Orientalism by Edward Said (1978)
Some classic books capture the essence of their time; some remain relevant for ever. Orientalism is the latter sort – if anything, the book has become more relevant. It demonstrates how dominant nations, through their academic, cultural and social agents of expression, exoticise and misunderstand the “other”. Said was ahead of his time in isolating how cultural prowess is consolidated to the benefit of the west, by exaggerating differences with the orient that create a skewed perception of the eastern world as inferior to the west.
Islam and the West by Bernard Lewis (1993)
If Said was the chief critic of orientalism, then Bernard Lewis was orientalist-in-chief, beloved of neocons, and intellectual enabler of interventionist foreign policy in the Arab and Muslim world. Islam and the West, a series of essays, was among the first to argue that pointing out failures inherent to Arab or Islamic society is merely academic rigour, one that the author believed to be an immaculate discipline untainted by prejudice or cultural bias. The book is the progenitor to Like Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel, which also claims to tell the hard unvarnished truth. But both works have contributed significantly to the institutionalisation of Islamophobia.
From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra (2012)
Mishra is what is known in basketball jargon as a triple threat – a polemicist, historian and precise writer with a literary vocabulary that verges on the scientific. In this book he traces Asia’s intellectual response to western imperialism and chooses for his subjects three thinkers who would not seem obvious to the western reader, but who have had an influence on later generations in their regions: Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, the 19th-century, middle-eastern political activist, Liang Qichao, the early 20th-century Chinese journalist, and Rabindranath Tagore, the independence-era Indian modernist poet.The particular joy of the book is in its immersion into an intellectual heritage that avoids the usual suspects anointed by prominence in western culture, such as Gandhi, and then a fanning out, to manage a pretty comprehensive summation of Asia’s path to modernity.
The Endtimes of Human Rights by Stephen Hopgood (2013)
This is an angry book. And it needs to be for it to be effective in its ambition, which is to unseat the notion that the concept of human rights is somehow universally applicable. Hopgood argues that human rights standards are applied selectively and ineffectively – the International Criminal Court being a prime example. He takes an historical approach to illustrate the cultural and religious origins of conventional human rights goals. As the conditions that created the human rights industry become obsolete, Hopgood says, the human rights brand is weak at best, and a tool of neo-imperialism at worst.
Factory Girls: Voices From the Heart of Modern China by Leslie T Chang (2010)
In this book, Chang chronicles the lives of China’s “factory girls”, those who, under less obligation than their male counterparts to stay in their home villages and care for their elders, migrated from the rural hinterlands to the cities to provide the cheap labour that supported China’s economic boom. Apart from chronicling the mass internal migration in China, poor working conditions and entire culture that grew around mass industrial employment, it reminder us of the price paid for the cheap goods that fuel the west’s economic prosperity.
The Looming Tower Al-Qaeda’s Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright (2006)
A sweeping history of the ideological and political path to 9/11 that reads like a sophisticated thriller, this book pulls off many things at the same time. Wright focuses on the characters and their backdrop and manages to provide the most veracious account of how 9/11, and the entire phenomenon of Islamic terrorism, came to pass. His meticulous research involved spending time undercover as a teacher in Saudi Arabia. In The Looming Tower, Wright manages to humanise the characters he encounters without going native, and also provides a political context to Islamic extremism that eludes most academics.
Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o (1986)
This is a seminal collection of essays by a Kenyan novelist who, having achieved success and literary recognition writing in English about post-colonial Kenya, began to reject the English language medium, seeing it as another agent of colonialism because of the role of language in shaping culture, history and identity. The book was the author’s “farewell to English”, and served as a call to arms not only to understand the soft and yet no less oppressive agents of colonialism, but also to demystify literature and theatre by making the genres more accessible to non-elites. The work was a truly intersectional understanding of how imperialism is perpetuated by maintaining the class structures it has created.
Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas E Ricks (2006)
This is the first book that pieces together the story of the Iraq war using original sources in the US military, intelligence agencies, and Iraqis on the ground. Despite the now conventional wisdom that the war was poorly prepared for and disastrously executed, the book manages to shock at the scale of the blunder and the ensuing quagmire.
The Great Partition by Yasmin Khan (2007)
Much has been written on the partition of India and Pakistan, but no one work provides such a balanced account that also illustrates how few managed to foresee the consequences of their actions. Emotions run high on the topic of partition, its tentacles still reaching into the lives of its victims today, so inevitably many accounts are either score settlers or attempts at absolution. This book, like all good history books, produces no smoking gun but shows how the blunder that resulted in so many deaths was a combination of a lack of preparation and political adventurism. Most importantly, it illustrates how partition was only made inevitable by the fact that markers of religious difference were “built into the brickwork of the colonial state” by the Raj.
A Theory of Liberation by Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino (1973)
This book is the bible of what came to be known as “liberation ideology”. Merino, a Dominican priest and philosopher, founded the theory on understanding Latin America’s “reality” – specifically how the majority of the population at the time lived in extreme poverty. Despite its religious underpinnings, – Merino thought of the solution to social injustice was based in recognising the divine in the poor – the book is an analysis of how poverty is a condition, not merely an economic state. In what is essentially socialism inspired by religious doctrine, doctrinally inspired socialism, the Merino’s solution to injustice is not onlysimply a return to Christian values, but in a call to apply them in a way that dismantles the social structures that perpetuate poverty and hierarchy.
This is part of the Observer’s 100 political classics that shaped the modern era. Please leave suggestions below of books that inspired and shaped your political consciousness and we’ll round up the best in next week’s Observer