the real churn was elsewhere.

It’s an astonishing story, and an astonishingly sad one. What a strange time we have lived through! Deeply researched, brilliantly told, and in my reading as good and influential (though with a different scope) to classic books like Albert Hourani’s The Arab World. The book’s impact comes from the way the story is told and the links followed, and from the fact (as it lays out) that any number of people resisted and yet were too small and too isolated to stop themselves being drowned or exiled by the Black Wave.

Perhaps the Arab and Muslim world is weary of war and the wave is ebbing. How sad though it all is and was. This book is a trusty guide.




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