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Martin and the Monsters: Amis on Islamism September 13, 2006

Posted by smiffy in 9/11, Books, Iraq, Islam, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Middle East, Palestine, Terrorism.

‘He who fights monsters should look into it that he does not become a monster. When you gaze long into the Abyss, the Abyss also gazes into you’. – Friedrich Nietzsche

It suppose it was inevitable that, sooner or later, Martin Amis would address the subject of militant Islam and the ‘war on terror’, as he did with the essay ‘The Age of Horrorism‘ in last Sunday’s Observer, and the previous week’s short story about Mohammed Atta. It’s precisely the kind of subject which delights literary intellectuals with pretensions towards political engagement – sweeping, epic themes about culture, belief and civilization, a chance to take a moral stand against a clear evil and defend a set of values with the feeling that you’re contributing to something that touches on the lives of everyone on the planet.

It’s a shame, then, that Amis’ piece contains virtually everything that’s bad, even dangerous, about much of the current debate. It’s less an insightful or original contribution than a hodge-podge of overused and misleading factoids that you’ll find on hundreds of different websites. The only real difference (apart from the length) between Amis’ essay and those is that Islamwatch or Jihadwatch or whichever David Horowitz off-shoot you’re popping on to doesn’t tend to include the stunning self-indulgence found in the former. Just as Koba the Dread was less about Stalinism than about Martin Amis thinking about Stalinism, this is not so much about Islamism than about the clash between Islamism and the Amis ego (no prizes for guessing which of these titans comes out on top!).

Amis’ basic thesis, from what I can tell, is that Islamism/jihadism/militant Islam (call it what you will) represents a growing a powerful threat to the values of ‘the West’. It’s, to be crude, a BAD THING and it’s imperative that we wake up to the threat and start fighting back (how we’re supposed to do this, he’s a little sketchy about, but I imagine producing long think-pieces for Sunday papers is probably quite high on the list).

While he goes into quite some detail on how the issue is tossed around in his own head (large chunks are taken up with a summary of a short story he tried to write about an Islamist terrorist loosely based around Sayeed Quutb, but later abandoned, not to mention the now obligatory stuff about his own family) he gives little in the way of fact or evidence which might support the assertions he makes or which he’s cribbed together from some other, very obvious, sources. The result is something begging more questions than it answers (and not in a good way).

Take, for example, what’s clearly intended to be one of the most provocative passages in the piece, which sets out the Amis stall quite unambiguously.

Until recently it was being said that what we are confronted with, here, is a ‘civil war’ within Islam. That’s what all his was supposed to be: not a clash of civilizations or anything like that, but a civil war within Islam. Well, the civil war appears to be over. And Islamism won it. The loser, moderate Islam, is always deceptively well-represented on the level of the op-ed page and the public debate; elsewhere, it is supine and inaudible. We are not hearing from moderate Islam. Whereas Islamism, as a mover and shaper of world events, is pretty well all there is.

In what sense, exactly, has Islamism ‘won it’? What is he basing this on? What criteria is he even using? Perhaps he means that Muslims across the globe are flocking to the most militant Islamic sects in their droves, all card-carrying Quutbists, armalites in one hand and copies of Milestones in the others. Some are, to be sure, but how many will it take for Islamism to have ‘won’? 10% of all Muslims? 20%? More? Indeed, the actual views of real, living Muslims are noticeable in the essay only by their absence, a failing I’ll return to later.

Even what is stated in the piece above seems confused; if ‘moderate Islam’ is well-represented in op-ed pages and public debate (even if ‘deceptively’) then how can it be that, at the same time, ‘We are not hearing from (it)’. Perhaps Amis is confusing ‘not hearing from’ with ‘not interested enough to listen to’ and ‘we’ with just ‘Amis’.

The metaphors of conflict, like the ‘civil war’ and ‘clash of civilisations’ used above occur again and again in the piece. Amis seems to take them at face value, forgetting that they’re shorthand and often not very useful in capturing the complexities of a wide-ranging issues. He then builds his argument around the metaphor, as opposed to what it’s trying to represent, leading himself into all sorts of difficulties. While an actual civil war can have a winner and a loser, the ‘civil war’ he’s referring to cannot: there can’t be a winner in a contest between beliefs in that way, until there’s no one left on the losing side. Still, why let something like that stand in the way of a catchy phrase.

The ‘clash of civilisations’ worldview is similarly flawed. It relies on being able to distinguish between one ‘civilisation’ from another, and understanding them as self-contained entities, almost like states at war. The truth, of course, is that the world doesn’t work like that. While it’s possible to talk about specific ideas, or even ideologies, getting bogged down in talk of ‘civilisations’ invariably oversimplifies the views of the people who actually live in them. Indeed, as Amartya Sen discussed in his remarkable Identity and Violence (an essential rebuttal of the Samuel Huntingdon view of the world) different societies have, throughout history, tended to develop as much (at least) through interaction with their neighbours and an ever-changing set of cultural influences than through adherence to any kind of core, guiding principles.

It’s unclear which specific value systems Amis sees as being in collision. Although he trots out the usual pities about Islam itself (‘the donor of countless benefits to mankind and the possessor of a thrilling history’) as opposed to Islamism, the fact that he seems to believe that the latter is the only game in town and his utter indifference to the views of non-Islamist Muslims suggest he’s essentially no different from those ideologues who see the world through the lens of Islamism vs. the West (and never the twain shall meet).

Such views are not only held by right-wing kooks and armed Mullahs living in caves near Peshawar. This Manichean view of the world is also common currency among a certain current of the left which styles itself as ‘anti-imperialist’ but aligns itself with the most reactionary elements of militant Islam, as Fred Halliday points out in his article on the subject. They, the Galloways, SWPers and protestors carrying protestors stating that ‘We are all Hezbollah’ (perhaps a good title for a post 9/11 McCarthy song), hold a worldview, it would seem, no less reductionist and simplistic as any Free Republic crackpot.

Amis’ tendency to reduce complex positions to handily straightforward propositions doesn’t confine itself to Islam: he makes equally unsustainable and unsupported assertions about ‘the West’ (undefined, of course). He argues that ‘Far from wanting or trying to exterminate it, the West had no views whatever about Islam per se before 11 September 2001’. True, as far as it goes, but not in the way Amis intends. The West had no views about Islam then, and has no views about Islam now. Or, rather, it had and has a mulitiplicity of different, contradictory views none more ‘Western’ than any other. The ‘West’ does not exist as a distinct entity (geographical, political or cultural) in the way that Amis seems to conceive of it. Even those values which often get defined as ‘Western’ have, as Sen shows, existed in every different society to a greater or lesser degree and continue to do so. Maybe Amis would like to claim ownership but the facts would suggest that some things are genuinely universal (including, it should be added, stupidity).

More perniciously, his ‘West’ also contains that most tired of straw-man opponents – ‘multicultural relativism’. In a passage where he imagine John Walker Lindh advising Bin Laden on possible Western responses to an attack he writes:

… the West is enfeebled, not just by sex and alcohol, but also by 30 years of multicultural relativism. They’ll think suicide bombing is just an exotic foible, like shame-and-honor killings or female circumcision.

Is there anything more overused, at this stage, that the tropes laid out above (if not the old ‘I Googled X and Y and got 12,000 hits, therefore …’ which Amis also uses with about as much shame as the lowest Sunday Independent hack)? Who are these multiculturalists who defend honour killings in the name of cultural diversity? I’ve never heard anyone try to justify Female Genital Mutilation on those grounds (except for Germaine Greer) but again and again this point is made. From Richard Littlejohn or Kevin Myers it might be par for the course, but from Martin Amis (author of ‘The War Against Cliché’, no less. It seems that, like Islamism, Cliché has won!) I would have hoped for something a little less lazy and predictable. Perhaps his next piece in the paper will treat us to some satirical comments about female black lesbian one-legged save-the-whale dwarfs.

Amis clearly bases much of his argument on the work of Paul Berman, among others. He even quotes chunks of Terror and Liberalism when writing about Palestine, although he chides mildly Berman for being too soft on Quutb. Unfortunately, the problems with Berman’s argument are magnified tenfold in Amis’ reproduction of them. Rather than simply trying to look at militant Islam in it sown terms, influenced by European political thinking, to be sure, but also arising from a particular set of socio-political and regional circumstances, both apparently need to ground their opposition in terms of the grand narrative of Us vs. Them (one big Them encompassing all the evil in the world).

This is something I considered the weakest part of Terror and Liberalism, Berman’s essential point being that all totalitarian ideologies are really just the same, that they’re all fundamentally irrational cults which celebrate death and are the antithesis of Enlightenment values. In this he links Nazism, Stalinism and Islamism arguing that if you scratch the surface you’ll find the underlying motivation being his vague, nihilistic death-worship (a theme also explored, to an extent, in Buruma and Margalit’s Occidentalism). As Amis puts it:

And one needs hardly labour the similarities between Islamism and the totalitarian cults of the last century. Anti-semitic, anti-liberal, anti-individualistic, anti-democratic, and, most crucially, anti-rational, they too were cults of death, death-driven and death-fuelled. The main distinction is that the paradise which the Nazis (pagan) and the Bolsheviks (atheist) sought to bring about was an earthly one, raised from the mulch of millions of corpses.

It’s a cute idea, and probably an attractive one in some obvious quarters but unfortunately it doesn’t really stand up to serious scrutiny. One could argue equally convincingly that Bolshevism was the logical continuation of the political implementation of Enlightenment values, but was simply corrupted by those unable the resist the temptation of absolute power the Revolution was able to offer. One could even suggest, as some in the Frankfurt School did, that Nazism itself was the inevitable outcome of Enlightenment rationality pursued to its limits. Neither are particularly persuasive but they’re no less plausible than the Berman/Amis thesis. One might be closer to the truth by paraphrasing Tolstoy and suggesting that while secular, liberal democracies are all alike, every repressive, nihilistic ideology is repulsive in its own way. Grasping at imagined connections between different positions and making the connection the defining feature of each serves only to blur our understanding of how they arise and, consequently, how they might best be combatted.

For someone so keen to draw link between certain political movements of the past and contemporary ‘Islamofascism’ Amis is remarkably ahistorical in other respects. On completing the essay a reader might be forgiven for thinking that terrorism begins and ends with Islamism, or that an act of terrorism carried out by one Muslim is essentially no different from any other in terms of motivation or context.

He writes about terrorism as if it’s a uniquely Islamic phenomenon, with no reference to any other groups, causes or atrocities. We Irish, more than many, should understand how blinkered such a position is. For some reason, he appears fixated with suicide terrorism, as if it’s in some way worse than others forms of terrorism, falling into a category he defines as ‘horrorism’ (isn’t most terrorism actually horrorism?).

Of course, suicide bombing of civilians is always an abomination and can never be justified. But surely the most troubling aspect of the mindset of the suicide bomber is the willingness to kill, rather than the willingness to die. Is the willingness to die for a cause really ‘astonishingly alien’ to the ‘Western mind’ as Amis seems to suggest? It certainly wouldn’t be to Irish Republicanism, which remains devoted to its martyrs, from the 1916 leaders (and previously) to the Hunger Strikes (and beyond). And even if we were to concede that there’s something especially loathsome about suicide-bombing itself, this tactic is certainly not unique to Islamism. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elaam had employed it for years and, until very recently, were the primary exponent of it on the planet. Whatever else you can claim about them, it’s hard to describe the Tamil Tigers as an Islamist sect. Unfortunately, though, like moderate Muslims or basic historical accuracy, considering their example doesn’t tie in with what Amis wants to say, and so they must be ignored.

By refusing to look at what such wider comparisons might imply for his thesis, not only are suicide bombings seen as essentially Islamist in nature, but so too are all such attacks viewed through the prism of the Us Vs. Them lens, rather than considering the specific circumstances of each. It would be nice to think that such reluctance on Amis’ part was based simply on an ignorance of the issues involved, but disturbingly Amis speaks of a deliberate refusal to even contemplate the possibility that the bombers could be motivated by anything other than the broad views Amis ascribes them.

Suicide mass-murder is astonishingly alien to us, so alien, in fact, that Western opinion has been unable to formulate a rational response to it. A rational response would be something like an unvarying factory siren of unanimous disgust. But we haven’t managed that. What we have managed, on the whole, is a murmur of dissonant evasion. (…) Contemplating intense violence you very rationally ask yourself, what are the reasons for this? And compassionately frowning newscasters are still asking that same question. It is time to move on. We are not dealing in reasons because we are not dealing in reason.

A more honest approach might have been to say ‘Islamic suicide mass-murder is astonishingly alien to us’, as that’s all he’s interested in. Non-Islamic terrorism, perhaps, is just part of the normal fabric of the Amis world. Intellectual honesty, however, is a rare commodity in this piece. At one very telling point, he writes:

And this, on 25 July, was the considered response of the Mayor of London to the events of 7 July:

‘Given that they don’t have jet planes, don’t have tanks, they only use their bodies to use as weapons. In an unfair balance, that’s what people use’.

On first glance, that seems a little over-the-top, even by Ken Livingstone’s standards. Could he really be suggesting that there could be some reasonable justification for the 7/7 bombings? Except, of course, than he didn’t actually say Amis claims he did, nor was it in response to the London attacks. What he did say on 25 July, on Sky News, was:

Given that the Palestinians don’t have jet planes, don’t have tanks, they only use their bodies to use as weapons.

which is something completely different. The replacement of ‘Palestinians’ with ‘they’ speaks volumes. ‘They’ are all the same, whether they’re in Ramallah or Grimsby. ‘They’ want to destroy us’. There’s no difference between the murderers of the 9/11 attacks or the Madrid or London bombings and a suicide bomber from Palestine or Chechnya. And because ‘they’ are all the same, there can be no rational explanation for anything any one of ‘them’ does.

Even if applied to Al Qaeda, such a thesis is misguided, but when applied to the situation in Palestine it becomes decidedly ludicrous. Amis buys the Berman line lock, stock and barrel. Palestinian terrorism clearly has nothing to do with Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories. It’s all down to irrational Islamism. This has the added bonus of placing the burden of responsibility for the conflict on the shoulders of those Palestinians who rejected the Camp David provisions, while ‘we’ don’t even have to look at the implications of those provisions for the prospective Palestinian state as to do so might be tantamount to looking for reasons where none exist, remember?

One has to feel a little sorry for Amis and the timing of the piece. If the following, including quotes from Berman, had been published two months ago, it might have been a little thought-provoking:

Once the redoubled suppression had taken hold, the human bombings decreased; and world opinion quietened down. The Palestinians were now worse off than every, their societal gains of the Nineties ‘flattened by Israeli tanks’. But the protests ‘rose and fell in tandem with the suicide bomb attacks and not in tandem with the suffering of the Palestinian people.’

Following the actions of the IDF in Gaza and Lebanon, though, and the mass protests that followed, this surely is a point which needs some radical rethinking.

It appears, in conclusion, that Amis has had a Yossarian moment. At some point over the last 5 years, perhaps 9/11, perhaps 7/7, perhaps in a bar with Christopher Hitchens, he’s had the sudden realization, like the hero of Heller’s novel, that ‘they are trying to kill me!’.

What this has done, it seems, has been to shut down his critical faculties. He’s no longer interested in thinking or learning, considering ambiguity or grappling with contradiction or nuance; rather, he has a ready-made framework through which he can understand the world and, by God, he’s going to cram everything in there. Like the person in the Nietzsche quote cited at the start, he’s gazed too long at Islamism and now it’s gazing back at him, tainting his view of everything else. All terrorism must be seen as connected with Islamism. The great ideological battles of the past must also be part of the current clash of civilizations. Everything becomes reduced to a black-and-white, ‘us’ and ‘them’ view of the world (which, of course, degrades the humanity of both camps).

Most worrying of all, actual Muslims are understood only in terms of the Islamist vs. the rest of the world mindset. If someone is neither a murderer or a ‘moderate’ contributor to an op-ed page, they simply don’t appear on the Amis horizon. For Amis, Summer 2005 contained only Shehzad Tanweer rather than both the London bomber and waspish, Muslim cross-dresser Kemal Shahin from Big Brother (now, apparently, a Buddhist, perhaps epitomizing Sen’s contention that cultural identity is determined by choice, rather than destiny).

It’s this lack of interest in the real lives and the variety of real lives of actual Muslims, the reluctance look behind the received wisdom and grand narratives of the Bermans, Lewises and Huntingtons and get his hands dirty with the mundanity of the everyday and unremarkable that defines Amis’ failure in this piece. He might have been better looking to someone like Jason Burke who, if he wants to write about the views of Muslims, takes the novel approach of actually going out and talking to some, as he does in this most recent book On the Road to Kandahar.

Burke’s piece in the same edition of the Observer as Amis’ massive tract gives a far more interesting, original and optimistic perspective the variety of opinion among Muslims worldwide, and on the real state of play in Amis’ ‘civil war’. He points, for example, to the fact that in a recent poll a majority of Egyptians answered that the country they most hated was America but that America was also the country in which they most wanted to live. Amis’ approach seems to be to focus on what the ideologue says, and ignore what the followers do. Burke shows that the latter is far more important in gaining as complete a picture of the world as possible.

Can there be any greater failure for a fiction writer than the failure of imagination Amis displays here, an unwillingness to explore perspectives other than ones own? If this piece is a critical failure (and to my mind it is) then it’s apt to so much of it is taken up with an artistic one – the abandoned story ‘The Unknown Known’. Amis tells us that he couldn’t complete it because the nihilistic blankness of Islamism leaves it unamenable to satire. I would suspect something different. My guess is that, as in the Mohammed Atta story the previous week, he was using a central character as the vehicle for an ideology he not only doesn’t understand but does not believe can ever be understood. Even if one accepts his view of Islamism itself, he still refuses to see that there is more to every individual, even a suicide bomber, than one aspect of their beliefs. The cry ‘they are all the same’ is more proper to the propagandist than the artist and in refusing to acknowledge any depth, or humanity in the characters involved, Amis is refusing to see the depth of the world around him.

Ironically, he ends the piece with the following quote from Conrad:

The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is – marvels and mysteries acting upon our emotions and intelligence in ways so inexplicable that it would almost justify the conception of life as an enchanted state. No I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvelous to be ever fascinated by the mere supernatural, which (take it any way you like) is but a manufactured article, the fabrication of minds insensitive to the intimate delicacies of our relation to the dead and to the living, in their countless multitudes; a desecration of our tenderest memories; and outrage on our dignity.

Isn’t this, precisely, the opposite of Amis’ approach? He’s so enamoured with the theory, the theology, the Berman way of explaining everything that he can’t see the full range of ‘marvels and mysteries’ in the ‘world of the living’ everywhere else.

And like a character in a sub-standard Amis story (or a Will Self one at the very least) he becomes as intellectually impoverished and myopic as the fanatics he attests to despise.


1. The Sanity Inspector - September 14, 2006

Your post is from a different political POV than mine, as well as being much longer and better written. Still, you might be interested to read how I had very similar problems with Amis’s article, here.


2. WorldbyStorm - September 14, 2006

Read your interesting post Sanity Inspector and yes it’s clear that it’s a different analysis. But is Amis really suggesting atheism per se, or even a deracinated relativism? Oddly enough I take the opposite view that you do that Amis is in fact arguing for some – admittedly weak – ‘martial values.


3. joemomma - September 15, 2006

Even what is stated in the piece above seems confused; if ‘moderate Islam’ is well-represented in op-ed pages and public debate (even if ‘deceptively’) then how can it be that, at the same time, ‘We are not hearing from (it)’. Perhaps Amis is confusing ‘not hearing from’ with ‘not interested enough to listen to’ and ‘we’ with just ‘Amis’.

I think he means that we don’t hear enough bombs going off in the name of moderate Islam. He is obviously vastly overestimating the influence and success of immoderate Islam on the basis of its tendency to blow people up rather than quietly engage in the mundane tasks of everyday life like its moderate coreligionists.

It’s almost as if violence is the only language he understands, which is rather an unfortunate state of affairs for a liberal western author.

I must admit I haven’t yet read all of this (so-far excellent) post, I may comment further when time allows.


4. The Sanity Inspector - September 15, 2006

I think he means that we don’t hear enough bombs going off in the name of moderate Islam. He is obviously vastly overestimating the influence and success of immoderate Islam on the basis of its tendency to blow people up rather than quietly engage in the mundane tasks of everyday life like its moderate coreligionists.

A search through the archives of Memri.org will often reveal that the difference between moderate Muslims and radical Muslims depends on what audience they’re speaking to, and what language they’re speaking in.


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