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Book reviews

THE SECOND PLANE

Martin Amis

Jonathan Cape, 12.99

MARTIN Amis is a writer seemingly obsessed by September 11, 2001. He first wrote about the events a week after for the Guardian, when he described the descent of the second plane as "the defining moment". In the Times on the sixth anniversary of September 11 in 2007 he wrote: "September 11 continues, it goes on, with all its mystery, its instability and its terrible dynamism."

The Second Plane is Amis's latest work, a volume reproducing many of his most recent reviews and essays as well as two short stories, 'The Last Days Of Muhammad Atta' and 'In The Palace Of The End'. The volume also includes a lengthier piece, 'On The Move With Tony Blair', in which Amis accompanies Blair on several trips and reveals both a sympathy and fondness for the former Prime Minister. Why Blair has taken Amis into his confidence is a mystery, but Amis succeeds in engaging the former premier in both personal confessions and political comment.

Over the years, Amis has been accused of showing contempt for Islam, while he contends that he is an Islamismophobe. He has also been accused of parading his cultural elitism, a writer at the forefront of the British literary scene who is both big enough and smug enough to get away with saying anything. One is tempted to flick through the pages shouting: "Ahaa… more anti-Islam ramblings."

Except that his style, often sweeping but full of anecdotes and personal observations, is quite engaging. In 'The Last Days Of Muhammad Atta', Amis traces the last steps of the 9/11 hijacker and writes: "He had allied himself with the militants because jihad was, by many magnitudes, the most charismatic idea of his generation. To unite ferocity and rectitude in a single word: nothing could compare with that." While some may contest this view of jihad, for many these words will resonate true; Amis captures the mood of a society threatened by this new face of terror. But it is the fact that he is held captive by his own fear of extremism, his own lament at what he sees as the reversal of Muslim culture and rationalism, which allows him to speak with a boldness, indeed even arrogance. In 'Terror And Boredom', he writes: "We respect Islam – the donor of countless benefits to mankind, and the possessor of thrilling history. But Islamism? No we can hardly be asked to respect a creedal wave that calls for our own elimination." The reader is left suspended.

Amis has no pretensions to be seen as a scholar of Islam. His political and historical judgments are all reflective of the modern debates using soundbites and referring to the obvious controversies surrounding figureheads such as Khomeini, Ahmadinejad, Sayyid Qutb and Bin Laden. He recounts enough of their history and ideas to make his desired points on colonialism, the decline of Islamic civilisation, the bloody-mindedness of western imperialism and the unleashing of Islamism. His clever crafting of theories makes interesting reading and we remain lured but not entirely convinced. Amis does not develop any argument systematically; he jumps from fact to image, from conversations to quotes.

This eclectic approach betrays his own passions and his style is just to affirm and keep affirming his views. He writes: "We are not hearing from moderate Islam", but in 'Terror And Boredom', we are told that all religions are violent and that millennial Islamism has been superimposed upon the faith. "Violence is all that is there." Amis follows this with a quotation from Larkin's 'Aubade', the poet's criticism of religion's attitude to death, the pretence that there is no death. And as we deliberate Amis's religious beliefs, he tells us with the conviction found only in the most entrenched mindsets: "Opposition to religion already occupies the high ground, intellectually and morally. People of independent mind should now start to claim the spiritual high ground too."

What makes this collection appealing is the combination of personal reflection and wit. World leaders and especially American presidents are all victims. In 'Iran And The Lord of Time', Amis compares Ahmadinejad to Ronald Reagan: "General similarities are hard to spot… As a young Republican, Reagan wasn't involved in the murder of prominent Democrats. Ahmadinejad doesn't use Grecian 2000… but both men are denizens of that stormlit plain where end time theology meets nuclear weapons." This is funny because it is true and also disturbing because it is true. Amis does not want us to deflect from the gravity of his words but his slightly mocking tone succeeds in raising a smile. Indeed all the pieces in this volume carry derisive undertones. And yet even as Amis tells us of the Islamist's chat-up line "Heard about the caliphate mate?", one can't help thinking that in this collection he himself has never been more serious.

Mona Siddiqui is Professor of Islamic Studies and Public Understanding at Glasgow University