On Channel 4 News last night, Martin Amis stuck to the same strategy he has adopted since the eruption of the row a week ago over his statements on Muslims. The comments in question, he repeated, were not made in writing – as literary critic Terry Eagleton had suggested – but “conversationally” in a press interview. He has since written more than 25,000 words all of which, he maintained, he stands by.
But this is as bad an excuse as he could have concocted. For the implication is that what may be unacceptable when scribbled on paper becomes perfectly acceptable and entirely excusable when uttered verbally.
If anything, however, spontaneous dialogue is more capable of revealing one’s inner thoughts and more expressive of one’s real positions than written texts. Its directness leaves less room for language games, for the ability to manipulate words, hide behind rhetorical devices, and disguise meanings. Amis’s deep-held views are much more likely to be found in the unguarded slips of his tongue than in the carefully rehearsed twists of his pen.
The trouble for Amis is that he is being confronted with his own words; words so explicit and flagrantly clear that their meaning is graspable even by the young and the unlettered. And you do not really need Terry Eagleton’s powers of interpretation and literary criticism to see that they ooze hatred and bigotry. So shockingly racist and Islamophobic are they that even their author has not been able to stand by them, instead seeking refuge in complaints about his mood, psychological state and the context within which the statements were uttered.
But are we to subject every statement of his to psychological analysis and ask if it was made in a state of calm or agitation, happiness or depression? And how can we be sure that his corrections were not made in a similar state of distress and tension? Are we dealing with a responsible adult, or with a minor who cannot be taken seriously?
Aware of the indefensibility of his exposed positions, Amis has sought to depict the matter as a tiff in a literary saloon or a departmental row with a “self-righteous” fellow academic. Much is made of Terry Eagleton’s Marxism here, as though this were a dispute over some ideological doctrine, or philosophical tenet. Reading the many paragraphs Amis devotes to attacking his opponent’s character gives the impression that had they been quoted by one other than the “marooned” Eagleton, the passages at the centre of the controversy would have raised no eyebrows and have been deemed perfectly respectable.
Amis’s attempt to distance himself from his utterances might have stood a better chance of being taken seriously if these had been substantially different from what he had opined on the subject of Islam and Muslims before and after the infamous interview. Although it is “Islamic radicalism” he claims to loathe and condemn, he almost always slips into reviling Muslims, their faith and their culture. He continuously vacillates between “Islam” and “extremism”, “al-Qaida” and “Muslims”, eventually blurring any distinctions between the terms. A few seconds before he began his alleged “thought experiment” on how Muslims ought to be handled, he says:
” … the only thing the Islamists like about modernity is modern weapons … 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 … ”
Although the diatribe starts against “Islamists”, soon the mask drops, and Amis turns his fire on Muslims. Implicitly or explicitly the terms co-refer in usage, and context. “Radical”, “extremist”, “Islamist”, “savage”, and all that is dark and frightening becomes a euphemism for “Islam” and “Muslim”.
What else would we expect of Amis when he draws his references from Paul Berman and VS Naipaul? Sam Harris, whom he frequently quotes in his Age of Horrorism, says:
“It is time we recognised – and obliged the Muslim world to recognise – that ‘Muslim extremism’ is not extreme among Muslims. Mainstream Islam itself represents an extremist rejection of intellectual honesty … The truth about Islam is as politically incorrect as it is terrifying: Islam is all fringe and no centre.”
Beneath the verbiage, Amis’s views are no different from those of his neoconservative mentors. What they say openly, he seeks to disguise behind the thin veil of “isms”. His writings, like theirs, drip with cultural essentialism, a conviction in the west’s superiority over other cultures, and zealous belief in the white man’s burden. The spirit that permeates them is one of sharp dualism of “us and them”, “west” and “east”, “modernity” and “Islam”. All the pages carry are rows of war trenches locked in endless confrontation, estranged worlds where the only meeting point is the battle field.
Even as he seeks to turn cultures and nations into barbed wire blocks, Amis still bids us see him as a prophet of dialogue. He wants to build bridges with Muslims, he tells us. Well, as the brown-skinned Middle Eastern Arabs he wants strip-searched and deported say: “War begins with words,” and Amis’s words have nothing to do with peace and everything to do with war. He demolishes bridges then pontificates about building them, beats the drums of war in the morning then sings peace hymns when night falls.
In his response to Eagleton, he writes that he wishes to engage with “moderate Muslims”. I am at a loss as to where he would find these moderates when he advocates the deportation of Muslims en masse, of “those who look like they’re from the Middle East, or from Pakistan”. Unless these moderates are meant to be blond and blue eyed – features in short supply among the mostly dark-skinned Muslims.
Al-Qaida has many who subscribe to its logic in the west and Martin Amis is one of them. Amis says that: “The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.” Bin Laden said that American and British taxpayers will have to pay the price until Bush and Blair change their policies in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. Both believe in collective punishment, in holding the innocent accountable for the sins of the guilty.
When asked by Jon Snow whether he stood by his comments on the hounding of the entire Muslim community, he replied that the policy would be “counterproductive”. Not morally reprehensible, or grossly unfair, just counterproductive …
What a terrible inferno our world would be if we left it to these missionaries of clashes of civilisations and collective punishment, a monstrous pit of prejudice, hatred, discrimination, and ever-raging wars in the name of a God of war or a God of freedom.
First Published in The Guardian, Thursday 18 October 2007