The clash of civilizations that today defines our world

Journalist Robert Fisk's exhausting, compelling account.

It was among the pyramids of the Sudan desert that British journalist Robert Fisk first met Sheikh Osama. Tall and reserved, Osama bin Laden wore a long brown robe trimmed in gold. He sat in the shade of a tent under which villagers lined up to thank him for building a better road from Khartoum to Port Sudan.

That was in 1993. Few Americans - and few Westerners for that matter - had ever heard of Mr. bin Laden.

At that first meeting, bin Laden revealed little to Fisk. But the two men met twice more in remote mountain camps in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. In 1997, bin Laden was more frank about his aim to restore Islamic rule in the Middle East and drive the American infidels from their military bases in the holy land.

"From this mountain upon which you are sitting, we broke the Russian army and we destroyed the Soviet Union," he told Fisk. "And I pray to God that he will permit us to turn the United States into a shadow of itself."

Then came 9/11. Suddenly everyone, everywhere knew of bin Laden.

As the attacks occurred that day, Fisk was on a plane bound for New York. The dispatch he wrote from there for his newspaper, The Independent, is reprinted in his new book, The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East.

On 9/11 Fisk knew immediately that bin Laden was the culprit. And while he denounced the attacks as "indescribably evil," he also explained to his readers why many in the Arab world might not be sympathetic to America.

The world's deadliest terrorist attack hadn't occurred in a vacuum, he wrote, but rather, grew from "American missiles smashing into Palestinian homes and US helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance in 1996."

Quickly, Fisk was vilified by many as an apologist, although this was hardly his first or last brush with antagonism. (Fisk's columns for The Independent have been so intensely worked over by the hawkish right who despise him that in the blogosphere his name has become a verb: to "fisk," or to deconstruct or pick apart.)

And "apologist" may, in fact, be the right label for Fisk. He sees the current war on terrorism from the point of view of the victims, the innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he looks at past wars through the eyes of the Palestinians, Kuwaitis, and Iranians.

For Fisk, this latest war is simply the continuation of a clash of civilizations that played out in the Middle East throughout the 20th century.

His book is not simply about 9/11 and its repercussions. It's an account that takes readers from the breakup of the Ottoman Empire through the relentless terrorism and wars that have plagued the region ever since. It's a hefty, thorough anthology of a career that has chronicled this clash of civilization in which Muslims have battled Western invaders, Islamist radicals have fought secular Arab regimes, and Palestinians have fought Israelis. It's a tragic history - and one, Fisk argues, from which we haven't learned enough.

Among the many histories of conflict that fill these thousand pages is the British occupation of Iraq. It was the 1920s when there was great optimism that Mesopotamia would become the "new" Iraq "regenerated by Western enterprise, not unlike America's own pipe dreams of 2003," Fisk writes. The occupation would give rise to a bloody insurgency that influenced Saddam Hussein and then laid the foundation for his reign of terror.

It's one history lesson after another. Stories of great personal tragedy, tyranny, and few glimmers of hope. The Iran-Iraq war, the Algerian insurgency, Desert Storm - Fisk unloads his reporter's notebooks on the reader, creating a narrative that is alternately compelling and exhausting.

The book is at its best when Fisk takes us through the battlefields from which he has reported. We hear the bullets, feel the desert heat. The point of Fisk's history lessons is evident. He's boldly, scathingly against this current battle in the Middle East. But what he doesn't leave us with is his vision for a better future.

Michael B. Farrell is the Monitor's Middle East editor.

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