Wednesday, June 25, 2008

on Ian McEwan and Islamophobia

Novelist Ian McEwan (author of Atonement, On Chesil Beach and many many others - those are just my favorites) made a few comments recently on Islamism that weren't necessarily received, the most oft-quoted being that militant Islam seeks to "create a society that I detest". He drew a distinction between militant Islam and militant Christianity:

McEwan recognised that similar views [oppression of women, opposition to homosexuality] were held by some Christian hardliners in America.

"I find them equally absurd," he said. "I don't like these medieval visions of the world according to which God is coming to save the faithful and to damn the others. But those American Christians don't want to kill anyone in my city, that's the difference."

It may not be true that those American Christians don't want to kill anyone in his city. However, they haven't in the recent past, and McEwan certainly isn't the only one paying closer attention to the threat of terrorism from Muslims than from Christians - most governments use his hierarchy of threat. McEwan does appear to adopt a tone that implies he thinks himself courageous, and Adrian Hamilton in the Independent takes him to task for it.

Indeed, as a catalogue of the failings of Islamism, and by extension of all Islam, McEwan's enunciation of the despicable are pretty much the received wisdom of our time.

It is not that which I object to. What is objectionable is not the triteness of their views but the way that they present them as if they were somehow brave and outspoken, a courageous gesture against the norms of political correctness. In reality they are simply the mirror image of the views propagated by the worst of the mullahs, and playing directly into their hands.

I tend to think that the "define your terms" imperative could be accurately directed at both McEwan and Hamilton (and, I guess, Martin Amis - who McEwan was defending when he made the abovementioned comments. Although Amis' comments about strip-searching everyone who looks like they might be from Pakistan or the Middle East do define terms in a way that ... doesn't insulate him from accusations of racism, exactly). I was at a conference recently where one of the participants named the failure on the part of the counterterrorism community to clearly delineate who they considered a terrorist was, perhaps ironically, one of the motivating factors (granted, just one) mobilizing future jihadis against the West. Amis clearly thinks all Muslims need to suffer for the wrongs of a few; McEwan makes a small effort to restrict his criticisms to extremists (hence the use of the word 'militants') but doesn't do it heartily enough to distance himself from Amis. Therefore we have Hamilton saying things like this:

The more that the West demands change from outside, the more it makes such issues as women's rights the litmus test of reform, the more difficult it makes the task of those pushing for change from within. The more it resorts to terms such as "Islamofacism" and "mediaevalism", the greater its ignorance of the pressures and the possibilities of societies in flux today. There are no generalities, just particulars, specific to place, person and moment.

And so the conversation becomes nothing more than a tit for tat between the politically 'correct' and 'incorrect'. Of course we must be careful about generalities - but as a journalist, and particularly as a columnist, Hamilton must rely on generalities a good deal of the time just to fill his word quota. Does he not know this? A newspaper columnist slamming a novelist commenting on politics for using 'generalities' sounds to me like the pot calling the kettle black. And, to be frank, it has the potential to bring the dialogue even further afield from what is taking place in many Muslim communities, where making a sharp distinction between Muslims and Islamic extremists is necessary for their members' continued full participation in society. The association of all images of Islam with extremism contributes to the ire over McEwan's comment, I think - if he had just said he would detest a society where homosexuality was condemned and women were second-class citizens then no one would have called him racist, but tacking on 'Islamic militants' to his discussion made him a Muslim-hater. If our brains were not so hard-wired to make the connection between a whole faith community and one violent subgroup thereof, then Muslims would have had as little problem with it as I, a nonpracticing Christian, have with him saying that American evangelicals are extreme as well.

We have a long way to go in this conversation, to say the least.

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