“The Holy Hair of the Muslims”

February 11, 2006

June 8, 1968 The controversy over the cartoons critical of Islam printed in European newspapers has seized the world’s attention. To some, it must seem that the Muslim prohibition against depicting the Prophet could not possibly be enough to fuel such a violent response. And, in truth, it probably is a combination of that prohibition and the nature of the content depicted in the cartoons. (That three far more offensive cartoons were mysteriously distributed within the Middle East didn’t help matters any.)

But the importance of Muhammad in the Muslim world, in and of itself, cannot be underestimated. Consider Ved Mehta’s 1968 article about the massive turmoil sparked by the theft of a single strand of the Prophet’s hair, an event that occurred in December 1963 in the contentious region of Kashmir. There, too, other factors played a role: the intractable politics of Kashmir, the larger context of India-Pakistan relations. Mehta relies a little too much on lengthy excerpts for my taste, but it is still a valuable piece of background to the current cartoon furor.

Note: The article is Part IV of a long series covering Mehta’s travels in India. The New Yorker got a little sloppy about numbering the parts of this series. I think the series ended up having eight parts, the last of which appeared in the April 11, 1970 issue. Still, wow. An eight-part series. It’s hard to imagine any editor anywhere, other than Shawn, who would have approved an eight-part series of this sort.


“An Agent in Place”

February 6, 2006

March 26, 1966 Recently I was traveling in Poland, Hungary, and Berlin. During my train rides I was reading a lot of John Le Carré and Len Deighton novels, and as much as I enjoyed them I became more curious about how accurate they were. So I turned to my trusty CNY set to see if there was any good reporting on espionage — and boy, did it come through.

In 1966 the New Yorker ran a three-part article by Thomas Whiteside about a Swedish spy who had recently been captured. His name was Stig Wennerström. The article is called “An Agent in Place,” and it’s one of the best things on espionage I’ve ever read — it was also released as a book. Wennerström had been a spy for the Soviet Union in America and later in Sweden. The first two parts of the article are both a little dry and quite different from the third part, and it’s necessary to read all three parts to get a full picture of the case and derive the lessons that Whiteside wanted to impart. The article supplied me with just the kind of model I was looking for, a glimpse of the true nature of running a covert agent that I could use to “test” the credibility of the books by Le Carré and Deighton.

In 1993 the Center for the Study of Intelligence, which I think is run by the CIA, declassified an internal report on the Wennerström case. In passing the author of the report, Alexander Mull, called “An Agent in Place” “the best single unclassified history of the case from the intelligence point of view.” You can download that CSI report here in HTML or PDF format.