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Swellboy on… a Dickensian Islamist

The curious mystery of the radical cleric who reads Dickens

Swellboy on… a Dickensian Islamist

Image: Brijesh Patel

November 20 2010
Nick Foulkes

It was intriguing to learn that the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki likes to read Dickens. I could not but help see this as encouraging news. Now, I must admit that I have not read the whole of the Dickens oeuvre, so I cannot categorically state that there is not a passage in Edwin Drood that relates to the manufacture of exploding inkjet printers or that somewhere in the account of the Gordon Riots that appears in Barnaby Rudge there is not a coded message about suicide bombing. However, in the novels of his that I have read, there seems to be a marked disinclination to celebrate blowing people up and inciting them to violence against each other, and if there is a consistent line of faith it is what you might call a benevolent secularism, about the virtue of hard work, modesty, decency and all the rest.

I suspect that Dickens was too familiar with the frailties of humanity to condemn them utterly in others. Occasionally there are out-and-out rogues, but even the Madoff-like financier Merdle, who ruins so many of the characters in Little Dorrit, is portrayed as a lost and lonely soul rather than a scheming monster.

This is not to say that Dickens did not attack those aspects of society that he thought unfair, viz the workhouse, brutal schools, the legal system, government bureaucracy, speculative finance and so on, but where the individual is concerned he seldom strikes me as capable of damning anyone entirely. Thus the feckless Micawber, who today would probably be labelled a benefits scrounger and forced to work on a community project instead of waiting for something to “turn up”, comes across as a comic but nuanced human being, brimming with the complex admixture of characteristics and traits, some good, some not so good, that lives within all of us.

There were of course moments of maudlin melodrama, giving rise to Wilde’s withering put-down that one would have to have a heart of stone not to cry with laughter at the death of Little Nell, although by contrast the radical (though in a different way to Mr Awlaki) MP Daniel O’Connell wept tears of grief at the end of The Old Curiosity Shop and hurled the book out of the window of a moving train. Still, if nothing else, Awlaki’s fondness for Dickens gives a new meaning to radical literary theory; back in my day, the Marxist-inspired theory of Terry Eagleton, the trendy English don at Wadham College, was about as radical as textual interpretation ever got.