Soaud Mekhennet’s book is part autobiography, part thriller, and most importantly, all journalism. It leaves the reader with little doubt that it’s one of the most important books of the century. This is because it’s hard to think of another writer who seems to have got close to not just bridging the gap between “the West” and “Islam” but also clarifying and explaining how and why a conflict has arisen between these two concepts.
It starts with a deeply personal account of her own upbringing, the child of a Turkish and Moroccan (Shia and Sunni) immigrants to Germany, who spent some of her early years in Morocco, who experienced the benefits and the downsides of being a second generation immigrant. This is essential to an understanding of her perspective. Although she makes it clear she has no truck with terrorism of any form, she can begin to understand why young Western youths becomes radicalised. This understanding in turn helps her to make contacts and get under the skin of a conflict which has devastated the Middle East and had such a striking impact on Europe and the States in the 21st century.
Time after time Mekhennet is there, making sense of history for us. Putting herself at risk to do so. She reports from Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain, the train stations of Vienna, the mosques of Hamburg, London and beyond. This is a writer straddling the modern world with the contacts of a spy, the insights of religious expert and the humanity of a family member whose life has also been touched by tragedy. She can say with authority that which seems obvious but that which Western politicians so steadfastly refuse to accept: that Western foreign policy does impact the thinking of ordinary people in both the Middle East and Europe and has contributed to their radicalisation. She can say it because she’s spoken to ISIS fighters or wannabe fighters and they’ve told her. Her critique of Western attitudes to the Arab Spring proves prophetic, as well as the way that the hallowed concept of “democracy” might not be the salve-all that people claim.
The stories of the world today aren’t governed by borders anymore than governments are. No matter how much they might seek to fence themselves in. The world is porous. The internet ensures that the thing which happens in a village in Kashmir or Peru will be known in Paris or New York or Dundee. Mekhennet’s book goes further towards helping to make sense of this jumbled world and its terrifying consequences than anything else you are likely to read. She traces the threads from Kabul to London, from Bahrain to Hamburg, from Casablanca to Vienna. Her book often reads like a novel and is all the more remarkable for being true.