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From "Wogs" to "Islamists"

Martin Amis Does a Coulter

by RONAN BENNETT

What do you make of the following statement: "Asians are gaining on us demographically at a huge rate. A quarter of humanity now and by 2025 they’ll be a third. Italy’s down to 1.1 child per woman. We’re just going to be outnumbered." While we’re at it, what do you think of this, incidentally from the same speaker: "The Black community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order." Or this, the same speaker again: "I just don’t hear from moderate Judaism, do you?" And (yes, same speaker): "Strip-searching Irish people. Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole Irish community and they start getting tough with their children."

The speaker was Martin Amis and, yes, the quotations have been modified, with Asians, Blacks and Irish here substituted for Muslims, and Judaism for Islam – though, it should be stressed, these are the only amendments. Terry Eagleton, professor of English literature at Manchester University, where Amis has also started to teach, recently quoted the remarks in a new edition of his book Ideology: An Introduction. Amis, Eagleton claimed, was advocating nothing less than the "hounding and humiliation" of Muslims so "they would return home and teach their children to be obedient to the White Man’s law".

The heated exchanges that followed were trivialized in the mainstream media as "a nasty literary punch-up", "the talk of the literary world", "a spat" between "two warring professors", and the silence that followed seemed to confirm it as a passing tiff between two high-ranking members of the chattering class.

I see it differently. Amis’s views are symptomatic of a much wider and deeper hostility to Islam and intolerance of otherness. Only last week, the London Evening Standard felt able to sponsor a debate entitled: Is Islam good for London? Do another substitution here and imagine the reaction had Judaism been the subject. As Rabbi Pete Tobias noted on Comment is Free, the so-called debate was sinisterly reminiscent of the paper’s campaign a century ago to alert its readers to the "problem of the alien", namely the eastern European Jews fleeing persecution who had found refuge in the capital. In this context, Rod Liddle’s contribution to the proceedings – "Islamophobia? Count me in" – sounds neither brave, brash nor provocatively outrageous, merely racist. Those who claim that Islamophobia can’t be racist, because Islam is a religion not a race, are fooling themselves: religion is not only about faith but also about identity, background and culture, and Muslims are overwhelmingly non-white. Islamophobia is racist, and so is antisemitism.

And it is different for another reason. The views quoted by Eagleton first appeared last year, in an interview Amis gave to Ginny Dougary of the Times. That they passed with virtually no comment at the time says a great deal about the depoliticized state of intellectual debate in Britain. While a great deal of media time and energy is spent discussing the latest translation of War and Peace or the artwork in the refurbished St Pancras station, there has been, with a few notable exceptions, a puzzling lack of effort when it comes to something as critical as expressing support for an increasingly demonized minority in our society. Martin Amis should have been taken to task by his peers for his views. He was not.

This is all the more remarkable when you look closely at what Amis has been saying about Muslims and Islam. To the Dougary interview first. Eagleton drew particular attention to a passage that argued for collective punishment: "The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order. What sort of suffering? Not let them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan … Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children."

Amis sought to excuse the passage quoted above by pointing out that it was prefaced by the words "There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, ‘The Muslim community … (etc)’." And he repeatedly highlighted the fact that the comments were spoken, not written, as Eagleton wrongly claimed (which, in some degree, allowed Amis to dodge the central charge of Islamophobia). In a letter to the Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, he explained, "It was a thought experiment, or a mood experiment." He had not "advocated" anti-Muslim measures, "merely adumbrated" them.

If, for some, the distinction was not quite clear, Amis expanded his defense in a live interview with Jon Snow on Channel 4 News. He maintained that the target of his attack was Islamism, "an extreme ideology within a religion". He was not, he stressed, attacking Islam itself or Muslims in general, though he ran into some difficulty when Snow reminded him of his observation on the alleged "extreme incuriosity of Islamic culture", and of his reaction on seeing his six-year-old daughter’s toys being searched by airport security: "Oh yeah, and stick to people who look like they’re from the Middle East" (itself further proof, if such were needed, of the racist nature of Islamophobia). Taken along with his assertion that "there are great problems in Islam", did not these statements, Snow proposed, indicate that he was taking "scattergun" aim at all Muslims? Amis retorted: "I do not believe in any persecution of the Muslim community. I think that would be counterproductive."

At which point, the question becomes unavoidable: is efficacy now to be the benchmark for persecutors? He also confessed to "little impulses, urges and atavisms now and then", which was uncomfortably like a collusive wink to the audience: we all have our little prejudices, don’t we? Though he was forced to squirm a little, Amis refused to recant or apologize. His demeanor throughout was the ostentatious weariness of the unfairly traduced, and he called for an end to the whole dull business. "Can I ask him [Eagleton], in a collegial spirit, to shut up about it?" he wrote in a letter to this newspaper.

Do we let the homophobe off the hook just because he tells his critics to shut up? Do we pass over the rantings of the antisemite just because he did not commit the poison to the page? To judge from the response of most liberal commentators, the defence seemed to work, and Amis’s wish to have a line drawn under the affair was granted. While Eagleton was attacked as a clapped-out marxist, Amis was commended, by a writer in the Observer, for "owning up – bravely, as it turned out – to what amounted to a revenge fantasy". His "thought experiment" was the incautious but challenging musing of one of the most vivid and verbally energetic modern writers in English. In the Guardian, one writer concluded that although he was often irritating, Amis had raised important questions, while among the rhetorical questions asked by Professor John Sutherland was whether Eagleton’s – Eagleton’s! – position at Manchester University was tenable after labelling a colleague a bigot and a racist.

We can dispense with Amis’s polite fiction that he is talking about "Islamism"; there are just too many generalisations ("The impulse towards rational inquiry," Amis wrote elsewhere, "is by now very weak in the rank and file of the Muslim male"), too many references to "them" and "us". When he says, for example, "they" are gaining on "us" demographically, he is demonstrably not talking about "Islamists". The danger of being overrun, outnumbered, outbred is a repugnant trope beloved of supremacists everywhere (it was used by the Evening Standard about "aliens" 100 years ago). It is, for example, horribly familiar to Arab Israelis, and to Irish Catholics (from whom Eagleton is descended). When Amis voices his fears of being overrun, he is, and he knows he is, perpetuating and enhancing the spectre of the other, and loading it with the potent imagery of swarming poverty, violence and ignorance.

At the Cheltenham literary festival, Amis treated his audience to a discussion on the relative value of Muslim and western states, the former being, in his estimation, less evolved than the latter. "I am just saying that some societies are more evolved than others," he said. (Evolved is an interesting choice of word. In the Belgian Congo, the colonisers used to employ a system of rewarding colonized people who alienated themselves from indigenous society: they were raised to an officially designated category of évolués.) "There is no inoffensive way to put this," Amis continued provocatively. "By evolved, I mean more civilized. We have more respect for civil society."

This is not the time or place to debate the proposition or the definitions Amis employs, though I would say, in a general response to the generalized argument, that I have seen, at times, rather more respect for civil society, from how they treat their families and the elderly to strangers in the street, in Damascus, Ramallah and east Jerusalem than I have seen, at times, in London, New York and Paris. Equally, when he says, "Here in the west we have the most evolved society in the world and we are not blowing people up", it is hard not to think of the ghosts of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Muslim dead from Iraq to Afghanistan who might take issue with him. No, here the salient point is that Amis, contrary to his assertions, is talking about Islam, not Islamism, Muslims, not Islamists.

It is one thing – and the right thing – to challenge at every turn antisemitism, misogyny, homophobia, incitement to violence and hatred where it exists among Muslims, just as we should where it exists in the police, the church, the political parties, newspapers or anywhere else. But British Muslims I have spoken to now talk about feeling "deluged" by hostile comment. Hardly a day goes past when they are not lectured and scolded by writers claiming to be the champions of true liberalism. Muslims who argue for Muslim schools are criticized by journalists who send their children to Christian or Jewish faith schools. Muslim women who choose to wear the niqab are upbraided by powerful politicians who claim to feel "intimidated". Those who point to the illegality of Israeli occupation are antisemites. Those who protest against the war in Iraq are al-Qaida sympathisers and moral relativists. Muslims are under siege. Worried that if they speak out they will be accused of being quasi-Islamist, many have given up trying to engage in the debate over what Amis calls "the problems of Islam" (our old friend the "problem of the alien" again).

This is a community under attack, and not just by novelists. By every official index, violence and discrimination against Muslims have increased since 2001. The victims of physical violence will always be a minority – although Asian people are twice as likely to be stabbed to death than they were ten years ago – but what the majority experience in their daily lives is much more insidious, the kind of coded rejection that in this more enlightened age takes the place of outright expressions of racism. And, of course, hanging over them are threats of control orders, curfews, arrest and extended periods of detention without trial. Just as the 1974 Prevention of Terrorism Act left the Irish community in Britain feeling like a suspect nation, so the infinitely more repressive anti- terrorist legislation – including 28 days’ detention without charge rather than the old seven when the IRA were active – of today intimidates, alienates and inflames Muslims.

Muslims bridle at the broad strokes by which they are depicted. Every time a writer or politician or policeman begins a sentence by saying "Muslims must …", there is little recognition of the sheer variety of belief within Islam, or of the cultural diversity among Muslims, or of the everyday pragmatic reality of what it means in a secular age to believe in God and to try to live by that belief. In this respect Muslims are like anyone else. Some are devout, some are not at all, some are not very much, and some are devout sometimes. Some are sinners; they fall down and try to get up again. Some are hypocrites who fall down and pretend to be still on their feet. Many fail to live up to their religion’s, and their own, high expectations of themselves. Many have sex outside marriage, as many Catholics do. Some Muslims drink alcohol, as some Jews eat pork. A few, in common with a few Christians, think gay people should be murdered. Observant Muslims contest, dispute, accept and reject points of doctrine exactly as those from other faiths do. The Qur’an, as one Muslim put it to me, is not a program to be loaded and Muslims are not computers.

But almost worse than the ignoramus is the self-styled expert. After the attacks on the Pentagon and the twin towers, Tony Blair liked to be seen carrying his copy of the Qur’an, as though this were evidence of a deep understanding. (Not that his Qur’an was much help when he was writing to Pakistan’s General Musharraf, at least according to Peter Stothard, observing him at work in Downing Street: "’Dear Pervez …’ says the prime minister, as his pen glides along the top of a letter. ‘I’m never quite sure what name to use with Muslims,’ he says, looking up at his staff and down dubiously at his handiwork so far." His staff suggested "General".) I can remember a presenter on the Today programme begin her challenge to a Muslim activist with the words, "But the Qur’an says …" To which her interviewee retorted impatiently, "I’m sick of you people telling me what’s Islamic or not. This is my religion and you don’t know anything about it."

Reading Amis’s letter to Alibhai-Brown hardly gives the impression that the author is an authority. Recalling that they once spent a convivial evening together, he said, "That night you revealed … that you were Shia and, as far as I understand it, the Shia minority speaks for the more dreamy and poetic face of Islam." Is he perhaps confusing Shias with Sufis? The letter itself was a staggering exercise in condescension, its recipient praised as one of the good Muslims in the same way the Belgians kindly patted their évolués on the head. In a separate interview about his fictional reimagining of Mohammed Atta, who piloted the hijacked plane into the first of the twin towers, Amis acknowledged that he took "an enormous liberty in that I made him an apostate, rather than a religious maniac". He said, "It would have bored me blind to look into the mind of someone who was fanatically religious. I make him a cynic who is there just for the killing, and I wanted to emphasize that, that’s it’s a secret no longer well-kept, that killing people is tremendously empowering and exciting."

As a novelist, Amis is free to do whatever he wants with his characters, but the hijackers’ steps on the road to 9/11 repay investigation. Reducing the motivation of the enemy to bloodlust leads nowhere, as the experience of the British in Ireland proved. The result will be wrong and it will be cliche. It may be, given Amis’s powers, flamboyant, but that will only make it flamboyant cliche. Horrorism. Death cult. Thanatoid. Striking words but poor substitutes for understanding, reason and real knowledge. Go back to the start of this article. Look at the substitutions and then ask yourself what you are reading. An important question from a leading literary figure? A brave revenge fantasy? No. A major cultural and literary figure endorsing prejudice against Muslims.

Why did writers not start writing? There is Eagleton and there is the Indian novelist and essayist Pankaj Mishra, who took apart Amis’s strange and chaotic essay on the sixth anniversary of 9/11. But where are the others? Four days after the Pentagon and the twin towers were attacked, the novelist Ian McEwan wrote in The Guardian: "Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality." As an expression of outraged, anguished humanism, McEwan’s formulation was truthful, moving and humbling, and can hardly be bettered. But it seems to me the compassion is flowing in one direction, the anger in another. I can’t help feeling that Amis’s remarks, his defense of them, and the reaction to them were a test. They were a test of our commitment to a society in which imaginative sympathy applies not just to those like us but to those whose lives and beliefs run along different lines.

And I can’t help feeling we failed that test. Amis got away with it. He got away with as odious an outburst of racist sentiment as any public figure has made in this country for a very long time. Shame on him for saying it, and shame on us for tolerating it.

RONAN BENNETT wrote the screenplay of The Hamburg Cell, a film about the 9/11 hijackers. His latest novel is Zugzwang.

This piece ran in The Guardian on November 19.