The Friday rant: Martin Amis

I have been reading and talking with (British) friends about this Observer piece by Martin Amis for almost a week now. Amis is one of the rather predictable enfant terrible of British letters. His books tend to be well-written, comedic send-ups of barely disguised celebrities and public intellectuals very much from his own London circles. In this three-page (long, web pages mind you) Amis makes rather impressive rhetorical acrobatics on why Prophet Muhammad was such a great, important historic figure yet Islam is such a terrible religion. While there are numerous problems with the piece -- some of which I'll be happy to give a pass considering the writer is, after all, a satirist -- one of the basic flaws with it is his rather broad definition of Islamism. Amis uses the term as a catch-all that includes Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hizbullah and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, showing absolutely no concern for the fact that these groups not only have rather different ideologies and intellectual underpinnings, but also very different track records in terms of how conservative/reactionary they are and in how they have used violence. In an anniversary piece written for 9/11, this is perhaps the biggest disservice Amis does to his readers -- although perhaps the editor of the Observer should have showcased a more relevant writer, one actually knowledgeable about this region and its ideologies, rather than yet another literary celebrity for the River Café crowd to enjoy over a Tuscan brunch.

I do actually find some of what Amis wrote funny -- his idea for a novel about an Al Qaeda planner who decides to converge 500 rapists to Greeley, Colorado (which famously hosted Sayyid Qutb), is mildly amusing. Qutb certainly deserves to be lampooned, and I have absolutely no problem with anyone poking fun at Islam. In fact, I positively long for the day that a Muslim Life of Brian is made with violent repercussions for its creators. But Amis' piece is infused with anti-religious sentiment:

Today, in the West, there are no good excuses for religious belief - unless we think that ignorance, reaction and sentimentality are good excuses.
This kind of statement, which I personally sympathize with, is not really helpful in understanding a thoroughly religious society -- and, in case Amis hadn't noticed, there are still plenty of religious people in the West too.

Where the essay really falls apart is at the third part, which is so full of bad arguments and mangled facts that it barely makes any sense. We learn, for instance, that:

Like fundamentalist Judaism and medieval Christianity, Islam is totalist. That is to say, it makes a total claim on the individual. Indeed, there is no individual; there is only the umma - the community of believers.
Because there is no concept of individuality in the Muslim world, nor many varied interpretations of what Islam is, how it is practiced, or the degree to which it informs everyday life.

We also get the obligatory reference to the number of books the Islamic world publishes or translates and an approving reference to Bernard Lewis' What Went Wrong. This is then followed by comparisons between Islamism (again, with no notion of nuance and what a broad label that term is) and Nazism and Bolshevism.

The worst is kept for last:

First, the Middle East is clearly unable, for now, to sustain democratic rule - for the simple reason that its peoples will vote against it. Did no one whisper the words, in the Situation Room - did no one say what the scholars have been saying for years? The 'electoral policy' of the fundamentalists, writes Lewis, 'has been classically summarised as "One man (men only), one vote, once."'
Rather strange, considering that democratically elected Islamist parties in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Turkey (among others) have reiterated many times their commitment to democratic processes. In Turkey, they are actually in power. The track record of Islamist governments that reached power by force may not be great, but thus far the ones who have come through a democratic process have not proved a threat to that process.

Also:
Second, Iraq is not a real country. It was cobbled together, by Winston Churchill, in the early Twenties; it consists of three separate (Ottoman) provinces, Sunni, Shia, Kurd - a disposition which looks set to resume.
I'm not sure what country is "real." I suggest that Amis should prepare himself for the inevitable dissolution of his own England, which surely will return to its Anglo and Saxon components anytime now.

I could go on -- just after this comes a great line about the fall of Baghdad being particularly painful for Muslims because it is the seat of the Caliphate (actually many Arab and non-Arab Muslims recognized the Caliphate in Istanbul until 1921) -- but it all gets rather tiresome. Yes, Martin Amis, some Islamists are repellent, reactionary people with a bankrupt philosophy. But we hardly needed an examination of Islamism that reads like a hastily-researched essay of an Oxford undergraduate (i.e. wittily written, smug with borrowed moral authority trying-to-please-his-tutor-a-little-too-hard but ultimately utterly mediocre) when, five years after 9/11, newspapers should be educating their audience about the many fascinating, occasionally worrying but also often positive, trends in contemporary Islamism.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.