Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Week 9, the ‘Islamic Bomb’

16 Nov

Important aide memoire for self: those subjects that you really, really know a lot about, have done extensively researched, and that you’ve produced scholarly work about. Those are the ones that are hardest to teach.

For this part of the course, we turned our gaze towards proliferation and the developing world. In particular, the West’s interactions with the Pakistani nuclear weapons programme. Which just so happens to be the subject of my doctoral thesis. The intent behind this was twofold: 1) to explore how the media influences perceptions about national (or what they perceive as transnational) nuclear programmes. 2) to explore attitudes towards national nuclear programmes within governments.

The ‘Islamic bomb‘ (which, for the record, I firmly believe to be a construction of the American, European, Israeli, and Indian media) can be a touchy subject. Not only does it raw us into the murky world of international proliferation networks, secret intelligence reporting, and the rise of modern political Islam, it also remains highly contemporary. Then there are other tricky questions: the legitimacy of the Israeli nuclear arsenal, the overall Middle Eastern situation, current tensions surrounding Iran, Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis (another thing that I believe is rather disruptive and unhelpful in terms of trying to understand this subject) and so on.

This all led to – on one of the classes at least – some highly politicised and at times tense debates about these very issues. I’d say that this is the class where personal feelings and political viewpoints really started to impact the seminar. The only other classes where I’ve felt this happening was when we were discussing issues of government secrecy and media suppression surrounding the Strath Report and The War Game

Should we remain objective at all times? Of course not. Many of these issues are highly emotive, arousing strong feelings and deep seated passions. I actually think it’s good for debate if we can let these out in a seminar situation from time to time.

But, was the classes a success? On the whole, I’m not sure. For my part, I think I both intruded too much while at the same time not giving a strong enough direction to seminars. A rather contradictory position, I’ll admit. if I had the time again, I’d give a longer term view of the Pakistani and Indian nuclear programmes, hopefully allowing students to see the long-term contours.

And maybe the ‘Islamic bomb’ just doesn’t fit with the aims of the course. i have this nagging thought that – in terms of understanding the nuclear Cold War – a class focussing on the neutron bomb controversy and the NATO Dual Track decision might have been better. Then again, that slants the overall nature of the seminar series even more towards high-level politicking and bipolar conflict. One of my core aims with the course is to demonstrate that nuclear issues were not always about bipolar conflict. These are the sort of structural and pedagogical details that I’ll need to think about when revising the course.

2 Responses to “Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Week 9, the ‘Islamic Bomb’”


  1. The Misrepresentation of Nuclear Things | theatomicage - January 31, 2015

    […] ‘Islamic bomb’ scare in 1979-80. For more on the ‘islamic bomb’, see this post about teaching the history of the ‘Islamic bomb’ and this post about a discussion […]

  2. Nuclear Terrorism in the Modern Seminar Room | theatomicage - December 9, 2015

    […] I will be making statements supporting the proliferation network of A Q Khan, the idea of an ‘Islamic bomb‘, and and means of conducting ‘nuclear terrorism‘. Give me a few weeks and […]

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