Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Race Row

I've been trying to make my mind up about the Martin Amis race row in the UK and what it means for the larger debate on Islamism.
Amis made some pretty incoherent declarations in an interview, where after the failed plot to blow up transatlantic planes in August 2006, he said felt 'a definite urge' to argue that British Muslims in general 'must suffer' for the actions of suicide bombers 'until they got their house in order'. By suffering, he meant 'strip searching people who look like they're from the Middle East or from Pakistan', 'not letting them [Muslims] travel', and 'further down the road', deportation.
Amis has pointed out in rebuttal after rebuttal that this is not a problem about race. "It's about ideology," he said. To his detractors, he issued a letter in The Guardian where he imagined their miserable chore of "dourly assembling their diatribes, hopscotching and cherrypicking from a press interview here, a TV interview there, an essay, a short story, some gout of alphabet soup in the Daily Mail, distorting this, suppressing that, and fudging the other. They are not interested in arguments and ideas, but in staking out "positions", in sending "signals", and in flirtatiously seeking the approval of the likeminded," he said.
I don't think that Amis' pronouncements are racist. In fact, I agree with the eloquent Pankaj Mishra who says that it is barely relevant whether Amis or any other individual is racist.
"We should be more concerned about this fact: that ideas regarded as intellectually null and morally abhorrent in any other context are not only accepted and condoned but also celebrated as bold truth-telling," Mishra wrote.
He explained that the instant pundits on Islam make it seem as if the presence in our midst of people who want to kill or wound us is an unprecedented event in human history. "The fervour of the ideologue manqué makes no room for the sober fact that almost every nation-state harbours a disaffected and volatile minority, whose size varies constantly in inverse relation to the alertness, tact and wisdom of the majority population."
Mishra starts by pointing out: "Never perhaps in history has so much nonsense been so confidently peddled about a population as large and diverse as this planet's billion-plus Muslims."
"Closely examined, Muslim societies briskly dissolve our complacent, parochial notions about religion, democracy, secularism and capitalism. They expose, too, the notion of a monolithic Islam pressing down uniformly on all believers everywhere as a crude caricature."
But caricatures as we know are simple. And in a baffling world, we seek the reassuring presence and utterance of simplicity.
I think that Amis's views are surprisingly simplistic, for a man of his writing talent. I'm all for debate but that's not what he's engaging in...his comments are problematic. He has since distanced himself from the remarks, calling them a 'thought experiment.' We've seen such thought experiments in action in communal riots in India. The moment you blame an entire community for the actions of a few, you make the leap from a rational view of the world to the abyss of the paranoical one.
The other thing that's missing from this debate is the role of the West in the radicalisation of Islam. Professor Terry Eagleton, the man who has been baiting Amis argues his point quite clearly :"It is an obvious point, but one still worth making, that it was our own barbarism and colonialism in the Middle East that has helped to create these situations in the first place. Amis and Hitchens have become perversely silent on the crimes of Western civilisation. Western civilisation has produced enormous advances, but not to see the darker side of that, not to see the barbarism of the West, and not to see that at a time when we are killing thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan, seems extraordinarily naive."

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Sea of Me

John Lahr has just won the Reportergirl Award for Wordsmithery. Thank you ladies and gentlemen, for your kind applause. Lahr's profile of British comedian and actor Steve Coogan in the November 5th issue of the New Yorker is very enjoyable.
Lahr says that Coogan specialises in creating characters not jokes. One such hugely popular Coogan invention was Alan Partridge -- a character, who Lahr quite brilliantly describes as "..a hapless talk-show host demoted to radio DJ, Patridge was mean-spirited, self-aggrandising, status-seeking, forever tempest-tossed in the Sea of Me."
There are many people I've interviewed who would do justice to this description.