Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Bahrain, smoking gun of American imperialism

Faced with the task of nominating the most dispiriting thing about American politics today, one finds oneself in the predicament of the man handed a cocktail menu at an open bar; his thoughts unable to organise themselves as the sheer breadth and richness of the selection overwhelms him. Is it the charade of the ‘Democrat’-‘Republican’ dichotomy, opposed to one another in theory but so uncannily similar in practice? Is it the way this dialectic - tenuous enough to begin with - is further diluted and decaffeinated by a culture that prizes the path of least resistance, and least ‘offense’, and precludes all real progress by its dogmas of ‘consensus politics’ and ‘bipartisanship’? Might it be the banana-republic populism that can disqualify a presidential candidate for being too educated, and is ready to forgive a man any transgression, and overlook any shortcoming, so long as he loudly proclaims his faith in the Almighty? These defects have a long history, and are probably systemic and ineradicable. What I would say is worst today, however, is the gargantuan foreign policy opportunity slipping through the fumbling fingers of a political class whose understanding of the Middle East increasingly appears to be less sophisticated than even its cretinous predecessor’s. For while Republican candidates bicker among themselves over whose fealty to Israel is the more fanatical, what they ought to be paying far closer attention to are the events that have unfolded in Bahrain. It is here, more than anywhere else in the region, that the Arab people are seeing in broad daylight exactly how much substance and integrity there were in Obama’s promise in Cairo in 2009 of a “new beginning” for American-Arab relations, and a “commitment [...] to governments that reflect the will of the people”.

At first glance, Bahrain might not look so bad. ‘Only’ around 35 people have been killed: nothing like the more than 5,000 dead in Syria. While live ammunition has been fired from the beginning; when one Ali Almeshaima was killed by a shotgun to the back on 14 February; for the most part, the state has ‘merely’ used rubber bullets and tear gas – not quite the fighter jets deployed by Qaddafi. Unlike their Libyan and Syrian counterparts, the Bahraini opposition does not appear to be armed. And no psychopathic pledges to ‘die a martyr’ or references to demonstrators as ‘rats’ have been heard from King Hamad al-Khalifa, who has at least gone through the motions of contrition and reform – apologising for deaths; pardoning a few prisoners; pledging legislative amendments; and commissioning the independent 500-page ‘Bassiouni’ report on the events since February.

However, this kind of bookkeeping ignores the much larger moral and geopolitical point, which is that unlike Qaddafi or Mubarak, who were – eventually – abandoned by Washington, al-Khalifa remains a treasured American ally and business partner (Bahrain being, of course, the home of the Fifth Fleet, the largest American naval base outside its own waters). Worse, al-Khalifa’s fellow American allies, the mirthless monarchs of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, have sent as many as 5,000 troops from their joint ‘Peninsula Shield’ coalition to lend a helping hand to the crackdown. All of a sudden, in other words, and for all the world to see, it is precisely those regimes with which the Americans are most friendly that are the ones ruthlessly trampling the budding sprouts of democracy. This is a betrayal that the Arab people are unlikely to forget in a hurry.  

The consequences of this sordid business are difficult to overstate, and will be making themselves known and felt for years to come. Most immediately there is, of course, the human cost. Yes, ‘only’ thirty-five have been killed. But this is merely the extreme end of a much broader spectrum of state-sponsored violence, including but not limited to torture, beatings, gassings and a plethora of other heavy-handed ‘punishments’ documented in cold print in the Bassiouni report. It tells us quite a lot, does it not, that five of the thirty-five deaths have been directly attributed to torture - the forms of which have ranged from sleep deprivation and stress positions to sexual assaults and enforced eating of faeces to good old-fashioned kickings and beatings to the pornographic stuff of lashings, burnings and electrocutions. And of course for each of the more than 500 victims of this mediaeval savagery there is a family without a child or parent, typically denied all contact with the relative or any knowledge of their whereabouts in what are just two of many instances of what the report calls “violation of due process”. 

And then, what is potentially far worse, there is the exacerbation of the Middle East’s most ancient malady: sectarian enmity. It would be an incurious mind that failed to notice that the Bahraini, Saudi, Emirati and Qatari leaders share a common interpretation of Islam, while a different set of politicians – the Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian potentates – profess belief in rival strains of the faith. Similarly, it would take a witless observer to miss that Washington is on better terms with the former bunch than the latter. Not unlike the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, the Bahraini monarchy welds the twin bigotries of sectarianism and ethnic chauvinism; being an exclusively Sunni tribe of Saudi descent ruling over a mix of Sunni and Shia, variously of Ajam, Baharna and Howala ethnicity. It’s no secret that the Bahraini Shia majority have long been de facto second-class citizens in their own country. One of the least encouraging findings of the Bassiouni report was that every Shia detained by the government without exception “made allegations of routine sectarian insults, which included insults relating to Shia religious practices and their religious and political leader”. Not that the attacks were merely verbal – astoundingly, the report documents the state-sponsored demolition of more than forty Shia mosques and shrines in recent months. For the Americans to side with this rabidly sectarian regime – a relic, like so many others, of the British empire – is not only plainly unjust but reckless to the point of lunacy. Good grief, is it any wonder that Muqtada al-Sadr and Hassan Nasrallah are popular?! Surely the dimmest intelligence can see what this perceived American bias toward Sunni populations will do to the country, and one groans with the familiarity of it all when one reads in the Bassiouni report of random Shia reprisal attacks against Sunni civilians. Nor do the prospects appear more promising anywhere else in the region, what with the fatal clashes last month in the Shia eastern province of Saudi Arabia. God help us all if and when this spreads to the powder kegs of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. 

Consider now Nicholas Kristof’s article in the New York Times last week, ‘Repressing Democracy, With American Arms’, in which he cites the astonishing information that Obama may soon be approving a $53 million arms sale to the al-Khalifa regime. The writer and photographer Matthew Cassel, who has kept up a fine campaign on Bahrain at Al Jazeera and the Lebanese Al-Akhbar, has several times remarked on the ‘Made in USA’ inscriptions on the tear gas canisters lining the streets. What a very ugly footnote to Obama’s worthless legacy. To be propping up and arming a British-installed client dictator in protection of naval and energy interests is not something that may be brushed aside as realpolitik – it is nothing less than naked imperialism. What other word is there for it? How else can the hard facts be explained? This is naked imperialism, of a sort that invites dark comparisons with the Pahlavis and Farouks of yesteryear. Any lingering goodwill on the Arab ‘street’ that Obama might have been able to salvage, after three years of supine subservience to an outrageously hostile Israeli government, has met a bloody death in Bahrain. How bitter it is to think how different it could have been, and how very hard it will be to undo the damage and dishonour this time.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Farewell to the least boring man of a generation

The news that Christopher Hitchens has died may have come as many things to many people, but the one description one may not ascribe to it is that it has come as a ‘shock’. He had, after all, been telling us quite plainly that it was going to happen any day now. This was of course characteristic of a man who preferred to deal in unwelcome truths than soothing falsehoods.

Not since the demise of Steve Jobs in October has a death been so immediately and fervently talked about. Facebook and Twitter contacts whom I had no idea were even aware of Hitchens have deluged the internet with messages of bereavement. “Only yesterday”, a friend of mine from London just informed me on WhatsApp, “I was explaining his theory on drinking at lunch – half a bottle of red, not always more, never less”. I myself had been showing a video clip of him on Jesus to a Christian friend over drinks last night. But speaking of unwelcome truths, it occurs to me that since Hitchens had to die some time, it may be for the best that it was sooner rather than later. As he revealed in his magnificent series of Vanity Fair articles, his cancer had already taken away his voice – that gorgeous, Burtonian double bass that could once “stop a New York cab at 30 paces” – without which he would never again appear at the podium. And he wrote repeatedly of his awful fear that he would go on to lose the ability to write, which he believed would render him as good as dead to all but his friends and family. On BBC radio this morning, Ian McEwan, his friend and the dedicatee of God Is Not Great, described a piercing example of his determination to keep writing literally to the very end:

Right at the very end when he was at his most feeble, and his cancer began to overwhelm him, he insisted on a desk by the window away from his bed in the ICU – it took myself and his son to get him into that chair with a pole and eight lines going into his body – and there he was, a man with only a few days to live, turning out three thousand words to meet a deadline. And then finishing it and thinking, Well I’ve got maybe an hour or two, I’ll write something on memorial day and English poetry. And he was dozing off between sentences; the morphine would overwhelm him; and then I’d watch him just jerk himself awake and get down another sentence. He would never give up.

As far as the debates on religion are concerned, there isn’t much to say except that he was the very best; the ‘champion’ of atheism in every sense of the word, who made everyone on stage alongside him look laughable; friends as much as foes. Martin Amis wrote of him that, “In debate, no matter what the motion, I would back him against Cicero, against Demosthenes”, and indeed, I defy anyone to show me an instance of his losing an argument with a religious man.

But religion, of course, was only one of the causes that agitated him. He had been, ever since his teens, a political animal to the core. ‘Late’ Hitchens, as it were, is somewhat divorced from ‘early’ Hitchens, as an aged whisky takes on qualities unavailable to its younger counterpart (for the details of this – as well as learned advice on drinking whisky – see his memoir, Hitch-22). I have had my political disagreements with him (see e.g. here and here). But let’s just say that a dogged commitment to the freedom of abused peoples was for him a constant and an absolute. His opposition to ‘Vietnam’ was of course shared by millions at the time, but far fewer of his supposed comrades were able to muster quite the same outrage when it came to the Balkans, where Hitchens was among the first to call for international intervention to prevent the Christian Serbian fascists from committing a genocide against the mainly Muslim Bosnians. His later advocacy for the use of force in Iraq was in large part with the emancipation of Iraqi Kurds in mind, some 180,000 of whom had been murdered by Saddam, and whose quasi-national flag he would often wear pinned to his lapel in public. And while he never made it his raison d’être, his dedication to a sovereign (and secular) Palestine was total, going as far as to say in his memoirs that if the Palestinians wanted a state from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, “then I have to concede that that is their right”1. Accepting the Richard Dawkins award earlier this year, he made a point of denouncing “the millennial settlers in Palestine who believe that by bringing in as many fanatics of Jewish origin as they can, and forcing out as many Palestinian Arabs as they can, they may bring on the messiah, and indeed the Apocalypse, and look forward to the common destruction of our species with relish” – rightly drawing attention to what is arguably the most alarming manifestation of religious faith today (a distinction challenged only by the coterminous rise of its militant Islamic counterpart). 

I never knew him or so much as corresponded with him – the one email address I managed to get hold of had been deactivated – so, for me, the loss is not personal. And yet, the man’s death will change my life. As someone for whom reading is as precious as breathing, the pleasure with which I open my laptop in the morning will be marginally but permanently diminished. Never again will that ‘Daily Hitchens’ button on my browser bring new words of his to my attention. He has written everything he is ever going to write, and every event henceforth will have to be faced without the advantage of his ‘take’ on it. 

But in a crucial respect, this may be how he would have wanted it. Surely, few things would have more displeased this titanic adversary of the blindly worshipped and deified leader than the prospect of his becoming one himself. As he tirelessly emphasised, the point is not what to think, but how to think, and how to think for oneself. In his extraordinary body of work and his no less extraordinary life, Hitchens has offered us a masterclass in this art. The challenge will lie in remembering this education, and attempting to live up to the standard he has set. 

1 Hitchens, C., Hitch-22 (2010), p. 396

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Novel Solution: The intellectual necessity of fiction

Picture the scene: you’re in the company of a new acquaintance whose intelligence and humour have been made evident to you, but whom you do not yet know well. Navigating the climbs and declensions of conversation in the hope of expanding on established common ground, you hazard to bring up the subject of novels. Nothing pretentious – no need here for page-length recitations of Proust or Pride and Prejudice – but perhaps “Did you happen to catch Martin Amis’ latest?” or whatever it might be. And then that sinking sensation as your mystified companion shakes their head and politely asks who that is, explaining that they “only really read non-fiction”. If he’s a man, this statement might even be made with a hint of pride, as though to imply that reading anything less would be a frivolous, infantile and basically effeminate waste of time. I hope at least some of you will know what I’m talking about.

The belief that non-fiction is the terrain of the serious thinker, whilst fiction is little but fairytales for adults is an all-too-common one, I fear, and one which is long overdue repudiation. This is not just because of its essential philistinism, or for any sentimental notion of the ‘transcendence’ of art. On the contrary, the assiduous study of literature offers a practical and tangible education to even the most hard-headed utilitarian. In no sphere is this truer than in politics. 

As an example, I have just finished Palace Walk, the first instalment in the famous ‘Cairo Trilogy’ by the brilliant Egyptian novelist, Naguib Mahfouz. I couldn’t have known when I started the book that its author would make a posthumous appearance in the three-way contest between secularists, Islamists and the military that is defining the quagmire of post-Mubarak politics, but I’m very glad that he has, for it’s given me the chance to build on a loathing for religious extremism that I never thought could get any greater. For those who missed the news from last week’s parliamentary elections in Alexandria, the candidate representing the Salafi coalition – that is, the ultra-orthodox Islamists who denounce even the Muslim Brotherhood as infidels, and yearn to replicate the system of government of 7th century Medina – decried the works of the Nobel Laureate as “inciting promiscuity, prostitution and atheism”. (Well yes, one wants to reply, but what of the books’ faults?) Happily, the sexless fanatic was defeated – albeit by a Brotherhood man...

Palace Walk itself is an irreverent yet humane satire on piety from start to finish. When Mahfouz writes of Amina, the luckless mother of the tyrannically patriarchal al-Jawad household, that “[s]he knew far more about the world of the jinn than that of mankind”, he manages in fourteen words to summarise the entirety of the pity of Islamic fundamentalism. And when the father, al-Sayyid Ahmad, is confronted by a cleric on his notorious extra-marital indulgences, his reply is an unimprovable indictment of religious double standards: “Don’t forget, Shaykh Mutawalli, that the professional women entertainers of today are the slave girls of yesterday, whose purchase and sale God made legal. More than anything else, God is forgiving and merciful.”

It was for these and other moral victories over the faithful that Mahfouz was eventually stabbed in the neck at the age of eighty-two; left debilitated but not dead by a knife belonging to just the sort of person who might vote for a Salafi today. Thus to the ignorant question – ‘why read fiction?’ – one of many possible answers is that fiction and politics are inseparable, and an understanding of one without the other is impossible1. For who could fully grasp the danger and derangement of the Salafis without first understanding Mahfouz’s novels? Equally, who, without having read The Satanic Verses, could know how insane it was for Ayatollah Khomeini to demand the murder of its author? Incidentally, those who saw the 1989 fatwa as the first shot fired by a newly militant Islamism are overlooking the banning in 1959 of Mahfouz’s Children of Gebelawi, which, like the Verses, included the Prophet Muhammad and his contemporaries amongst its dramatis personae. (It was no coincidence that Mahfouz joined dozens of distinguished Middle Eastern men of letters such as the poets Adonis and Mahmoud Darwish and the intellectuals Edward Said and Amin Maalouf in expressing unconditional solidarity with Salman Rushdie in a dedicated collection of essays published in 1994, in which Mahfouz wrote, “The veritable terrorism of which he is a target is unjustifiable, indefensible [...] One idea can only be opposed by other ideas. Even if the punishment is carried out, the idea as well as the book will remain.” Contrast this with the condemnation Rushdie faced in the Anglophone world from people like Jimmy Carter, Roald Dahl and John le Carré, and you arrive at one of the bleaker ironies of the term ‘Western civilisation’.)

Speaking of Edward Said – that Columbia Professor of English and Comparative Literature, who, like Palace Walk’s Kamal, also grew up in inter-war Cairo in the shadow of a disciplinarian father – did he not make his name in 1978 by saying that it was the fiction of ‘Occidental’ writers, from Homer through Shakespeare and Dante and Goethe and Flaubert to Conrad and Kipling, that reinforced the notion of an untamed ‘Orient’, and thus paved the path for European imperialism? That book, along with its 1993 sequel, Culture and Imperialism, would be a locked door to the strict non-fictioner. 

There are more additional examples than I would care to list or you would care to hear about, but I will mention just three if I may. One probably doesn’t have to have read Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four to understand dictatorship and totalitarianism, but his concepts of ‘Big Brother’, ‘doublethink’, ‘thoughtcrime’ and ‘Newspeak’ have acquired so universal and versatile a currency that it would save one a lot of time and effort to do so (responding to le Carré’s philistine reduction of the Verses to an “insult” of a “great religion”, the expression Rushdie chose in his letter to the Guardian was that he had been “accused of thought crimes”). Orwell’s almost preternatural instinct for the relationship between language and politics (cf. his 1946 essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’) enabled him, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, to conclude that the 1938 Moscow trials were fraudulent “on internal literary evidence”2 alone, at a time when many more intellectuals than it is polite to remember were celebrating the justice served on the enemies of the Party. And even – if not especially – to those for whom English was not a first language, Orwell’s novels commanded respect among the dissident and endangered: here is the Polish anti-Stalinist Czesław Miłosz in his 1953 classic, The Captive Mind:

A few [of us] have become acquainted with Orwell’s 1984; because it is both difficult to obtain and dangerous to possess, it is known only to certain members of the Inner Party. Orwell fascinates them through his insight into details they know well, and through his use of Swiftian satire. Such a form of writing is forbidden by the New Faith because allegory, by nature manifold in meaning, would trespass beyond the prescriptions of socialist realism and the demands of the censor. Even those who know Orwell only by hearsay are amazed that a writer who never lived in Russia should have so keen a perception into its life.3

All that remains to be said here is that if oppositionists living under the Stalin regime thought it worth their while to read the fiction of Orwell (and Swift), then very few of us indeed have valid reason not to.

Moving closer to the present, the conflict in Israel and Occupied Palestine has tended to produce more poetry than prose, though there are a few fine novels to be found. The Palestinian Ghassan Kanafani had already published his masterpiece, Men in the Sun, by the time he was assassinated in 1972, while his contemporary Emile Habibi was even to win an Israeli literary prize in 1992. David Grossman’s has probably been the most powerful Jewish Israeli voice, while Philip Roth’s 1987 tour de force, The Counterlife, captured in just five words the terrifying absolutism of the West Bank settlers: “The Bible is their bible.” Perhaps the most striking scene I’ve yet read, however, appears in the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun. The book centres around Yunis, an aged former Palestinian fida’i, as he lies comatose in an improvised hospital in Shatila, the refugee camp south of Beirut, while the equally improvised ‘Doctor’ Khaleel regales him with an epic repertory of stories of the villages, valleys and violence that make up the collective Palestinian memory (Khoury was himself a member of Fatah in Jordan in the 1960s, before siding with them against the Israelis – and most of his Christian co-religionists – in the Lebanese civil war. He’s been involved with the refugees one way or another ever since). 

To the scene, then: we know in advance to expect something eventful, because Umm Hassan, a Shatila refugee, has managed to get herself back to El Kweikat, the Galilean village of her youth, where after 1948 the Jews “demolished every single house [...] and built the settlement of Beyt ha-Emek – all except for what had been new houses on the hill”, of which Umm Hassan’s had been one. Finally summoning the courage to knock on the door, a Jewish woman answers in surprisingly fluent Arabic, and ushers Umm Hassan and her brother inside. They follow her in and have a seat as the woman fetches them a drink.

The Israeli woman left her in front of the water jug and returned with a pot of Turkish coffee. She poured three cups and sat calmly watching these strangers whose hands shook as they held their coffees. Before Umm Hassan could open her mouth, the Israeli woman asked, “It’s your house, isn’t it?”

“How did you know?” asked Umm Hassan.
“I’ve been waiting for you for a long time. Welcome.”

Umm Hassan took a sip from her cup, the aroma of the coffee overwhelmed her, and she burst into tears.
The women talk about a jug of Umm Hassan’s that’s still on the kitchen counter, decades later. They walk into the garden and discuss the orange orchards, or ‘groves’, as the Jewish woman calls them. Umm Hassan eventually explores the entire house. And then she’s telling her about her life today; how she now lives in a camp on the outskirts of Beirut:

When the Jewish woman heard the word Beirut, she jumped up and changed completely.

“You’re from Beirut?” she cried, the words tumbling out of her mouth and her eyes filling with tears.

“Listen, sister,” the Jewish woman said. “I’m from Beirut too, from Wadi Abu Jmeel. You know Wadi Abu Jmeel, the Jewish district in the centre? They brought me from there when I was twelve years old. I left Beirut and came to this dreary, bleak land. Do you know the Ecole de l’Alliance Israélite? To the right of the school there’s a three-storey building that used to be owned by a Polish Jew called Elie Baron. I’m from there.”

“You’re from Beirut?” Umm Hassan asked in amazement.

“Yes, from Beirut.”

“How did that happen?”

“What do you mean, how did that happen? I’ve no idea. You’re living in Beirut and you’ve come here to cry? I’m the one who should be crying. Get up and go. Get up, sister, and go. Send me to Beirut and take this wretched land back."

Now, a history book can tell you that there were once as many as 20,000 Lebanese Jews, all but a couple of hundred of whom are now in Israel. It can also tell you that perhaps 100,000 Palestinians took refuge in Lebanon after the nakba of ’48. But no historian can tell you what would happen if two such exiles were actually to meet: that task is left to the novelist alone.

Of course, this symbiosis between letters and politics ceases to work the moment one trespasses on the other’s domain. A review of Azar Nafisi’s 2003 memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Hamid Dabashi provides a cautionary tale. The book tells the story of how Nafisi – a Professor at the University of Tehran until her expulsion for refusing to veil herself, after which she moved to America – would invite her brightest female students to her home in Tehran once a week for informal discussions on four staples of the modern Anglophone canon: Lolita, naturally enough, along with The Great Gatsby, Daisy Miller and Pride and Prejudice. These symposia, which were intended as relief from the alternating tedium and terror of life under Khomeini as much as anything else, eventually cultivated rich and entirely original interpretations of the works, with whose heroines the girls identified far more personally than Nafisi had imagined they could have. 

For this modest but perhaps symbolic achievement, Nafisi receives a tirade of venomous, hysterical abuse from Dabashi, who calls her a “native informer”, a “colonial agent”, a “comprador intellectual” (his most irritating phrase, used twelve times in the review), a “servant of a white-identified, imperial design” and even an “ideologue in George W Bush’s empire-building project”. Her thoughtcrime – sorry, crime, it appears, was to have Betrayed The Cause by disseminating works of doctrinal impropriety:

[The book] promotes the cause of “Western Classics” at a time when decades of struggle by postcolonial, black and Third World feminists, scholars and activists has [sic] finally succeeded to introduce a modicum of attention to world literatures [...]

Decades into a sustained struggle against the domination of Eurocentric curriculum [sic] in the US academy, fighting to restore democratic dignity to the world literary scene, Nafisi once again pushes the clock back for about half a century by a singular and exclusive praise for the Eurocentricity of the literary imagination.

This sheer Stalinism – appraising books solely on the basis of their ideological purity – seems to form the core of Dabashi’s critical approach. The primary achievement of Nafisi’s book, he says, is to have:

[S]ystematically and unfailingly denigrat[ed] an entire culture of revolutionary resistance to a history of savage colonialism

Apparently, then, literature is not about things like art or beauty or language: it’s actually about revolutionary resistance. Oh sure, Nabokov might have written good novels, but what the hell did he ever do for the struggle

In fact, Dabashi’s spittle-flecked and bloated review gets a great deal worse, to the point of telling outright lies4 (that the man is a Professor of Literature at Columbia is surely a disgrace to the institution). But his most laughably philistine moment is this:

[O]ne reads this book in vain in search of even a single conversation with any relevant literary theory amassed for generations about and around the works of the [four] authors

Of course – because one may not simply enjoy literature: one has to anaesthetise and sterilise and dissect and analyse it, in “conversation” with “relevant literary theory”! Never mind what the readers think - what do the literary theorists have to say? I shall leave the last word on this sorry subject to Kingsley Amis, who once reproached some comparable mediocrity for his suggestion that a certain novel of somebody else’s was not “important” enough to have merited inclusion in some now-forgotten literary shortlist:

Important! Fearful contemporary word, smacking of the textbook, the lecture-hall, the ‘balanced appraisal’. So-and-so may be readable, interesting, entertaining, but is he important? Ezra Pound may be pretentious and dull, but you’ve got to admit he’s ever so important. What? You haven’t read Primo Levi (in translation, of course)? But he’s important. As the philosopher J. L. Austin remarked in another context, importance isn’t important. Good writing is.5

And there it is. Literature is not to be conscripted into the service of academia, or any other ‘sphere’ or ‘discourse’, least of all politics. While it might make contributions in each of these respects, to read it solely as a means to these ends would be like gulping down a glass of wine just for the cardiovascular benefit: it can be done, but it would rather miss the point... Instead, both fiction and wine ought to be enjoyed for their own sake, and to forgo the former is every bit as joyless and puritanical as abstaining from the latter. Ultimately we should all be with that Persian genius, Omar Khayyam, who warned us a thousand years ago that:

Since neither truth nor certainty is granted
You cannot sit in doubtful hope all your life;
Let us be careful not to set the wine-cup aside,
Since a man is in ignorance, drunk or sober.6

1 The same answer can be given, of course, to the no-less-ignorant question, ‘why read politics?’ 
2 See Hitchens, C., Why Orwell Matters (2002), pp. 59-62 
3 As quoted in Ibid., pp. 54-55 
4 “No one will ever know, reading Reading Lolita in Tehran, that Iranians, like all other nations, have a literature of their own”, writes Dabashi. I cite the following quotes from the 2008 Harper Perennial paperback edition (this list is by no means exhaustive): “We read Persian classical literature, such as the tales of our own lady of fiction, Scheherazade, from A Thousand and One Nights” (p. 4); “Like a group of conspirators, we would gather around the dining room table and ready poetry and prose from Rumi, Hafez, Sa’adi, Khayyam, Nezami, Ferdowsi, Attar, Beyhaghi” (p. 172); “Our great epic poet Ferdowsi had rewritten the confiscated myths of Persian kings and heroes in a pure and sacred language. My father, who all through my childhood would read me Ferdowsi and Rumi, sometimes used to say to me that our true home, our true history, was in our poetry” (p. 172). 
5 Amis, K., Memoirs (1991), p. 297
6 Avery, P. & Heath-Stubbs, J., The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam (1979), p. 89

Sunday, December 4, 2011

No, we absolutely must not 'embrace' Islamism

"[The] general enemy, of course, is extremism. What has extremism ever done for anyone? Where are its gifts to humanity? Where are its works?" – Martin Amis1

"Question to several white, secular liberal friends in the West: why are you so keen on a #MuslimBrotherhood victory in #Egypt?" – Mohammed ‘Ed’ Husain, author of The Islamist, on twitter

Last Thursday, Reuters ran the headline, ‘West should embrace “Arab Spring” Islamists – Qatar’, citing a Financial Times interview with the Qatari Prime Minister Hamad al-Thani in which he voiced this opinion. As suggested by the above quote of Ed Husain’s, al-Thani may have been pushing an open door. So now that the ‘Arab Spring’ (if we’re still calling it that) has brought us the incredible spectacle of secular Westerners applauding the electoral successes of Islamist parties from Casablanca to Cairo, it might be worth recalling what we all knew, or ought to have known, twelve months ago.

Which is that Islamism – the politicisation of Islam, or, if you prefer, the Islamisation of politics – is extremism by definition. As much as the phrase has been allowed to infiltrate our language, there is no such thing as a ‘moderate Islamist’. From the outset, Islamism says that the practice of religion may not be left to the private domain; that the relationship between man and God is not allowed to be a merely personal one. Instead, you, the citizen, are to be given no say in your spiritual and metaphysical beliefs: the state has made up your mind for you, and is going to make certain that you obey the compulsory pieties and strictures while it’s at it. All questions of interpretation, nuance, allegory, etc., are out: the state knows best, and there is no court of appeal. By this intrusion into the innermost realm of the individual, Islamism combines totalitarianism and tyranny with the basest insult to the intelligence – the manifestation of Orwell’s Big Brother who can tell you that two plus two makes five, and make you very sorry if you dare to disagree.

And what, indeed, has Islamism ever done for anyone? Where are its gifts to humanity? Where are its works? Are they perhaps to be found in Yemen, ranked dead last in the World Economic Forum’s 2011 Gender Gap report, where more than a quarter of the female child population is sold into marriage (and therefore rape) by the age of fifteen? Or how about the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, which came in third-last on the same index, while topping the Committee to Protect Journalists’ ‘Deadliest Countries in 2011’ list? The sterile world of statistics cannot adequately capture the pure hell of this failed state, unforgettably described by Christopher Hitchens as follows:

Here is a society where rape is not a crime. It is a punishment. Women can be sentenced to be raped, by tribal and religious kangaroo courts, if even a rumor of their immodesty brings shame on their menfolk. In such an obscenely distorted context, the counterpart term to shame—which is the noble word “honor”—becomes most commonly associated with the word “killing.” Moral courage consists of the willingness to butcher your own daughter.

Nor is the picture much brighter in Saudi Arabia or Iran – the powerhouses of Sunni and Shia theocracy, respectively – where all social and cultural development is vetoed, and the people are harassed and humiliated daily by the secret police. Things are rapidly tending this way in the ‘Holy Land’, where the most admirable political cause of the modern era – the liberation of Palestine – has been hijacked by the fanatics of Hamas and Hizbullah, who want to kick out the Zionist empire only to install their own Islamic one in its place. True, life is bearable enough in comparatively relaxed Gulf dictatorships such as the UAE, so long as one is mindful not to ‘insult Islam’ by, say, criticising the Taliban. And then there is the purported ‘model’ of Turkey, where the advances made by Prime Minister Erdoğan’s party in economic and other respects have come at the price of an encroaching muscular reactionism in which a growing list of ‘vices’ from adultery to alcohol are falling under the stifling scrutiny of the state.

And now we suddenly have Tunisia, Libya, Morocco and Egypt to add to the list. Only time will tell how fascistic each turns out to be, although the Tunisian ‘Ennahda’ party may have given us an early indication last month when its secretary-general, Hamadi Jbeli, proclaimed that, “We are in the sixth caliphate, God willing”. That as many as a quarter of Egyptians appear to have voted for the Salafi 'al-Nour' party – a spawn of the same sewage that nearly murdered the greatest novelist of the Arab world, Naguib Mahfouz – is also less than comforting. Of course, one must presume innocence until guilt is proven, and democratic nations should at least tolerate Islamists to the extent that they adhere to international law. But to ‘embrace’ them would be to abandon every principle – and every friend within each of these countries – to which the secular world owes its unconditional allegiance. Over. My. Dead. Body.

1 Amis, M., The Second Plane: September 11, 2001-2007 (2008), Author’s Note