Boyd Tonkin: Cutting terror tales down to size

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Some cherished quotations deserve to live on even after the evidence exposes them as apocryphal. Did Chinese premier Zhou Enlai really say, à propos the long-term consequences of the French Revolution, that "It's far too soon to tell"? Sadly, no: it turns out that his allusion, in 1971, to the French student upheavals of 1968 got somewhat dignified in translation. No matter – it would have been true had he said it, with the meltdown of the Euro project simply the latest phase of a perennial Napoleonic dream. And what goes for 1789 applies overwhelmingly to 2001. Ten years after 9/11, publishers shovel out anniversary histories by authors who well understand that their interim reports will swiftly read like the cancelled first draft of a tentative first chapter.

Given that the long shelf of 9/11 tomes are doomed to obsolescence, they should at least find something worthwhile to say. Since no current book will have been commissioned with either the Arab revolutions or Osama bin Laden's death in mind, they can survive the pace of events only by overturning clichés and entertaining fresh ideas. Too few do, but a brace of studies from Oxford signpost enough new directions to warrant respect. They are Fawaz A Gerges's The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda (£12.99) and Charles Kurzman's The Missing Martyrs (£16.99). The latter's subtitle, "Why there are so few Muslim terrorists", catches the drift of both.

Despite the odd, tragic spectacular attack in the wake of the 9/11 fluke, Al-Qaeda has failed utterly. Its global jihad against the West never materialised. Muslims in their countless millions, including most religious zealots, turned away from any sympathy with terror.

Kurzman calculates that, around the world, less one Muslim in every 15,000 has over the past quarter-century had any contact with a radical jihadi group. And only the backdraft from clumsy and brutal Western interventions offers any oxygen to murderous militancy. "Turn down the volume on the terrorism debates," advises Kurzman, who calls on the West to "give credit to Muslims" as primary defenders against jihadi violence. "All the war on terror really does," adds Gerges, "is legitimize al-Qaeda's' failed ideology."

If the breakneck timetable of the Arab Spring has galloped ahead of publication schedules, its unfolding ratifies these books' proposals. Gerges, in a preface, sums up the case. For him, "the revolutions have reinforced what many of us have already known: Al-Qaeda's core ideology is incompatible with the universal aspirations of the Arabs", who seek via revolt against tyranny "democratic institutions" rather than the rule of Islamist saints.

From Bali to London, Madrid to Casablanca, the few major post-9/11 strikes by Al-Qaeda or its semi-freelance followers spread such understandable grief and dread that monstrous phantoms took the place of cool risk assessment. "Disproportionate fear" drove Western policy, both writers argue. It handed the Bin Laden crew a pyschological victory though fellow-jihadis scorned their catastrophic strategy. And, even though the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan stoked anti-Western sentiment, recruitment dwindled, while the quality of would-be "warriors" plummeted.

Given occasional strokes of luck, even a few fanatic bunglers can wreak havoc, of course. Neither book minimises the suffering that post-9/11 terror has inflicted, or still could. But the researches of both point, convincingly, to a downward curve of terror. As do the snapshots of a conspiracy of clodhoppers who have more than a little in common with Chris Morris's Four Lions satire – an oddball ragbag of blunderers, fantasists and nit-pickers, like the Al-Qaeda controller who rejected a $470 expenses claim for a new fax from a Yemeni militant. Why didn't he buy second-hand? No wonder the leadership began to despair. Kurzman quotes a video from 2008 that scorns the passivity of "my brother in Allah", wailing that, rather than join the struggle, Muslims have chosen to "live as a rabbit, and die as a rabbit".

From Tripoli to Damascus, the "rabbits" have now risen to pursue a truly enduring freedom. For Gerges, "only a miracle" can "resuscitate transnational jihad". Meanwhile, will Western states – as both authors desire - see sense and bankroll hope and reform, rather than persist in the self-defeating "terrorism narrative"? On that score, to half-quote Zhou Enlai, it really is too soon to tell.

A seasonal trio of world-beaters

Britain used to have its own minor-key version of la rentrée littéraire in France, with a torrent of keenly awaited books rushing through a small window in early September. No longer. Hot books from big (literary) beasts arrive sporadically through the year, while the autumnal pseudo-ritual of "Super Thursday" wraps up the celebs for Christmas. So we have to drum up our own sense of occasion. Here's my contribution to a seasonal agenda: three global mega-stars in fiction; three smart blockbusters; three translations. Michel Houellebecq's The Map and the Territory, Haruki Murakami's (above) IQ84 and Umberto Eco's The Prague Cemetery all arrive soon. Move over, Peter Kay.

Virtually, the same old story

Random House has crossed a symbolic threshold. In the UK, so Britain's second largest publishing group has announced, sales of its e-books now account for more than 10 per cent of all revenues. As with its major competitors, the firm's global performance also gives the lie to those cyber-enthusiasts who equate downloaded books with the imminent death of corporate publishing: almost £700m. in turnover, with pre-tax profits up sharply to more than £60m. So far, from the conglomerate publishers to the device manufacturers and the online retailers, electronic reading has delivered the highest rewards to the biggest players. Whatever the cultural benefits of low-cost access to web publishing, it makes precious few fortunes for indie newcomers. For most, that's not the point. Yet, as electronic sales surge ahead for the giants, cyber-space may mirror the dead-tree realm: healthy profits for a few, dogged survival for the rest. Not revolution, but replication. On- or off-line, size still matters.