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About Jason Burke
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Author Interview  
Author, Jason Burke

Jason Burke

About Jason Burke

An Interview with Jason Burke

More About Jason Burke

Jason Burke is the prize-winning Chief Reporter for the Observer. He has covered the Middle East and Southwest Asia for a decade, and saw many of the key events described in his book, Al-Qaeda, at first hand. His latest book is On the Road to Kandahar.

Piece by Jason Burke, author of On the Road to Kandahar

The fighting in Najaf in August 2004 was the most intense combat I had ever seen.  Iraqi militiamen were resisting an assault by American tanks, infantry and apache helicopters.  It was incredibly hot, the noise was intense and a whole belt of the city was in ruins.  As the fighting reached its peak, I was crouched behind a wall with some colleagues when a door opened nearby and a young man beckoned to us.  Inside, his father, a local farmer in his 60's, served us brackish water.  All their neighbours had fled but the two men had remained to safeguard their home from looters.  We asked him who he blamed for the trouble.  He blamed both the Americans and the militiamen.  They were as bad as each other, he said, they had all come to fight in his home town.  He wished they would all just go back to where they came from and leave him in peace.

As I listened to that old man, something clicked.  He was the man in the middle, the man who was reasonable and honest and just wanted to get on with his life, the man whose voice was drowned out by the blast and the shock and the shouted angry rhetoric of the ideologues and the warriors.  I wanted to write a book that showed to as many people as possible that it was the old man that was most representative of the so-called 'Islamic World', not the killers.  And when I thought of him, I thought of all the other people I had known who were as equally sensible, hospitable, warm and who were suffering as much, and how so few in the West thought about them.

I thought about the Kurdish guerrillas I had joined when a student in my summer holidays in 1991, I thought about the Afghans who I travelled among for years in the late 1990s, friends in Pakistan and Algeria and elsewhere.

All those with whom, I knew, I had shared - and still share - so much.  Many now think about the 'clash of civilisations'.  Many now talk about 'Muslims' as a monolithic bloc of more than a billion people, all of whose values and lives are incompatible with progress, democracy, economic growth.  I hope that On the Road to Kandahar shows how such an idea is dangerous and wrong.  The book is not a polemic, not a well-turned rhetorical argument but simply an account of what I have seen that I hope shows that self-fulfilling prophecies of a third world war against 'Muslims' should be greeted with the derision they deserve.

I also hope that it reveals what actually drives the militants and how their twisted ideology has a purchase on populations, that it explains something of the role of violence and of myth and of the importance of the media in our new globally-wired, interconnected world.  And I hope that it shows the reader a little of the reality of what it is like to be a reporter, at work, in the field.

The old man was not merely representative of the 'silent majority' of moderate voices in the Muslim world.  Fundamentalisms all over the world are on the rise, the dynamism and uncertainty of the 21st century has made the rigid and the dogmatic attractive to many.  As in the Islamic world, those in the West for whom life is complex, those for whom morality is often grey rather than black and white, those who see violence as a means of dividing as opposed to a means to an end, have struggled to be heard in recent years.  My book, and all the people whose words are to be found in it, I hope will make a small contribution to the hard but incredibly important process of correcting that imbalance.

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