A “big gun” fires blanks for Amis

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Today, the Guardian printed a defence of Martin Amis, in response to Ronan Bennett’s deconstruction of Amis’s anti-Muslim remarks in his interview with Ginny Dougary. Entitled Martin Amis is no racist, the article took up the bottom half of two pages, with the top half empty apart from the headline. It seemed that a big gun had to be brought in to defend Amis - someone of Amis’s own supposed stature - but the arguments were astoundingly flabby.

Amis started out by pointing out that the words discriminate and discrimination are originally complimentary, in that to “have a discriminating palate, for example, is to enjoy good taste”. A similar line was used in the Spectator a while ago, in an article which also pointed out the original, neutral meaning of “prejudice”. The argument is as irrelevant with Amis as it was with the Spectator article; the problem here is discrimination against people on the basis of colour or race or religion, which subjects those discriminated against to needless and unjust disadvantage. If certain people cannot go about their business without being pulled out of queues and searched, and experiences this regularly, because they fit the stereotype of a terrorist (or another type of undesirable), that is not a positive form of good-taste discrimination. It’s definitely the bad, unjust type.

Amis tells us that a racist is a racist because they “can’t distinguish between a Jew and another Jew, or an Asian or West Indian or Chechen”. However, the point Bennett made was that Amis’s remarks did not really distinguish between normal Muslims and extremist ones, and that discourse hostile to Islam in the media does not bother to make this distinction either (emphasis mine):

Muslims bridle at the broad strokes by which they are depicted. Every time a writer or politician or policeman begins a sentence by saying “Muslims must …”, there is little recognition of the sheer variety of belief within Islam, or of the cultural diversity among Muslims, or of the everyday pragmatic reality of what it means in a secular age to believe in God and to try to live by that belief. In this respect Muslims are like anyone else. Some are devout, some are not at all, some are not very much, and some are devout sometimes. Some are sinners; they fall down and try to get up again. Some are hypocrites who fall down and pretend to be still on their feet. Many fail to live up to their religion’s, and their own, high expectations of themselves. Many have sex outside marriage, as many Catholics do. Some Muslims drink alcohol, as some Jews eat pork. A few, in common with a few Christians, think gay people should be murdered. Observant Muslims contest, dispute, accept and reject points of doctrine exactly as those from other faiths do. The Qur’an, as one Muslim put it to me, is not a program to be loaded and Muslims are not computers.

As we will see, Hitchens displays exactly this sort of sweeping generalisation in this article.

Hitchens compares Amis’s suggestions regarding the treatment of Muslims to an earlier essay in which he suggested the possibility of killing his wife and children to spare them the experience of a nuclear groundburst. However, in that essay he was clearly talking about a hypothetical situation in the future, rather than what might be done now after four bombs have been let off. In the event, what Amis was suggesting was not done and there have been no further successful bombings. He also castigates Terry Eagleton for comparing him, disparagingly, to Evelyn Waugh rather than George Orwell: “How is one to come to grips with a man so crude in his sneers that his idea of an insult is to compare me to one of the greatest novelists of the past century?” Given that Hitchens is not a novelist, it is obvious that the comparison is not about works of fiction but with attitudes. (However, Amis is, so there is obviously an issue of what authority someone has just because he is a famous novelist.) Is Hitchens really too stupid to get that point?

Hitchens then goes on to display precisely the non-discriminating (good type) racism that he alludes to early in his essay:

And yes, of course, we remember those bombs that the Jewish refugees from Russian czarism placed in our streets. We remember how (before they became good old assimilated types) they ululated praise for suicide from their synagogues, demanded the segregation of the sexes, insisted on special prayer-rooms at work, exemptions from certain laws and on the censorship of newspapers that didn’t “respect” Judaism.

For anyone who does not get the subtle implication here, the repeated reference to Jews in the general sense is actually about Muslims, in a general sense. Unlike the Jews, he is saying, the Muslims are doing all of this. The bit about censorship is a flat-out lie: censorship means the filtering of material. If someone has been punished for saying something, but the offending material was allowed to be released, there is no censorship. I cannot recall anyone demanding the censorship of material for not respecting Islam, although there was an attempt to legislate a crime of inciting religious hatred - a clumsy term, but it meant hatred of a group of people based on their religious beliefs, or lack thereof. Most mosques do not feature Muslims “ululating” support for suicide bombers (and ululation, by the way, is that “lulululululululululu” noise women make with their tongues; east African women are known for it), and I cannot recall Muslims demanding that non-Muslims separate the sexes. It goes on in some Muslim gatherings.

Then he comes out with more crass generalisations:

On the other hand, the world where honour killings and forced marriages happen is real, and so is the world in which mosques are distributing cassettes and DVDs calling for the murder of Jews and Hindus. (So much for precious multiculturalism.) The world where one holy book is sovereign, and only to be understood as written in one exclusive tongue. The world where djinns and devils are real, and where women are unclean and homosexuals are unspeakable, where novelists can be sentenced to death and where bombs can be left to slaughter the sort of “slags” who might go clubbing in London. And the damage that those bombs were designed to inflict was … indiscriminate.

Here, he plainly fails to distinguish between ordinary Muslims with their beliefs, and terrorists. He gets ordinary Muslims’ beliefs wrong - we do not regard women as unclean in Islam. We never have done, particularly in the Old Testament sense of holding anyone who touches a woman, or the bed she sleeps on, acquires her status of ritual impurity and has to wait several days and then have a bath, or something like that. Fundamentalist Muslims, rather than merely those who are strict in their practice and come from a very traditional background, are probably less likely to be involved in honour killings. Other traditional practices which hurt women, like FGM, are less common among more fundamentalist Muslims (the decline in FGM in Somalia and the spread of “salafi” fundamentalism, whatever that movement’s other faults, can hardly be a coincidence). Hitchens seems to make no distinction between Muslims who pray and Muslims who kill.

Hitchens claims that he has taken Oriana Fallaci and Mark Steyn to task for harping on the “demographic threat”, but complains that he is accused of “insulting a billion Muslims” whenever he criticises “any reactionary religious practice” and that one can easily find “Islamist websites that boast of a demographic conquest to come, for the votaries of the prophet”. Again, he misses the point. As even the likes of Mark Steyn admit, the reason Muslims are gaining on westerners in demographic terms - even if from a small base - is because of low childbearing rates among western women, for various reasons (sometimes it is the dislike of having children but sometimes it is economics and factors like lack of housing). The fundamentalists who lamely boast of a demographic conquest and those who scaremonger about it are making the same point: that it is because the non-religious are not having children.

Hitchens has not really dealt with Ronan Bennett’s central contention, that Islamophobia, like antisemitism, is indistinguishable from racism because of the fact of the mostly non-white ethnicity of Muslims, because it involves singling people out on the basis of matters like skin colour, and because of its use of similar themes to earlier outbreaks of racism. The Guardian, or whoever got Hitchens to write this, thought they were bringing a big gun into play on Amis’s side, but he has fired blanks in this article.

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