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Quinn: Hammer of Islam June 2, 2008

Posted by smiffy in Gender Issues, Irish Labour Party, Islam, Religion, Secularism.

Ruairí Quinn should know better.  According to today’s Irish Independent, he has stated that he opposes the wearing of the Islamic hijab by girls in Irish schools, stating that:

A manifestation of religious beliefs in such a way is unacceptable and draws attention to those involved. I believe in a public school situation they should not wear a headscarf.

Now, this is the kind of flat denunciation is the kind of thing one would expect from Fianna Fáil, or Fine Gael.  Indeed, the latter’s education spokesperson, Brian Hayes, supported Quinn’s position, while throwing in a little show of his knowledge of Islamic religious practice (“The wearing of the hijab is not about religiosity, it is more an example of modesty. It is not a fundamental requirement to be a Muslim”), pint-sized Tariq Ramadan that he is.  However, one would have hoped for a more nuanced response from the Labour Party to the question of how to accommodate different faiths in a multi-faith education system , and it would be interesting to know whether this is official Labour Party policy, or something Quinn blurted out in response to a query from the paper.

Now, if one advocated a real separation of Church and State, and the establishment of a genuinely secular education system, which would necessitate the absolute removal of any and all religious influence from every school in receipt of exchequer funding (my own view, incidentally) then, while it wouldn’t require a ban on the wearing of the hijab by students (any more than a secular state would prohibit the wearing of crosses by passengers on public transport), Quinn’s position might seen principled enough.  However, that’s not the Labour policy.  In fact, the issue of the management of schools (which is central to the question of secularising the system) is barely touched on in Labour’s own education policy, and even then only in the context of the building of new schools.  Not a word about religious control of already existing schools.

As Ruairí Quinn is well aware, or should be, the term ‘public school’ means very little in the Irish context.  He may be talking about community schools (at second level), but these are rather few and far between.  Alternatively, he may be speaking about all schools which are publicly funded.  However, surely the hypocrisy of calling for the prohibition of the hijab in a system which has nuns on the payroll is too much, even for Labour.

Assuming Quinn means community schools, he is de facto arguing for a system of multi-denominational schooling where those of the majority faith on the island have the choice of religious or secular education (wherever you find a community school, there will also be Catholic-controlled schools present), but where those of minority confessions don’t have the same privilege.  Suggesting, for example, that there should be no problem with the hijab in Islamic schools isn’t much use to Muslim students in areas where there are no such schools available (and where it’s unlikely there ever will be).  This is a point raised by Fintan O’Toole  (sub req’d) in a similar context – the question of the Sikh Garda Reservist who wanted to wear a turban.  O’Toole stated:

For my own part, I do not think Sikh officers should be allowed to wear turbans, or Muslim officers allowed to wear hijabs. I entirely agree with Garda spokesman Kevin Donohue when he says that “the person standing in front of you should be representative of the police force – not a Sikh police officer, not a Catholic police officer, not a Jewish police officer”.

Such a stance can be hard on Sikhs and members of other faiths, but it is the only way to avoid a Balkanisation of State services, not just in the Garda or Army, but in schools, hospitals, the Dáil and the courts. The preservation of a public realm that everyone enters equally as a citizen is a value of greater importance than any individual’s right to express a personal identity while performing a State service.

The problem is that this State has absolutely no right to take such a stance. So long as we refuse even to discuss a non-sectarian education system, so long as we evoke a specific religious belief system in every aspect of our system of governance, we have no right to tell anyone that they have to keep their religion separate from their public function. Unless we are to practise naked discrimination, the logic of our current system is that our police officers can wear turbans, hijabs or Jedi light sabres – anything that is required by their faith. We also have to provide a range of religious schools in every community, all paid for by the taxpayer. We have to start Dáil sessions not with one prayer, but with at least 25 – one for each of the main religious groupings in the State – and with an atheist evocation of humanist principles.

Or we could just cop on to ourselves and start creating a public realm in which all religions are respected because none is invoked.

However, aside from the question of the nature of education system in this country, there was another, rather worrying undercurrent to Quinn’s comments, one which suggests that they weren’t just ‘ill-thought’ as Phillip Watt rather generously stated, but point to a rather distasteful foundation to Quinn’s views.  He states, in opposition to the wearing of the hijab, that

If people want to come into a western society that is Christian and secular, they need to conform to the rules and regulations of that country

going on to add

Mr Quinn said immigrants should live by Irish laws and conform to Irish norms.

“Nobody is formally asking them to come here. In the interests of integration and assimilation, they should embrace our culture,” he said.

with the piéce de resistance:

Irish girls don’t wear headscarves

Glossing over the cheap laugh at the stupidity of the ‘Christian and secular’ comment, this is moving far beyond the question of the secular state and into the kind of position one would expect to find held by the BNP.  I don’t invoke that organisation lightly, and make no apology for doing so.  While we are all familiar with the argument that criticism of Islam is not necessarily racist.  However, the counterpoint to this is the fact that when groups like the BNP do attack Islam, they do so from an obviously racist standpoint, and precisely on the ground staked out by Quinn in the piece above. 

Quinn is, in fact, saying that Muslims are – by definition – foreign.  The girl at the centre of the current case, Shekina Egan, cannot be Irish (despite the fact that her father is a native of Gorey) because ‘Irish girls don’t wear headscarves’.  He’s pulling every racist trope from the book, suggesting that no one asked ‘them’ to come here and that they should embrace ‘our’ culture.  It would be interesting to see how Ruairí Quinn might go about defining ‘our’ culture, distinguishing it from all others, but I somehow doubt he’s thought that through.

Not only does Quinn’s position betray an, at best, phenomenally insular and ignorant mindset, it’s also incredibly short-sighted.  Even if one accepted the necessary premise of the argument – that the only Irish Muslims are first-generation immigrants and, therefore, not really ‘Irish’ at all – how does he propose to answer the inevitable demand for equality from future generations, those who are born in Ireland, of Irish parents, and who will rightly point out that they are both Irish and Muslim?  All the talk of ‘our culture’ will ring rather hollow then, unless one falls back on the old Gaelic and Catholic definition of what it is to be Irish.  Indeed, it’s this very attitude in other countries which has suceeded in alienating and radicalising many young Muslims, leading them into the arms of fundamentalism and, in some cases, violence.  When Muslims in this country are told by religious radicals of the future, that they will never be accepted as Irish, and that Islam is their true home, statements like Quinn’s could well stand in support of the claims.

Readers will notice that I haven’t touched on the issue of the hijab itself, i.e. whether it is a symbol of oppression and of the inferior status of women in Islam.  That was deliberate, although I acknowledge that it’s a valid and important question to raise.  However, it’s not the ground on which Quinn bases his opposition to this latter-day wearing of the green.  If he did, I might have some sympathy.  Rather he’s chosen to move in the direction of little Ireland, of insular monoculturalism and of the vilification of cultural difference.  Is this really a path down which Labour wishes to follow?

Islam, women and the law… holding back or reaching towards change… December 14, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Feminism, Islam, Modernity.


A sane and fascinating discussion about Women and Islam on To the Point with KCRW. The programme dealt with issues raised by:

A Bangladeshi woman [who] was hounded out of her country for comments about the Koran and women’s rights. Now she’s had death threats from Muslims in India. In Saudi Arabia, a rape victim’s sentence of 200 lashes has inspired international outrage. After facing a barrage of questions at last week’s Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, promised the courts will review the sentence for the 20-year old woman who was raped—along with a male companion—by seven men.

One important feature of this was – contrary to the narrative that Islam is a seamless whole – the clear message that there are very sharp and distinctive differences in the way Islamic law is applied as regards women across the Muslim world.

Having said that it didn’t shy away from the simple fact that the position of women is clearly secondary in Islamic societies – although local contexts are remarkably variable and pose interesting, albeit contradictory levels of rights.

Regarding the utterly appalling rape (which was ‘explained’ away by the fact the woman – just 19 – was in a car alone with a man who was not her husband – one could posit that here we have a society which criminalises ordinary human behaviour. One might also posit the thought that there has been an exemplary display of basic courage on the part of victim, her relatives and her representation in defying the situation) Farida Deif, a Women’s Rights Researcher working for Human Rights Watch noted that in Saudi judges have complete discretion and there is no comprehensive written law or penal code. This leads to dismal outcomes where “Individuals charged with sexual harrassment have received much greater penalties”

The case itself was characterised by ‘Judges yelling at her and [saying that] she was a liar because she couldn’t remember exact date’.
Essentially, as Deif said, the case saw the woman blamed for the sexual violence she had experienced.

When asked whether there is an essential misogyny within the Koran Laleh Bakhtiar, an in-House Scholar at Kazi Publications was very clear that:

There’s nothing within the Koran that says what the punishment should be… indeed there is a clear difference of opinion on such matters… what the Koran does suggest women to cover… men to lower their eyes when in the company of women.

And in relation to the specific ‘crime’ for which the woman supposedly was ‘guilty’ there is clear disparities in the attitude taken across the Muslim world.

Bakhtiar said that in ‘Malaysia and the Philipines there is no such law about women not be in a car with an unrelated man. It is an outrageous law which Saudi, the most autocratic of Islamic governments, shows injustice.

When asked whether the Koran is discriminatory against women in the sense of the usage of that term in the US the answer was:

Koran gave women a lot more rights than prior to Islam. The problem is the way it has been interpreted undermines womens rights.

Farida Deif made the important point that “… governments will use a variety of excuses… sharia… etc, but other times they’ll use culture excuse… not yet ready… there’s a variety. We see a very selective use of sharia… people are not using sharia laws in terms of financial but civil administration.” Which is interesting since that has a certain resonance in terms of our own society in the past hundred and fifty years where matters sexual took a much greater precedence in terms of religious stricture than other areas. Now, clearly the distinctions between the place of women in Ireland in 1900 and must of the Islamic world in 2007 are quite different. And as important the potential for change in these circumstances are – arguably – more limited in polities such as Saudi.

But Deif noted as well that sharia is ‘…used in particular in family laws…. governments are allowing very specific gender roles to be perpetuated… women on a very second class level in family and society…’

And this is due to the most fundamentalist reading of Islamic texts…

“…Saudi is a situation which wahabbi thinking…takes religious texts literally. They don’t believe in analysing present circumstances…’

Again, the last point is crucial and is, I think, an illuminating insight into fundamentalist thought processes. The present is read as being entirely of a piece with the past, a seamless continuity where any difference of approach would render the societal approaches developed over generations illegitimate. And the ramifications of this are self-evident.

“…women are on a bad footing, homosexuals, religious minorities as well… when a whole country structured around literal reading… and you see a number of human rights abuses…”

Laleh Bakhtiar echoed this.

“Saudi’s don’t believe there is meaning behind the form, there is only the form… literal interpretation. There are other countries are not literal in their interpretation and in some areas have certain rights… but [even in those countries] again women are basically 2nd class citizens as many religions have throughout history placed women in that role. Only in last 20 years more women are speaking out – getting educated, learning the Sharia themselves and hopefully can issue edicts and be able to stand up for themselves…because rights are something you have to take no one will hand them on a silver platter.”

I’ll return to that last point in a short while, but a further contribution was that of Bernard Haykel, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. He articulated the differences between the rights of men and women in Koran.

“Both other speakers mention literal interpretation… a literal reading comes out with a highly gendered view of how society should be organised… the wahabbi clerics aren’t producing opinions out of thin air… they claim and they are basing themselves on texts…not just the Koran but also on traditions of the Prophet…historical practices… so that to argue that somehow wahabism is bizarre and from outer space is simply wrong. Clearly Islamic law is a contested field and poeople are trying to interpret it differently…”

He noted also the difference between “Illegal mingling” and other crimes such as rape which lead to a situation where judges will reify the former and effectively ignore the latter.

“Two things happening in this case… one is a very strong injunction which doesn’t permit unrelated men and women to be together based on an assumption that they would sleep together and they’d have children producing them out of wedlock and spell chaos for the society…

…these values are patriarchal and will trump the question of rape because in the question of rape the analogy is made to adultery and here you have a very high standard in all Islamic law and you need four male witnesses to the act of rape and that’s very hard to prove…”

This essential patriarchy, one which leads to the most extreme distortions as in the trial, is remarkable, and echoes Deif’s point about not analysing present circumstances. The sense that society is on a perpetual knife edge, that this links into a sexuality which can only be constrained, never expressed and the linkage – not made here explicitly, but still implicit as regards land and property relations (hence the fear of societal chaos), is core to this fundamentalism and is one – that again – we have seen echoes of in our own society, albeit not to the same degree (and here’s a thought, today I heard in passing Bertie Ahern use the term ‘gender neutral’ in a debate, that is real cultural progress – as Gramsci might have agreed – and probably unthinkable even as recently as twenty five years ago). It’s a grim confluence of many different issues and approaches which are then underpinned by literalism in religious interpretation.

And what is both heartening, but also worrying (if only because it indicates that local circumstances will be more important than literalism and how is that to be dealt with?), is that local interpretations are widely varying. Given the case of women leaders in Islamic nations Haykel noted that…

…the example you give of Islamic women leaders are South Asian… nothing to do with Islam, more to do with political context, they’re daughters of prominent politicians who waged campaigns against colonial rule. You would not have that happen in any Arab country because in Islamic law a woman cannot lead men, it’s not acceptable.

Which begged the question as to why is it acceptable in other Islamic societies?

Because they don’t apply Islamic law when it comes to matters of public law or constitutional law and they simply consider Islamic law to be in abeyance on these issues.

It’s selective. for example you have a lot of law on slavery, it’s permitted, but it’s also circumscribed, but they’re not applied and it’s not practised (except in a couple of examples) because most Muslims have decided slavery is an institution they don’t want to support.

Frankly, it sounds like an uphill battle to achieve a level of rights equivalent to what we regard as a norm. And yet, through education, an opening to broader social models there is the opportunity for women to build up oppositional viewpoints which ultimately might change the society. It is a terribly disheartening, and entirely wrong, approach to believe that there is nothing but a bleak uniformity or lack of change on these matters across Islam. As with any religion Islam has within itself enormous capacity to reconsider these matters… If it can do so as regards slavery then it can – logically – do so as regards the rights of women. Indeed one could point to the Koran to provide a vehicle forward on just this issue.

However, reading some of the literature in the area there are those who take a different view… in ISLAMIC FEMINISM AND ITS DISCONTENTS: NOTES ON A DEBATE, Val Moghadam (director of women’s studies and Associate Professor of Sociology in Illinois State University, USA) writes:

Although I am sympathetic to the discursive strategy of Islamic feminists, I am concerned about the focus on the “correct” reading of the Islamic texts. I fear that so long as they remain focused on theological arguments rather than socio-economic and political questions, and so long as their point of reference is the Quran rather than universal standards, their impact will be limited at best. At worst, their strategy can reinforce the legitimacy of the Islamic system, help to reproduce it, and undermine secular alternatives. But this worst-case scenario will probably not be realized, because most Islamic feminists combine their religious reinterpretations with a recognition of universal standards, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

The limitations of Islamic feminism in its present phase are suggested by an interesting article by Anne Sofie Roald. She notes that Christian feminist theologians such as Rosemary Reuther, Phyllis Bird and Elisabeth Shussler Fiorenza “are part of an established scientific tradition within Christian theology.” This is a historical-critical method which allows them to “perceive the Bible as written by human beings and in particular by men, … .” This is “an assumption which is not possible in an Islamic exegesis.” Islamic feminist theologians seek to evaluate Islamic sources, criticize the interpretation of Islamic sources, and stress the equality of men and women in the Quran. Their method “concentrates mainly on textual analysis and thus works methodologically in search of evidences to establish laws and regulations suitable for modern society.” Roald concludes that “The interpretation of the Islamic sources by women is a new project and the next decades will show us whether this project has any future.”

It is, at any rate, very difficult to win theological arguments. There will always be various interpretations of the religious texts, and what determines the dominance of each interpretation is the power of the social forces behind it. In this respect, I agree with Shahrzad Mojab on the limits of religious reinterpretation. Thus, although religious reform is salutary and necessary, it is imperative to develop secular institutions, including a state that defends the rights of all its citizens irrespective of religious affiliation, and a civil society with strong organizations that can constitute a check on the state…

Moghadam writes in the context of Iran – frankly a rather different prospect to Saudi, although as it happens I know an Iranian woman quite well who is a frequent visitor in and out of Iran and who has some fairly scarifying stories about the reality of life for women there… But her point is sensible, although whether somewhat utopian in the context of societies which are so wedded to the text [as a further light on this topic a dispiriting piece in the Guardian today on the reversal of the situation of women in Iraq since the invasion – while it would be wrong to get starry eyed about the situation under Saddam the Ba’ath Party was more than rhetorically aligned with womens rights. The last four years have seen – due to both the levels of violence in the society and a resurgent conservative Islamism – a tilt towards a vastly worse situation].

In a similar piece Margot Badran (senior fellow at the Center for Muslim- Christian Understanding, Georgetown University) takes a different line and one which strikes me as more realistic in the context of actually existing societies.

In re-examining the Qur’an and hadith, Islamic feminists are making cogent arguments that Islam does not condone wanton violence against women, promoting the notion that violence against women is indeed anti-Islamic. This alone will not put an end to violence but it is one among many weapons against it. The Malaysian group “Sisters in Islam” is one among many that have decried violence against women perpetrated in the name of Islam in a pamphlet they distributed widely. South African Saadiya Shaikh has also completed a study on the subject and is currently looking at notions of sexuality in Islamic religious texts.

I think Laleh Bakhtiar’s point that ‘rights are something you have to take…no-one will hand them to you on a silver plate’ is crucial. These are societies that for historical, cultural and other reasons have embedded dynamics which predicate against social change. The UN Report on development in the Middle East (obviously the ME is not coterminous with Islam, but appears to have more societies where there are significant issues over rights) But that does not lead to the inevitability of social stasis. Quite the opposite. The European Union has, for some time now, wrestled with the issue of Turkish accession to the Union. Personally I am strongly in favour of it, but I think the manner in which Turkey has undergone a remarkable – although by no means conclusive – societal self-consideration (for want of a better term) indicates that the ‘universal standards’ which Moghadam writes about can be applied to a society which has a strong and pervasive Islamic cultural heritage. There is, in fairness, a case for Turkish exceptionalism in terms of its relationship to Islam (but not entirely, Tunisia – which I have visited – like Turkey also bans the wearing of head dress in public buildings), and yet, consider the fact that it has been those who are politically explicitly linked to the Islamic tradition who have best served the push towards a path (and I loathe the term ‘modernisation’ in this context) which leads to a significant convergence with European approaches. Again, there is no reason to be starry eyed about such things. Turkey still has a way to go, although personally I think the way is shorter than the EU or possibly Turkey itself think. Turkey is not Saudi Arabia. But nor is it historically inconsiderable as an element of the Islamic world.

Yet, while there is the possibility for change and progress… that doesn’t help one young woman in Saudi today or another young woman from Bangladesh or indeed hosts of women presented with no opportunities for change. Which begs the question what do we do to support those caught up in these processes in such a way as not to make those processes even more socially conservative… Any thoughts?

The internet. A new front in the so-called War on Terror. November 6, 2007

Posted by franklittle in European Politics, European Union, Freedom of speech, Internet, Islam, Media and Journalism, Terrorism, The War On Terror.

Great news in the war for freedom and against people of a different religion and darker skin pigment than ours. According to Examiner Breaking News, the European Commission is to unveil proposals today to make it a criminal offence to promote acts of terrorism on the internet.

EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini wants a new law making illegal ‘public provocation to commit a terrorist offence’ including under the definition of ‘public provocation’, ‘the distribution, or otherwise making available, of a message to the public, with the intent to incite…’ terrorist acts. Note that it is a crime to incite acts of terrorism regardless of whether an act of terrorism actually results from that incitement, something which would anyway be very difficult to prove.

According to the Examiner, Commission officials insist, presumably with a straight face, that this will not impinge on the expression of political views or analysis of terrorism. Also worth noting that though the Commission is stating that the internet and the use of it by terrorists is the main motivator behind this, the law will apply to all forms of communication.

Statewatch have an analysis up here.

In a related story, the EU Observer has an interesting piece about another EU Commission in the fight against terrorism to increase the amount of air passenger data stored by EU member states and to store it for up to 13 years. The proposal, which would require unanimity, would see name, address, credit card number, passport data, telephone numbers, travel agent, flight history and, my favourite, seat preference, join a great deal of other information in computers in European capitals.

Statewatch again:

According to Tony Bunyan from UK liberties group Statewatch “this is yet another measure that places everyone under surveillance and makes everyone a suspect without any meaningful right to know how the data is used, how it is further processed and by whom”.

“The underlying rationale for each of the measures is the same – all are needed to tackle terrorism”, Mr Bunyan said, referring to the mandatory taking of fingerprints for passports and the mandatory storage of telecommunications data.

“There is little evidence that the gathering of mountain upon mountain of data on the activities of every person in the EU makes a significant contribution. On the other hand, the use of this data for other purposes, now or in the future, will make the EU the most surveilled place in the world”, he concluded.

Terrorists seek to destroy our freedoms but worry not, the European Union will erode our civil liberties first in a weird kind of scorched earth policy. And in case there’s some confusion, wherever I use the word ‘terrorism’ or ‘terrorist’, I do so with more than a little cynicism. Terrorists after all are the people with the small guns and the tiny bombs. The ones with the big guns and gigantic bombs are defending our diminishing freedoms by abolishing those of others.

Islamism…somewhere between tradition and modernity? June 26, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Islam, Religion.


While we’re on the subject of the Supreme Being a most interesting article in Prospect this month about the genesis of the 7-7 London bomber Mohammad Sidique Khan. In interview Shiv Malik managed to talk to acquaintances and relatives of Khan and the picture he paints is of a curious clash of modernism and tradition in the circles within which Khan moved. It also speaks of the incredible tenacity of traditions drawn from the rural, something we have seen – and perhaps continue to see – in this society in terms of the area of home ownership, organisation of our cities and so on (and for more I can only recommend the excellent series of articles on Dublin Opinion by Conor).

Most notable to my eyes, and Prospect Editor David Goodhart mentioned this in the editorial, was the ‘extent to which extreme Islam can act as a kind of “liberation theology”, allowing young Muslims to claim western freedoms, such as marrying for love, without rejecting their Islamic heritage’.

Malik deepens this analysis pointing to how a generational conflict was a spur to differentiation of approach to Islam amongst parents and an off-spring:

When the first generation of Mirpuri immigrants (from Pakistan) moved to Britain in the 1960s, the baraderi system [whereby marriages were arranged in order to retain tribal ownership of lands] should in theory have faded away, as social services were supplied by the state. But traditions have their uses for preserving solidarity in a migrant community, and the mechanism still flourishes. Explaining his parents attitudes, Ali [a member of the community] said they would ‘rather you marry someone from your own caste, your own community, your own relations’.

So when the Mullah boys [the circle Sidique Khan was part of] started conducting marriages from the premises of Iqra, the local Islamic bookshop on the Bude road, it caused a stir. Ali says that when Sidique Khan’s friend Naveed Fiaz and his brother married white girls, and a Bangladeshi girl married and Afro-Caribbean guy, the community elders became very worried.

One aspect of the above which is remarkable is that this process incorporated both men and women, quite at variance with the traditional roles imposed within the baraderi system. Of course it is difficult to read externally precisely the dynamics which would lead to a Bangladeshi girl marrying an Afro-Caribbean, but at least it is indicative of a substantial rupture with the previous system.

But the Mullah boys were armed with faith. As long as the marriages were between Muslims, they didn’t care about tribal tradition. And since the outsiders all converted to Islam before the marriages, the older generation’s insistence that their young marry their cousins was simply ignored.

How much of this was down to Khan’s personality is an interesting question. Malik notes that Sidique had moved away from his family as he was drawn to the more fundamentalist (at least on one axis)Wahhabism. He had a ‘determination to marry for love’ and his future wife was ‘a Deobandi Muslim – a South Asian Wahhabi-linked movement directly opposed to the Khan family’s traditionalist Barelvi convictions’. Yet there are also curiosities about Wahhabism. Unlike the traditional mosques Wahhabi’s ‘did things differently’ from delivering sermons and pamphlets in English, unlike the Urdu used by the community mosques. And there is a bizarre echo of Protestantism in this.

Yet it would be unwise to draw the comparison too far. I don’t want to pre-empt others reading what is a compelling and fascinating article, but it is clear that the socially revolutionary aspects of Khan’s circle were limited to what was possible through very strict and literalist readings of the Koran (which granted is similar to the processes that have fuelled Protestant fundamentalism into the modern period).

And if one takes that as the starting point text will limit or curtail action. So what may appear to be a ‘liberation theology’ may indeed be anything but. Although Islamists treat Islam as Malik puts it as ‘not just a religion but as a socioeconomic system’ there are clearly difficulties in translating it into the sphere or the social or the economic, particularly the latter. Many is the transformative project which has foundered in that area.

Yet, there are interesting echoes of an argument I have never really found entirely convincing, that articulated by John Grey in Al Qaeda and what it means to be Modern that Islamists are very much a product of ‘modernity’.

Here perhaps there has been a subtle process of societal osmosis whereby elements of the dominant culture have been appropriated in part by Islamists. And this should be no surprise at all. Because identity, even in this hugely contested area, is a process of negotiation and constant refinement. Just as Khan sought to shape the world in a particularly malevolent fashion, he too was shaped by it in more subtle ways than might have been expected.


and while we’re on the subject of Prospect…

I first started subscribing to Prospect magazine back in 2003 having endured years of trying to get every new issue in Eason’s. A thankless task due to the curious approach they had at the time to stocking it. Minor gripe, it’s impossible if you live in Ireland to get the two year subscription plan – neither good, nor heartening as an indication of it’s possible longevity, despite the fact the UK Arts Council now supports it.

Anyhow in the years since it started it has remained an essential channel of communication for anyone on the centre left concerned with a broad range of issues (and I know Donagh of Dublin Opinion is another reader). It’s non party political but it has taken a clear line, as for instance with it’s considered but ultimately anti-Iraq war stance in 2003. Moreover the scope of the discourse within it’s covers (and on-line) is remarkable. Economics, social policy, history, current affairs, culture and so forth (even to the point of getting Gay Dad’s former drummer to write about music).

As a means of understanding the dynamics of International and US foreign and social policy it’s hard to better with a range of contributors from Robert Kagan to Frances Fukiyama. Off the top of my head it’s had a series of excellent articles on Lebanon, the US, France over the past twelve months. Multi-page, in depth analysis of a sort rarely found anywhere else outside the pages of the really heavy duty international policy journals which to be honest are too expensive anyway.

And it’s not been shy of controversy. Some years back David Goodhart, the editor, ran into a row about identity and race when discussing those issues where he argued for – and I hope I’m not doing him an injustice – the formation of a stronger British identity to strengthen social cohesion in a society with differing ethnic and religious groups. Whatever else he is Goodhart isn’t a racist and some of the charges against him appeared willful at best.

I’ve never been entirely happy with their coverage of Ireland, for example two of their contributors on that subject have been Fintan O Toole and Carlos Gebler (although heartening to see Mick Fealty of Slugger writing more recently). So it’s fair to say that it has run to a rather dated post-nationalism of sorts…but that quibble aside it’s still a serious endeavour and it’s heart remains wedded to what could be called ‘progressive politics’. Sure, it’s centrist, liberal and probably overly pragmatic for many a reader from the left.

But at least it remains of the left… and for that reason alone I think it’s worth anyone who is interested in the discourse you read on here checking it out.

Anyhow, they underwent something of a redesign for the March 2007 issue.

And…it’s not bad. I’m sorry they’ve refined their previous rather ‘classical’ design style, all subdued rules, white space and serif fonts and headings. But the new look is as the joke goes pretty much like the old look, ‘classical’ design style, all subdued rules, white space and serif fonts and headings with the addition of a smattering of sans serif faces and some new illustrations for their regular articles. And the not always very funny cartoons remain, which is oddly comforting.

So all told not bad. And as a resource I’ll keep mining it for information, even that strange “in fact” column of not entirely enlightening statistics, for example did you know that just before WW1 the UK Home Office employed just 28 people whereas today it employs 70,000?

Where else but Prospect?

A bit of good news March 23, 2007

Posted by franklittle in Culture, Freedom of speech, Islam, media, Media and Journalism.

Last month, I wrote about the trial of Philippe Val, editor of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. Val was charged with ‘publically abusing a group of people because of their religion’ by the Paris Mosque and the Union of Islamic Organisations of France because he republished the 12 cartoons featuring the Islamic Prophet Muhammad that first appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

Val faced a possible six month prison term and a fine against his magazine but believes in, and what is more important is ready to act at risk to himself in defence of, free speech. Yesterday, a French court ruled in his favour in a trial that united right and left politicians in France in defence of the magazine. Reuters has more details.

“It’s good news for those who believe in freedom of expression and for Muslims who are secular and support the ideals of the republic,” said Val. Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders added, “This judgement is a victory in the cause of press freedom and is in no case the defeat of one community.”

Nice to see the good guys win one every now and again. Solidarité.

Free speech on trial in Paris February 8, 2007

Posted by franklittle in Freedom of speech, Islam, media, Media and Journalism, The Left.

The never less than outstanding Lara Marlowe reports from Paris in today’s Irish Times on the trial of Philippe Val, editor of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo.

Last year, Val chose to publish two of the cartoons depicting the Islamic Prophet Muhammad that had first appeared in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. He did this as a show of solidarity with the newspaper, and also with the editor of France Soir, one of the country’s leading newspapers, who was fired for similarly publishing the cartoons in solidarity. Indeed, off the top of my head I think Ireland was the only EU country where not a single newspaper chose to publish the cartoons in support of free speech.

Val is being sued for defamation by the The Grand Mosque, World Islamic League and Union of French Islamic Organisations, an action that has united the French Left and Right in support of free speech. One of Val’s lawyers read out a letter of support from right-wing Presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy saying ‘I prefer an excess of caricature to the absence of caricature.’

Francois Hollande, head of the French Socialist Party and wife of their candidate Segolene Royal, took the stand in support of Val, pointing out that if the magazine is convicted of insulting Islam, ‘newspapers will think twice before publishing articles or drawings, and in a way, censorship will have been established.’

Meanwhile, the Germans continue to push their daft plan to criminalise people for arguing that the Holocaust didn’t take place at EU level and some of the geniuses in the Irish left, especially the so-called left in the SWP, argue for the erosion of civil liberties as part of their campaign against ‘hate speech’. Genuine radicals will remember, as this article in the Weekly Worker on the SWP’s campaign against a ballerina with a BNP membership card points out, that structures of censorship once established, are very easily turned on the left, and historically, far more likely to be used in such a manner.

See Reuters here for more details if you don’t have an Irish Times registration.

If it looks like a duck … November 19, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Islam, Israel.

Here’s an amusing piece from today’s Observer. Apparently Asghar Bukhari, from the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (a U.K. lobby group), had built up quite a sweet little relationship with noted Nazi apologist, proven liar and Holocaust denier, David Irving, even going so far as to donate a small sum to Irving’s legal fund.

Now the story is a little sketchy on exact details, but a few points are worth noting. Firstly, Bukhari offered his support wrapped up in a nice little philosophical cliché:

Bukhari contacted the discredited historian, sentenced this year to three years in an Austrian prison for Holocaust denial, after reading his website. He headed his mail to Irving with a quotation attributed to the philosopher John Locke: ‘All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to stand idle.’

Nothing too shocking about that. One could argue that Irving’s imprisonment (or, indeed, the criminalization of Holocaust denial in general) represents a fragrant breach of basic civil liberties, while at the same time finding Irving’s own view repulsive. Except … the paragraph above is rather misleading. One could be mistaken for thinking that Bukhari’s support was linked to Irving’s Austrian trial (although I don’t think this is deliberate – it’s just poor editing). However, later on in the piece we learn that ‘Bukhari confirmed sending the letters in 2000’, presumably around the time of the libel case against Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Irving lost in April of that year (a case he himself took, a point often overlooked by those misguided fools he see him as some kind of defender of freedom of speech).

Bukhari’s response to the Observer’s questions seems particularly self-serving and ignorant (at best):

‘I had a lot of sympathy for anyone who opposed Israel,’ Bukhari told The Observer said. ‘I wrote letters to anyone who was tough against the Israelis – David Irving, Paul Findley, the PLO.”I don’t feel I have done anything wrong, to be honest. At the time I was of the belief he [Irving] was anti-Zionist, being smeared for nothing more then being anti-Zionist.

‘The pro-Israeli lobby often accused people of anti-Semitism and smear tactics against groups and individuals is well known. I condemn anti-Semitism as strongly as I condemn Zionism (in my opinion they are both racist ideologies). I also believe that anyone who denies the Holocaust is wrong (I don’t think they should be put behind bars for it though).’

It’s hard to square his apparent belief that Holocaust denial is wrong, with his continued belief in the rightness of his action. He says that he thought Irving was being ‘smeared’ because he was an anti-Zionist, which suggests that he didn’t know the first thing about the libel trial or, indeed, about David Irving. If he now accepts that criticism of Irving was justified, and that Irving is far more than ‘just’ an anti-Zionist then surely he should accept that his earlier support was wrong. If, on the other hand, he believes he did nothing wrong, then does his view of Irving still hold?

His dragging-in of the ‘pro-Israeli’ lobby is a complete red herring, and is a little hard to take. We’re all familiar with the argument that critics of the State of Israel are often unjustly labeled ‘Anti-Semitic’ and it’s a charge that should always be challenged. Part of the reason such a strategy is so objectionable, however, is that it diminishes actual Anti-Semitism. If everyone is an Anti-Semite, then Anti-Semitism means nothing.

One possibility Bukhari has overlooked is that Irving might be labeled an Anti-Semite because he actually is one. His opposition to Israel stems from this, not from any great humanitarian concerns. It’s important to note that, while not all Anti-Zionists are Anti-Semitic, pretty much all Anti-Semites are Anti-Zionists (certainly in Europe). Not a particularly radical idea, but apparently too complicated for Bukhari and his colleagues in MPAC whose claim that the Observer story is ‘just another Islamaphobic attack aimed at undermining and harming the brave individuals who support the Palestinian cause and the cause of Muslims within Britain’ is so hysterical, it’s almost cute.

What Bukhari and MPAC should try and grasp is that sometimes, just sometimes, is someone expresses Anti-Semitic sentiments and is accused of being Anti-Semitic then there might be another explanation besides the sinister Jewish conspiracy to crush all Anti-Zionist resistance.

Just maybe …

Spooks and Israel… October 23, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Film and Television, Islam, Israel, Middle East, Terrorism, The War On Terror.

Okay, not to flog a dead horse, and in keeping with the MI5/6 tone of this evenings post, the latest installment of Spooks on BBC1 had a marvelously convoluted plot involving the takeover of a Saudi Trade Centre in London by what appeared to be Al-Queda terrorist who turned out to be Mossad assets attempting to prevent the sale of nuclear technologies to the Saudis.

Satisfyingly bloody as it all was, and entertaining, with – ahem – some interesting thoughts about the woes of the Middle East, one does have to ask if the final scene with the head Mossad agent was absolutely necessary. He had survived the inevitable shoot out at the Trade Centre only to be captured by the Security Service. But since he couldn’t break cover he couldn’t admit to his true identity and was therefore treated as an AQ member.

The concluding scene  showed him clad in an orange boiler suit in a truck arriving at Camp X-Ray.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

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.
comments closed

‘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.

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