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Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong (Modern Library, 223 pages, $19.95). "Every single fundamentalist movement I have studied is convinced that the secular establishment is determined to wipe religion out. This is not always a paranoid reaction. We have seen that secularism has often been imposed very aggressively in the Muslim world. . . . Wherever modernity takes root, a fundamentalist movement is likely to rise up alongside it in conscious reaction. Fundamentalists will often express their discontent with a modern development by overstressing those elements in their tradition that militate against it. . . . All fundamentalists are fighting for survival because their backs are to the wall. They believe they have to fight their way out of the impasse. In this frame of mind, on rare occasions, some resort to terrorism."

So says religious historian Karen Armstrong (whose "Short Life of Buddha" was something of a best seller, of all things) in this largely unextolled book from last year. In its basic elements, says Armstrong, Muslim fundamentalism is no different from the Christian and Jewish fundamentalism that preceded it. All begin as responses to internal crisis and become nakedly aggressive later. The current radical minority strain of Muslim fundamentalism may go back to the Crusades (in some ways, for Muslims, almost the equivalent of the crucifixion for Christians), but its major ideological progenitor was a Pakistani named Mawdudi, for whom "the West existed only to crush Islam. . . . Because God alone was sovereign, nobody was obliged to take orders from another human being. Revolution against the colonial powers was not just a right but a duty. Mawdudi called for universal jihad. . . . Mawdudi argued that jihad was the central tenet of Islam."

Islam is the world's fastest-growing religion. In this country, it is both the most-feared and the least-understood. Given the realities of our world, that can no longer be. There is, perhaps, no recent book that more lucidly and efficiently helps to remedy ignorance than this one.

New York: An Illustrated History by Ric Burns and James Sanders with Lisa Ades (Knopf, 578 pages, $35 paper). The twin towers of its tallest monument, the World Trade Center, may have been turned into a six-story pile of rubble, but New York City can still make one, as Ric Burns put it in the introduction to this extraordinary book, "spellbound by the power and beauty and heartbreaking mystery of the modern world and by the unfathomably huge city that is still its capital. . . . For generations now, the dark beauty and inimitable power of the city have stirred men and women to the bottom of their souls, seeing the very embodiment of all ambition, all aspiration, all romance, all desire."

In 1999, there was a fine but somewhat overlooked PBS series dedicated, says Burns, to answering the question, "How did it get to be that way?" The accompanying companion book to that PBS series, though, was -- and is -- quietly spectacular, a magnificently illustrated history of the human, cultural and architectural empire that is New York, a place that is simultaneously the center of world cosmopolitanism and one of the world's largest coalitions of provinces and provincials.

Though it is magnificently illustrated, the one picture, ironically, missing is of the two 110-story towers that were built to symbolize, among other things, the city's financial might and which were, in their very symbolism, the perfect target for those who hate everything the city and its history stand for.

-- Jeff Simon

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