The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
September 25, 2006

Who will review the reviewers? Brendan Simms comes to the defence of Michael Gove over a hostile review of Celsius 7/7 in the Sunday Times

Posted by Brendan Simms

Michael Gove's book Celsius 7/7 has received a savagely hostile review from William Dalrymple in the Sunday Times. Brendan Simms - Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge - defends Michael Gove from the claims William Dalrymple makes.

In some ways, writing a book is the easy part. What is difficult, and more or less beyond the control of the author, is waiting for how the cookie will crumble among reviewers. In that respect, Michael Gove was rather unlucky that his book on the London bombings and the War on Terror Celsius 7/7, ended up with William Dalrymple at the Sunday Times yesterday (24th September, 2006). Brutally negative reviews are unusual nowadays, at least in broadsheets, but Mr Dalrymple did not pull his punches. He described the book

as a confused epic of simplistic incomprehension, riddled with more factual errors and misconceptions than any other text I have come across in two decades of reviewing books on this subject.
Gove, he claims,
is an ill-informed pundit tailoring information to fit pre-existing prejudices.
Now, Celsius 7/7 is strong stuff, and you either like it or hate it. It so happens that this writer rather likes it. He is somewhat to the left of Michael Gove on many domestic issues, and disagrees on Europe, but largely sees eye to eye with him on the need for the democratic transformation of the Middle East, starting with the removal of Saddam Hussein. For those who differ, Celsius 7/7 will be anathema and it is perfectly reasonable that they should give Gove both barrels on the issues when they have the chance.

Of course those who dish it out, including the present writer, should be able to take it. There are certainly a few neo-con young bucks on both sides of the Atlantic, who could hardly complain of being taken to task in this way. But in Gove's case, the tone is misplaced: he may hold firm strong views, but they are invariably expressed with courtesy and modesty. Still that is a matter of style, and the obviously personal nature of the attack - Gove is described as

a pundit who has spoonfed neocon mythologies to the British public
- will help the victim more than any defence.

What does need rebuttal is the accusation of factual inaccuracy and the whole argument underlying the review. Thus Dalrymple attacks Gove for being billed as

one of Britain's leading writers and thinkers on terrorism,
despite never having lived in a Muslim country, and having
little knowledge of Islamic history, theology and culture…nor does he speak any Islamic language.
This sets the bar rather high. There are many reasons for holding one's tongue over Israel, but even this writer would not want to limit debate to those who have visited there, or do not speak Hebrew (which would silence him for a start, along with much of the commentariat). By the way, what is an Islamic language? Does a terrorism expert, as opposed to an historian of the Middle East, have to know them? The automatic linking of terror and Islam also seems rather stark. Mr Dalrymple seems to make some rather odd assumptions here.

Dalrymple then goes on to assert - contra Gove - the centrality of Israel to Al-Qaeda's grievance against the west. It is, of course, of very great importance, yet most informed opinion agrees that the original casus belli was not Palestine, though that was always a factor, but the first Gulf War. Bin Laden never forgave the house of Saud for contemptuously rejecting his offer to protect them against Saddam Hussein after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. His two principal grievances against America in the 1990s were the presence of US forces near the holy places, and the sufferings of the Iraqi civilian population under sanctions, both sanctioned by the United Nations. This matters because it shows that even or perhaps especially when the west works within the parameters of international law, as we surely did in 1990-91 by any definition, it is no defence against Islamist terror.

As for Dalrymple's claim that it was "violent repression" that followed the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian talks around 2000 that formed the backdrop to the September 11 attacks, this ignores first of all the fact that they were planned long in advance, and secondly that such attacks had begun with the 1993 World Trade Centre attempt, and continued throughout the 1990s, Oslo or no Oslo. It is Dalrymple who is the myth-maker here, in his determination to pin the blame entirely upon Israel.

Finally, Dalrymple tilts at Gove's solution, which is to neutralise terror and dictatorship through democracy. He dismisses this "canard", saying that the evidence from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Egypt and Algeria shows that

given the option the newly radicalised Muslim peoples are much more likely to choose fundamentalist candidates over secularists.
The truth is, surely, that the picture is mixed but that most of the evidence suggests that democratically elected governments in the Middle East will wish to live in peace with their neighbours and the west. This is true of Iraq, and certainly of Lebanon which turfed out the Syrians in the "Cedar Revolution" of 2005. The big exception, admittedly, is Hamas, but even it was so terrified of Mahmoud Abbas's suggestion of a referendum on the recognition of Israel within the 1967 borders that it launched the Gaza kidnappings which sparked off the events of this summer.

It may be, as Dalrymple writes, that

woolly elisions and linkages…have got us into the trouble we are in now,
but these are more his own than Mr Gove's.

Dr Brendan Simms is Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.

Dalrymple's review was a character assassination crossed with historical revisionism.

In his frantic desire to get at Gove he tripped over his own shoelaces several times - notably when he slammed Gove for (imagined) factual inaccuracies only to propagate a howler of his own. Note to Willy - Michael Gove is not in the Shadow Cabinet (yet).

Posted by: Trowbridge at September 26, 2006 01:59 PM

Read this excerpt from William Dalrymple's oeuvre and contemplate that malign form of English snobbery which can slide so perilously easily into anti-semitism Sorry about the legnth of the quote but his contempt, unpleasant though it is , is worth examining- Here he is talking about the nearly vanished Greek (Christian) population of Istanbul:

"I wandered through the unkempt memorials .....many of the headstones were decorated with photographs. Paradoxically, I found it was these photographs of dead people from a deserted graveyard which, more than anything esle brought to life the Greek Istanbul which had been ended by the 1955 riots.

Fr. Demetrios had described those who had left - the Greeks who formed such an influential minority in the Istanul of the nineteenth century - as cosmopolitan, artistic and well-educated; but the photographs, less nostalgic, revealed a prosperous petit-bourgeiois society of shopkeepers and spinsters: moustaches and double chins, waistcoats and fob watches, bald spots and pince-nez; line upon line of plump,suspicious men, grown prematurely old in their confectionery shops, moustaches bristling in late Ottoman indignation; pairs of old ladies shrouded in funereal black, plain and bitter, all widows' weeds and pious scowls." - William Dalrymple I From th Holy Mountain -Chapter II

Posted by: LMR at October 2, 2006 12:30 PM

Note to Trowbridge:

Willy was correct to refer to Mr Gove's being a member of the shadow cabinet.

Gove was indeed appointed Shadow Minister for Housing in May 2005. Please see his profile on the Tories' web site:

Kind Regards,

Posted by: Neil Rose at February 19, 2007 04:40 PM

Nice try - "Minister for housing" isn't a shadow cabinet member. Ministers aren't members, secretaries of state are.

Dr Simms happens to miss the howlers that immediately struck me reading this review:

Refering to the September the 11th attacks being planned in 2000 - they weren't, it was 1999 - Dalrymple claims it was a response to Israeli PM's brutal repression of the Intifada in late 2000. Unfortunately, Ariel Sharon wasn't elected until the March 2001.

Secondly, Dalrymple blames Bin Laden's radicalisation on the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.... by which time Bin Laden had been in Afghanistan for over two years.

The not speaking of "an Islamic language" would disqualify most commentators on the Middle East, including people like Galloway, Chomsky, Finkelstein and many, many others. Does it stop them?

If you are going to have the nerve to write "a confused epic of simplistic incomprehension, riddled with more factual errors and misconceptions than any other text I have come across in two decades of reviewing books on this subject" shouldn't you make sure that you get your basic dates right? Certainly doesn't bode well for Dalrymple's books.

Posted by: Danny at July 16, 2007 01:53 PM
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement