The need for identity can be satisfied today with the concept of the nation-state. But it must be one that embraces pluralism. If identity can relate principally to citizenship rather than faith, to a land rather than a doctrine, and if that identity is one that can live in harmony with other identities, then there is still hope.

MY friend Ahmed Rashid is a lucky man.

A hard working man, too, it must be added, as well as a diligent and able one. A correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review and London’s Daily Telegraph, Ahmed has reported on Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia for more than 20 years, writing particularly knowledgeably about Afghanistan (I first met him in Geneva in the late 1980s when he was covering the talks there that culminated in the Soviet withdrawal from that unhappy country).

The last time I saw him in New York, he had come to the United States to promote his book, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, which had been published last year by Yale University Press. He received a typically unostentatious reception: the number of people in America interested in a serious, meticulously researched study of Afghanistan were few, and dwindling.

Rumour had it (though I never asked him) that Yale had paid only $5000 for the rights to print the American edition, not a large sum in those pre-recession days. As of September 10, the book was well on its way to gathering dust on a few library shelves. And then the terrorists stuck, and Americans suddenly could not get enough of material on the Taliban, Afghanistan or militant Islam. Ahmed’s book — practically the only, and certainly the best, informed work on its subject, based on a profound understanding of the country and extensive interviews with the Taliban leadership — promptly rose to the top of the bestseller lists.

You could not walk in to a bookstore in New York City without seeing piles of it on prominent display. Last I heard, Ahmed was Number 1 on and Number 2 on the New York Times’ bestseller list. Publishers spoke breathlessly of Yale having put 350,000 copies in print. If Ahmed were free to come to the U.S., there would be sell-out crowds to listen to his every word. However, true to his calling, he has stayed on in the region, doing what he does so well — helping us understand what is happening there. But his book has had the triumph it deserves.

This is all to the good, because so much of the world’s awareness of events in and around Afghanistan today has been based on the ephemeral. Crises have a habit of privileging news over context, information over insight, horror over history. Soundbites supplant wisdom. And yet it is only through a book like Ahmed’s — which reveals how Afghanistan was historically the subject of power politics by the Persians, the Mongols, the British Raj, the Soviet Union, the U.S., and now Pakistan and the oil companies — that the full historical framework becomes available. (Fascinatingly, Ahmed has a chapter he calls “Global Jihad: The Arab-Afghans and Osama Bin Laden”, written two years before the connection became a commonplace of the punditocracy, in which he explains the U.S. role in recruiting thousands of foreign Muslim mujahideen to fight the Soviet forces in Afghanistan).

But it is not enough, of course, to focus only on Afghanistan or even on the complex politics of the region as a whole. There is a broader and yet more fundamental issue at stake if we are to seek to understand the world of September 11. We are living in what, for want of a better word just yet, we must call the post-post-Cold War era: the “post-Cold War era” was the brief period of exhilaration about the end of the tensions of that period of superpower conflict, and the “post-post-Cold War” is that time of disillusionment, turmoil and confusion that has succeeded it.

This is a world of savage ethnic clashes and resurgent new nationalisms, messianic calls for religious purity, profound divisions between rich and poor, and (seemingly paradoxically) the sweeping and irresistible tide of globalisation. To understand the forces shaping this turbulent new world requires not just geopolitical awareness but a more nuanced insight into the human condition everywhere — into what ignites rage, informs despair and illuminates hope.

Two other books, in very different ways, help light the path. Benjamin R. Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld, first published in 1995, sharply and lucidly dissects what he considers the fundamental conflict of our times: the clash between, no, not civilisations, but doctrines — religious and ethnic fundamentalism on the one hand, secular consumerist capitalism on the other.

Barber believes the world is simultaneously coming together into a single international market and being torn apart by

Source: The Hindu