September 11, 2001 was the first time an entity from the non-western world ensured - rather than, say, the west itself through imperialistic 'curiosity' - that its culture, its way of life and its ideas be known in the popular cultural landscape of the biggest power in the world and its many allies. With 9/11, places like Afghanistan and Iraq stopped being just content for National Geographic and terms like jihad and al-Qaeda seeped out of the policy wonks' enclosures. While Le Monde's headline on 9/12 insisted that 'We are all Americans', ten years later, even the notoriously insular Americans are 'less American' now.
Jason Burke, South Asia correspondent for the Guardian, has seen this form of globalisation take root under his roving nose. And what he has provided us in this telling book of top-notch reportage glued by hard-nosed scholarship is that phrases such as 'global jihad', 'war against terror' and 'al-Qaeda' are not single processes or entities but localised events stitched and cross-stitched to provide a '9/11' narrative. Burke tantalisingly picks on these threads, unweaving the narrative(s) without tearing the cloth. "Though without synthesis nothing is comprehensible, there is a risk that, in reducing the complexity to find an answer, that answer is wrong. The devil is very often in the detail," he writes. He starts in Bamiyan six months before New York gets its 'Ground Zero' and ends in the 'Afpak' and al-Qaeda of today. The latter, he believes is seriously down but not out.
This is a magisterial book about our times that avoids the beartraps of generalisations as well as getting stuck to one, comfortable perspective. For the sheer pleasure of reading top-notch journalism, this is the one book about the last decade you can't fail to read.
Arun J Nair is a Delhi-based writer on international affairs