Islamophobia: a new strain of bigotry

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Attacks on Muslims by politicians and the media have been on the rise since the 9/11 attacks. Now, when author Martin Amis's abusive tirades against Islam are broadcast and published without qualm, Hassan Mahamdallie asks if Islamophobia has become society's acceptable racism.

The new imperialist era that Western leaders have embarked upon, and its repercussions, have wrought extraordinary transformations on sections of the intelligentsia. Take the example of Martin Amis. Since the 9/11 attacks the once voguish novelist, author of books including London Fields, has been steadily building up a body of work that has essentially argued that Islamism is the new fascist threat akin to Hitler's regime. He argues that this threat demands extraordinary measures up to and including war, that Islam itself has become dominated by a death cult, and that the flaccid multicultural values of the liberal left in Western societies have made us soft and open to attack.

Martin Amis said in an interview with the New York Times that he was not Islamophobic but "Islamismphobic" - that is opposed to militant Islam - but this has taken him into that dark territory populated by anti-Muslim bigots, imperialist warmongers and apocalyptic right wingers who believe that the Muslim world is the greatest threat to civilisation.

Notoriously, Amis embarked on a "thought experiment", as his supporters would later have it, in an interview with the Times in September 2006. Amis mused, "There's a definite urge - don't you have it? - to say, 'The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.' What sort of suffering? Not letting 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.

"They hate us for letting our children have sex and take drugs - well, they've got to stop their children killing people."

In the same interview the author also warned, "They're also 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."

The Marxist philosopher Terry Eagleton took Martin Amis to task. Eagleton lectures, as does Amis, at the University of Manchester School of Arts. Eagleton reasonably pointed out, "Amis was not recommending these tactics for criminals or suspects only. He was proposing them as punitive measures against all Muslims, guilty or innocent."

Eagleton's observations made him the target of Amis's supporters, who bandied about the accusation that Marxists like Eagleton supported Islamist acts of terror. To this slur Eagleton retorted, "Blowing the heads off little children in the name of Allah was not exactly what Marx had in mind. Amis's panic-stricken reaction to 9/11 is part of a wider hysteria that has swept over sections of the liberal left, one to which creative writers seem particularly prone."

The controversy rumbled on. Then, in November of last year, one of Amis's contemporaries, Ronan Bennett, wrote the article "Shame On Us" in which he took Amis to task. Bennett's well-argued Guardian article concluded, "Amis got away with it. He 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."

Bennett's article, precisely because it was so powerful and forensic, raised howls of protest from Amis's supporters, who had been attempting to cast Amis in the public imagination as a brave, transgressive figure, who refused to be victimised by "the PC Brigade". For them Amis, for "telling it like it is" about the Islamist/Muslim danger embodied the finest features of the Western Enlightenment.

Christopher Hitchens, who completed his journey to the right when he backed George Bush and Tony Blair in their war on Iraq, jumped to defend his friend. Hitchens replied to Bennett that Amis was being satirical in the tradition of Jonathan Swift when he had embarked on his "experiment in the limits of permissible thought". But what does this explain? Nothing at all.

Enlightenment values?

Is Hitchens really arguing that the act of making your foul and innermost prejudices public is a brave and progressive act in and of itself? Are we now to congratulate every fascist that crawls out of the woodwork to make speeches inciting attacks on Muslims (or Jews) as a brave "thought experimenter"? What precisely is the Enlightenment value at stake here?

It is revealing that, in his defence of Amis, Hitchens also argues that anti-Muslim racism is not the same as other racisms, because Muslims do not constitute a "race".

Hitchens should know that the vast majority of Muslims in this country are from the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East or Africa. That is how they enter the racist paradigm. In the 1970s I was chased down the road by skinheads shouting "Paki". Now I could be jumped by some BNP thugs shouting, "Fucking Muslim terrorist!" The kicks and punches would feel exactly the same, whatever the racially-inspired epithet attached to them. However, the defence that "I am attacking a religion, not a race," is the "defence" favoured by the BNP, by which the fascist organisation exploits a loophole in our anti-discrimination laws.

The novelist Ian McEwan, whose clincher was, "I've known Martin Amis for almost 35 years, and he's no racist," also made a virtue out of the act of attacking "mainstream" Islam. For him this was "not to be racist, but to exercise the gift of consciousness and the privilege of liberty". The implication seems to be that novelists can say and write what odious rubbish they like and we have to accept it. The Enlightenment figure Voltaire never said he was beyond criticism - in fact he engaged in furious debates, usually with people in power.

Amis was unrepentant, of course. He replied to Bennett, "As a multiculturalist ideologue, Bennett cannot engage with the fact that a) the indigenous populations of Spain and Italy are due to halve every 35 years, and b) this entails certain consequences."

Amis is not an isolated aberration. As Terry Eagleton points out, he is only one of a host of powerfully placed commentators, many ex-left, across Europe and the US who have created this nightmarish vision of ever encroaching "Islamofascism" (although not a phrase Amis uses) as a stick to beat Muslims and those who seek to defend them with, and as an ideological cover for imperialism.

One of the striking features of Amis's recent writings is the closed nature of his literary imagination. You would think that an intellectual and novelist would be inquiring about their subject, that they would have a passion for accuracy and an essential truth, or perhaps some empathy or understanding. None of this is present in Amis's work. His mind is shut. Islamists, Al Qaida operatives, busily breeding Muslims, all are crudely one-dimensional.

So the vision that he constructs from this bundle of inaccuracies, misreading of the Quran, generalisations and caricatures has no real purchase. It only appeals, if at all, to blind prejudices (if the reader is that way inclined). For Amis the world changed on 9/11. "September 11 has given us a planet we barely recognise." He cannot see that the terrorist attacks on the West are a shard of a nightmare that the great powers have visited on the populations of the Middle East, Afghanistan and elsewhere through colonisation, imperialism and their attendant slaughter and immiseration on a vast scale.

So when Amis talks of Abu Ghraib, he sees it as a "shameful deviation" - not a manifestation of a wider abuse of the Iraqi population occupied by violent forces that act as a law unto themselves. It is the West's loss of "moral advantage" at Abu Ghraib according to Amis. What moral advantage did it have before Abu Ghraib? This inability to recognise that the people of the Middle East may view the impact of imperialism and "modernity" somewhat differently than Amis does from his comfy perch betrays a certain ruthless arrogance.

It is also very difficult to see what is progressive and brave in continually turning the heat on oppressed minority populations in Europe. As Gary Younge wrote, "The most potent anti-Semites and bigots in Europe do not live in run-down housing projects, but grace the corridors of power. They are not Muslim, they are Christian. The continent is not suffering from some new strain of bigotry imported from the Arab world or the Maghreb - it is simply suffering from one of the oldest viruses harboured among its most established populations."

One almost wishes that Amis and his ilk take a deeper look at their Enlightenment heroes whose names they like to wave at their critics.

Edward Gibbon wrote the classic Enlightenment text The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (published in six volumes from 1776 to 1788). He included in his study an extensive chapter on the prophet Muhammad and the early development of Islam. Gibbon held Muhammad's achievements in the highest regard. He could also admire the unifying nature and attendant philosophical leap that Islam represented at the time.

Compare Gibbon with the casual abuse of Amis, who wrote of the Islamist thinker Sayyid Qutb, "[He]...spent his childhood memorising the Quran. He was ten by the time he was done. Now, given that, it seems idle to expect much sense from him: and so it proves."

The great French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire was not anti-religion. He is probably best described as a deist who believed in a god out of reason and not faith. What he detested was the abuse of power of the establishment and the established church in France at the time - the Roman Catholic church, and its oppressive nature. Indeed Voltaire spent much of his later life defending oppressed people who practised minority religions (Protestants) against heinous injustices meted out by the state and the religious hierarchy.

Voltaire's most famous campaign in favour of the oppressed was in defence of Jean Calas, a Protestant cloth merchant from Toulouse. In 1761 Calas was wrongly accused of murdering his own son to prevent him from converting to Catholicism. There was not a shred of evidence against Calas, but he was nevertheless condemned to death, broken on the wheel, strangled and his body burnt. Voltaire was appalled, and furiously campaigned for a posthumous pardon for Calas.

Voltaire published his famous broadside, A Treatise on Tolerance, in support of Calas and wrote to a friend saying, "I am beside myself. I am concerned as a man, and a bit also as a philosopher. What I want to know is, on which side is the horror of fanaticism?"