As weather bombs brew in the north Atlantic, I’m roughing it by heading off to Rajasthan, and the literary festival where you are most likely to be greeted by an elephant. The life of a writer is rarely glamorous, but for one week in January — should an invitation to Jaipur be forthcoming — it decidedly is. The festival is to India what a Richard Curtis film is to London: a fusion of all the fondest stereotypes that foreigners have of a place. The talks, which run the gamut from the Mahabharata to the future of the novel, are pure literary masala. The parties are visions of perfumed candles, shimmering saris and maharajas’ palaces. The last time I was in Jaipur, there was even a cricket match. Needless to say, we were greeted at the ground by dancing girls, our captain rode out to the toss on a camel, and I got to bowl the Crown Prince of Udaipur. It’s that kind of a bash.
There will doubtless be much talk in Jaipur of the Charlie Hebdo murders. India, after all, is simultaneously the most religious country in the world and the cradle of Salman Rushdie. Three years ago, the literature festival was almost derailed by a row over The Satanic Verses. Meanwhile, in Egypt, President Sisi has lamented that ‘Muslims have antagonised the entire world’, while in Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province, the authorities have banned the burka. Tensions in Europe between state and religion are part of a global trend.
The shootings in Paris demonstrated in the most brutal fashion possible an aspect of Islam that lots of people in the West struggle to understand: the love that most Muslims feel for Mohammed. It can strike many of us as odd that the adherents of a religion founded on opposition to idolatry should so enshrine a mortal man, and that cartoons of their prophet should provoke more indignation than those of their god. Nevertheless, when British Muslims declare that they love their prophet more than their own children, the rest of us should think twice before unleashing our inner Dave Allen. This is not just because it is cruel to jeer at what is precious to someone else; it is also because the centrality of Mohammed to Islam may be the key to combatting jihadism. The Muslim prophet comes in many forms. There is the moral leader who inspires the community that gives more in charity than any other in Britain: the man who swallowed abuse peaceably, railed against the oppression of the weak, and cut off a portion of his cloak rather than disturb a cat. Then there is the war-leader: the man who fought battles, staged mass executions, and ordered people who had insulted him put to death. It is not hard to guess with which Mohammed the Charlie Hebdo killers identified — nor the many Muslims who have been flocking to join the Islamic State. The surest way to stop the growth of violent jihadism in the long term is not, I suspect, to de-radicalise the jihadis. Rather, it is to de-radicalise Mohammed.
Last week, I was in Dresden, which over the past few months has become a focus for protests against Islam. My concern, though, was with far deadlier antagonisms. I was there for Radio 4’s Making History, which returns next month, just in time for the 70th anniversary of the Allied attack that incinerated one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. To this day, the bombing of Dresden is commemorated in the countries that manned the bombers as the archetype of pointless destruction: a perspective that signally fails to do justice to the city’s importance to the Nazi war effort. It also bears witness to the brilliance of Goebbels’ propaganda: the consecration of Dresden’s agony as a war crime was his last and most enduring triumph. In the city itself, though, it would seem — based, certainly, on my conversations with local historians who have specialised in the topic — that only the far right still give it any credence. Dresden today illustrates an optimistic truth: given time, even the most grievous wounds can heal. In the city centre, churches and palaces have been meticulously restored to their former grandeur; in the museums, porcelain menageries and clocks in the shape of drumming bears bear witness to the abiding riches of its golden age. I found it a revelation — and will certainly be back.
Talking of the 1940s, my great sorrow this week was the end of my all-time favourite Sunday evening let’s-settle-back-and-try-and-forget-it’s-Monday-tomorrow drama, Foyle’s War. There never has been an actor quite like Michael Kitchen for expressing a perfectly calibrated moral judgment with the twitch of an eyebrow. The creator of the series, Anthony Horowitz, has already, Conan Doyle-style, brought it back from the dead once. Fingers crossed that he does so again.
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Tom Holland is a historian. His books include In the Shadow of the Sword, Rubicon and Persian Fire.
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