This book begins promisingly with quoted passages from other books which challenge prejudices and appeal to a sense of shared humanity: a Jew speaks with passionate eloquence about the glory of God, “who is the same for all men”, exciting the admiration of a gathering audience of Muslims in 1950s Yemen; an African Arab returning from Europe tells his surprised countrymen that the Europeans are just like them: working, raising families, experiencing joys and disappointments. These lessons in tolerance and understanding are delivered in a gentle tone – a tone quite distinct from Halliday's.

The 100 myths of the title are quite varied, covering North Africa to Afghanistan and ranging over the fields of economics, sociology, politics, religion; when it comes to languages, Halliday can pronounce judgment not only on their origins and their relation to each other but also their literature and poetry. While the extent of the author's knowledge is indisputable, exactly who he is writing for is at first less clear. Though one might expect that the myths would be the kind of popular misconceptions that tend to appear in the Western media, many of them will be relatively obscure to the non-specialist. Others are not myths in the West, e.g., the notion in Iran that adherents of the Baha'i faith are part of a political conspiracy. No matter: we can learn the myths as well as Halliday's responses to them. However, his rather lofty voice (with phrases like “without analytic purchase”) also makes incongruous his inclusion of the myth that on September 11, 2001, large numbers of Jews stayed away from the World Trade Center – a theory unlikely to have subscribers among the educated readers he appears to be addressing. Neither is there deep engagement on any particular topic: many of the myths are disposed of in half a page without references.

The author's main purpose is to challenge the use of history to explain or justify current events. He advocates a rational, critical approach based on international law and existing realities rather than identification with emotionally-charged nationalist symbols and stories, many of them invented or of surprising origin. This position is forceful in how Halliday deals with many of the myths. However, it is not always the most appropriate perspective: in debunking the idea that the “holiness” of the land is the reason for the Arab-Israeli conflict, he could have chosen to describe the immediate material concerns of Palestinians losing their homes and olive groves on the one hand and, on the other, the housing, education and other incentives offered to Jewish settlers, most of whom are not religious fundamentalists. Instead, he informs us that land cannot be “holy” – something which tells us nothing about the motives of those involved and is unlikely to persuade anyone who may be of the opposite opinion.

He is blunt throughout. The religious significance of Jerusalem is, for both sides, an “overblown, chauvinist fetish”. After describing the origins of modern Hebrew, he gratuitously derides language revivalist movements on practical and economic grounds; many will agree, but he assumes the parameters of any discussion. “Islamophobia”, he says, should be replaced by “anti-Muslimism” (though this is what it is already generally understood to mean) but those who have noted the etymological problem with “anti-Semitism” (this would include Desmond Tutu, for example) are dismissed and have their motives questioned.

For the most part, Halliday's whip is cracked impartially, with equal disregard for sensitivities on all sides. He is also, as far as this reviewer is competent to judge, correct in by far the majority of his main contentions. However his arguments are not always as crushing as his language (“claptrap”) and much of what he writes is bald assertion – which, whether right or wrong, will leave the reader none the wiser. For example, Halliday disputes the idea that “Oil has been and may become even more of a source of conflict in the modern Middle East”: perhaps the US invasion of Iraq was not motivated by oil – nor, or course, by weapons of mass destruction – but he doesn't mention Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, either to acknowledge it as an exception or to explain why it isn't one. His approach to dismissing the notion that the West, having lost an enemy in communism, has had to create a new one in Islam, has more than a touch of the straw man about it: he ignores potential concrete motivations (Israel's interest at the end of the Cold War in finding a new global threat to maintain the strength of its alliance with the US), instead making a grand and worthless counterclaim that capitalism is a force for peace.

The book ends with a “Glossary of crisis”: a collection of definitions for terms in contemporary discourse in both the West and the Middle East. This is a mixed bag, with single-sentence entries like “Anti-American: In the US, an all-purpose term of derogation and denial of legitimate dissent”, mixed with longer, scholarly summaries of words like “Groupthink”. Though differences in formatting and typeface hide the fact, there is as much reading here as in the main body of the book. That, however, is a reflection on both parts.

On the positive side, Halliday's knowledge is enormous and most people are likely to find out a good deal from this book, much of which is interesting. Unfortunately, while easy to dip into, it is less than satisfying and frequently disappoints in both tone and content. Too often, the author seems less inclined to properly enlighten the reader – whose trust and deference he takes for granted – than to vent the scorn of an impatient authority. Thus the question of who the book is aimed at is misplaced: it is not aimed-at; it is delivered-of.

Book review © 2007 Michael Breen