BOOK REVIEW / Beware of demons and avenging angels: 'New Jerusalems' - Daniel Easterman: Grafton, 5.99 pounds

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WANDER AROUND any bookshop and you may find Daniel Easterman on several shelves. His bestselling thrillers include The Last Assassin and Brotherhood of the Tomb. He has written two ghost novels as Jonathan Aycliffe and, under his real name, Denis MacEoin, academic titles such as Islam in the Modern World. New Jerusalems is a collection of journalism and essays subtitled 'reflections on Islam, Fundamentalism and the Rushdie affair'. Easterman has married his divided selves to produce a rational and humane contribution to a complex, passionate debate.

The unifying theme, he explains, is that of 'the making of myth': on the Western side, the myth of the devious Arab and exotic Orient and, on the Islamic side, the myth of a coherent Western plot to destroy Islam. He charts the historical background to these myths and the events which have led up to the current crisis, whereby the East / West conflict has replaced capitalism v communism as the primary threat to world stability. As with the Cold War, fear, ignorance and political manipulation are widening the chasm almost daily.

What is impressive about Easterman's reasoning is the evenhandedness of his debate. He is an academic from Belfast but also a former convert to the Islamic faith of Baha'i. He is equally tough on the bigotry of both sides, whether it is the racism of

the Western media or what he calls 'the New Anti-Semitism' in sections of Arab thought. Desiring to understand, he also has the courage to


Having been, as he describes it, 'intoxicated by (the) heady mixture of oriental mystery and down-to- earth liberal modernism' of Baha'i, he is now an avowed secularist,

although faith clearly holds many attractions for him: 'A properly secular society, precisely because it favours no one religion, is a defender of all religions.' He finds the Christian fundamentalist fathers of the United States every bit as worrying as the mullahs of Iran. He is particularly cogent when he is pointing out how much the two tribes need each other: fanaticism breeds demons - without demons there are no avenging angels, no Holy Wars.

In an essay first published in the Independent, 'The Thriller in an Age of Detente', he points out how easy it is for fiction writers, as well as politicians, to fall upon the East as the new evil empire. With the demise of communism, Western mythology demands a new crusade. Where better to turn than an equally distant, equally misunderstood society which has the added advantage of being dark-skinned? 'Like someone whose dog has died, we need only go out and buy another one.'

This is doubly dangerous. The Soviets were at least confined, with the exception of some demonised peace- campaigners and union leaders, to their own national borders. Muslims live among us. If bigotry has always been morally wrong, it is now more potentially explosive than ever.

If he is condemnatory of Western racism, Easterman is stalwart in his defence of Salman Rushdie. As an admirer of Edward Said, he agrees that Muslim society has been greatly misunderstood. But no amount of misunderstanding, he asserts, justifies book burning or death threats. Salman Rushdie has been seized upon as a political pawn at a particular moment in history, however offensive The Satanic Verses may or may not have been. 'If Salman had not existed, he would have had to have been invented.'

Some of Easterman's own novels are set in the Middle East. He - or for that matter any of us - could have become that pawn. This is why New Jerusalems is a courageous book, for even to enter the debate is to walk into a minefield where forces beyond the writer's control may misquote, manipulate, mythologise. As he puts it: 'Salman's fate still haunts me. I believe it haunts us all.'