I Can Offer This

I know it has been awhile for this blog but in the light of the #CharlieHebdo and subsequent events in Paris, I’ve been watching many friends and colleagues in Blogland and on Twitter come up with links and images and thoughts that I’ve found extremely helpful and even inspirational.

I’m not a scholar of Islam, religion, the Middle East, or satire, but I have spent a great deal of time studying nationalism and thinking about terrorism. So I decided what I can offer — after having two people very graciously assist me on Twitter this morning with a request for a history of Islam — is a booklist.

  • One of the classics in the field is Ranger and Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism Since 1780. The upside is that it’s older, therefore easy to find; the downside is that it’s older, therefore slightly behind. But the basic ideas are still both interesting and relevant — plus I love the essay about the history of the kilt.
  • I find Hans Kohn’s writing on nationalism to be nailbitingly awful, but his (many) titles on the subjects also go under the heading of ‘classics.’
  • An excellent recent entry is Azar Gat’s Nations which takes a more global approach.
  • Joep Leerssen’s National Thought in Europe (and his Remembrance and Imagination and Mere Irish and Fior-Ghael) I find incredibly exciting to read. These are harder to find in my experience but very, very worth the effort.
  • Edward Said’s Orientalism is, obviously, another classic and much contested but, if nothing else, Said writes like a dream. There are few people who do academic writing better.
  • Terry Eagleton’s Ideology is dense and, I found, difficult but rewarding.
  • The bulk of my work in and around this subject has been focused on Ireland and since the question asked is often, “Why do they do this?” I’ve found that one of the best things I can do, at least, is plunge straight into autobiographies and memoirs. Collected letters, diaries — all these things are the (contestably) unmediated thought of the person involved. I say ‘contestably’ because that’s exactly what they are: people will write with an eye to the future, posterity, publication, and self-censor appropriately or tell their stories more ‘fittingly.’ Regardless of the more theoretical concerns, the material itself is compelling to read: obviously you can guide yourself by your own historical or current interests, but Bobby Sands’ Writings from Prison, Ernie O’Malley’s two volumes of recollections from the Irish Civil War, John Mitchel’s Jail Journal — the list could go on and on and they all reflect a facet of ‘why do they do this.’

I also find it useful, if not reassuring, to reflect on a realisation I had during a grad school seminar on the Holocaust. We were discussing, I believe, Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, and my professor and I were having a discussion about the ideological underpinnings of action and so on and I remember distinctly saying into a suddenly silent room, ‘Well, but no-one gets up in the morning thinking they’re the bad guy.’

It’s not a comforting thought at all. It requires an act of imagination that may not always be possible. But it is worth trying.