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Wednesday, 3 October 2007

John Birmingham's delightful little tour de force in this month's Australian Literary Review surely is unequalled in recent times for brilliance of execution. The politics and, shall we say, 'angle' Brimingham adopts (? does he really believe this stuff?) are largely beside the point.

Or perhaps it is only by adopting a reactionary and anguished tone of mind (new coinage?) that the writer today can muster the righteous indignation required to power through others' debile counter-arguments. For Birmingham seems to presage the downfall of modern democratic life.

To backtrack, the writer takes four, apparently dissimilar books, and weaves from an analysis of each, a tapestry with a single pattern. The first is a memoir by a former British Islamic cultist. The second is a Western classic: Clausewitz on war. The third is a history of a battle between Rome and Carthage. The fourth is the autobiography recently penned by Australia's favourite Army general: Peter Cosgrove.

'The power of pure will' is Birmingham's title, and it aims to shock. His dexterity will ensure readership. But he misses many points, especially in his primary thesis surrounding the likelihood of Western capitulation to an Islamic super-state: the Caliphate.

For Islam is ultimately a personal religion. This is both its strength and its weakness.

It means that a 'terror' organisation can reform from almost nothing, due to the lack of an 'official' chain of command. Knock out the head and, like some primitive creature, a starfish perhaps, another takes its place. In this 'natural' cell-like structure the terror organisation need fear no conventional foe, such as is currently ranged against it.

The weakness is visible, however, in the sheer impossibility of a super-state emerging. We see this in Iraq, where dozens, if not more, tribal groups compete for the spoils of office (as happened conventionally in such primitive democracies as that of eighteenth-century England), even as the top office -- that of the President -- languishes in complete impotence before the fractious character of the people it purports to lead.

If, as Birmingham roars with all the power of his considerable intellect, there is indeed a true war on terror, it cannot be defeated without reaching into the heart of the individual. Educating the English working class so it could sit at the same table as the nobility took hundreds of years.

Educating Islamics in the ways of any of the various socio-cultural projects that have slipped, groaning, out of the skin of their predecessors, in the West, through the ages, will require some further adjustment, to put it mildly. Imagine for a moment that governments relied on real people to spruik their 'initiatives' (second-hand ideas torn from the pages of dead poets' books) rather than public relations practitioners.

Imagine if tired post-colonial dogma were replaced by a more vigorous and meaningful set of imperatives. Think for a moment whether what those who have taken Australia's new Citizenship Test, have said, were worthy to be examined in any of the 'leading' cultural journals?

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