It used to be said that anti-Catholicism is the anti-semitism of the liberal. It is fairly obvious which religion has taken over that mantle today. Views that would be widely regarded as prejudiced and offensive if directed towards other religious or ethnic groups are often seen as acceptable when expressed about Islam. These opinions and sentiments slip beneath liberals’ politically-correct censorship monitor in the guise of a supposed defence of the very liberal values that dictate political correctness in the first place; above all, in the guise of a defence of tolerance. The consequence is that advocates of the liberal position are frequently completely blind to the Islamophobia they are articulating and helping to inflame.
On Fridays, on the ‘PM’ programme on Radio Four, they round off the week with a review of letters and emails sent by listeners during the course of the preceding days. This last Friday, there were several letters relating to the award of a knighthood to Salman Rushdie. The famous BBC balance was conspicuous by its absence: not a single correspondent cited was critical of the award; there were only ‘indignant-from-Tunbridge Wells’-type comments to the effect of: who did Muslims in Iran and Pakistan think they were, trying to dictate to us who we honour or not, and impinging on our freedom of speech; that, unlike them, we were a tolerant society that accepts the right of people like Rushdie to express their point of view; and were we supposed to live under Shariah law now? It made me feel as though I was in a minority of one.
Implicit or explicit in the PM listeners’ comments was an assumption that Mr Rushdie’s knighthood had been conferred upon him in genuine recognition of the literary merit of his works and, in a more general sense, of their cultural importance in the current context of a perceived threat to Western civilisation from certain quarters of the Islamic world. But it appears totally obvious to me that the whole thing was politically driven. Indeed, comments from the Home Secretary on Wednesday of last week included an admission that senior members of the government had been involved in the decision (see my blog of 21 June). Furthermore, I haven’t heard one voice from the literary establishment who regards the award as merited and timely from a purely literary point of view.
In my blog entry of 19 June, I argued that the political intention behind the award was to express defiance towards Iran, to promote public perception of an increased threat from terrorism (in order to help get the new Terror Bill through parliament), and to tighten the pressure on Muslim communities in this country, which might enable more so-called extremists and terror suspects to be flushed out. A further more general objective, which supports all of these aims, is that of increasing the climate of Islamophobia in Britain. It was evident from the content of the PM mailbag that this was succeeding. Virtually all the correspondence on the subject expressed resentment towards the angry reaction to the knighthood from some Muslims, as reported in the media. And in one or two instances, this resentment was articulated in terms of indifference and even hostility towards the religious basis for Muslims’ sense of hurt. Paraphrasing one comment from memory: ‘I don’t even care about the religious reason for the offence caused; religious people have been getting their way for too long in these matters – why should they continue to dictate to the rest of us any more?’
Before I go any further, it would be useful to clarify what I mean by Islamophobia. This word covers a whole gamut of negative beliefs and attitudes towards Islam and Muslims that are based on prejudice, misconception, blame, resentment and fear. As stated above, it is the same sort of phenomenon as racism or any other form of aggressive prejudice. But what is particularly insidious about Islamophobia in the present context is, as I have said, the way it is articulated in liberal terms. In essence, what unites the liberal critics of Islam and those who express their Islamophobia in cruder, more violent ways is ultimately a wish to displace Islam as the core value system and political philosophy of Muslim-majority countries; even a wish that it had never arisen in the first place. The liberals won’t, can’t, acknowledge this; but their desire for a liberal reform of Islam is predicated on a denial of the validity of Islam’s claims to truth (based on the supposed revelation received by Mohammed) and of the whole system of law and political authority that derives from it. A liberalisation of Islam would in reality be a take-over of the Islamic world by Western liberalism. In those circumstances, law in Muslim countries would be secularised: it would be determined on the basis of rationalist, libertarian and egalitarian principles, not of an unreformed medieval set of rules that have ‘falsely’ passed themselves off as divine writ for 1400-odd years. The public / political and the private / faith spheres would be separated, as they are in the West, and both domains would be thrown open to competition, otherwise known as democracy and freedom of conscience respectively.
Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses articulates just such a liberal critique and would-be subversion of the very foundations of Islam. I’ve refreshed my memory of the novel, read for the first time in 1991, when the original fatwa issued against the author by the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini was still very much in force. What is particularly clever about the book (from a liberal-intellectual point of view), and at the same time Islamophobic (hostile towards Islam, indeed seeking to undermine it) is not so much the substance of what Rushdie writes about Mohammed and the disputed ‘satanic verses’ allegedly accepted into the Qu’ran and then later rejected. The real offence, from the Islamic perspective, is the way the ironic, self-reflexive structures of the novel frame all writing – including that of the Qu’ran – as fundamentally fictive: not containing within itself any absolutely reliable guarantee of its authenticity and truthfulness. I heard one reviewer of this Saturday’s papers on BBC News 24 patronisingly assert that Muslims were being naïve in their indignation at the novel’s version of the ancient legend concerning the satanic verses (that they were in fact the work of the Angel Gabriel himself) because this story, in Rushdie’s novel, was merely a fiction. How silly of them not to realise the distinction! But the whole point about the novel is that it (admittedly, fictively) questions the validity of any distinction between fiction and revelation. So it is not so much the story of the satanic verses – in the novel – that Muslims are reacting to; but the novel The Satanic Verses as a whole, which is turning round to them and saying ‘all you believe in is no different from this novel: a fiction, a fabrication and a lie’. Their reaction to the book was in this sense virtually programmed and anticipated by it: Rushdie calculated the effect, loaded the gun and pulled the trigger.
British politicians and commentators have defended the original decision to approve the publication of The Satanic Verses and the recognition its author has now received, on the basis that this demonstrates the tolerance of British society. But what they are effectively saying is that Islamic societies should exhibit the same sort of tolerance in their turn, i.e. that they should accept the same sort of diversity of opinion and belief as Western societies. Muslim societies should move to the more ‘advanced’ situation of modern Western culture: embracing a plurality of truths, rather than the singularity of revelation, and leaving it to the liberal economic and cultural market place to sort out which version of reality is more widely accepted and narratively convincing. Or, putting it another way, the Islamic world should cease to be different and antagonistic to our own; it should become Western and liberal.
In this way, fundamental, indeed aggressive, hostility towards Islam and ‘reasonable’ liberal critique of Islamic belief and society are inseparable bedfellows. As one intensifies, so does the other. 9/11 sparks off an understandable wave of blame and vengeful feelings towards Muslims; but these are acted out in the invasion of Afghanistan: not an act of violence against a Muslim country, so it is said, but an attempt to bring it the benefits of Western secular democracy and liberalism – in other words, to destroy its particular brand of fundamentalist Islam, in which everything was based on an extremely narrow, literalistic interpretation of the Qu’ran. However, fast forward six years, and our boys are still slugging it out with the never-say-die Taliban. Is something wrong with our conceptual model here, and do Afghanis not actually see us as their saviours? The truth is probably somewhere in between: common ground to be discovered.
Similarly, the UK government decides to award a knighthood to the personification of the ideal of ‘tolerant Islam’ (actually, someone – strangely – who is no longer a believer), ostensibly because of the literary merit of his works and his impeccable liberal credentials – but also out of hostility and fundamental enmity towards Islam. The resultant violent reaction from the most ‘fundamentalist’ countries provokes both increased resentment and anger towards Muslims among the British population, and further exasperated criticism of the backwardness and intellectual blindness of such Muslims, who simply don’t have the wit or education to appreciate that it’s all just a sophisticated sort of mind game. Except you don’t play fanciful, deceptive mind games with what is most sacred in life. And who is really being most blind here: the Muslims who can see a direct assault on the foundations of their faith and societies on the part of a hostile West; or the West which can’t see that that’s what it’s doing?
But, to return to my original point of departure, the stimulation of this sort of Islamophobia (liberal – and therefore unself-knowingly aggressive – hostility and contempt towards Islam) is politically useful to the British government. The reason for this is that it increases support for the measures the government has taken and intends to take in support of the so-called War on Terror. In my blog of 19 June, I emphasised the domestic political benefits (passing of the new Terror Bill, ability to detain ‘suspects’ for up to 90 days without charge, etc.). But I could just as easily have stressed the international agenda. Let’s put this in political diary form:
Saturday 16 June: announcement of Salman Rushdie’s knighthood
Sunday 17 and Monday 18 June: predicted protests follow in Iran and Pakistan; effigies of the queen and flags of St. George are burnt; Pakistani minister makes speech appearing to justify suicide bombings in response to the award; this follows on from similar anti-British protests in Tehran the week before. Stokes up British resentment towards and fear of global Islamic assault on Western civilisation and values, and willingness to support all necessary measures to combat it
Thursday 21 June: US general involved in the Iraqi ‘surge’ expresses belief that the foreign hostages taken two or three weeks earlier (including Britons) are being held by an Iranian-backed group.
Friday 22 June: it’s reported that British troops are beginning a major offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan; and it’s well known that the Taliban are being supplied with increasingly sophisticated weaponry by the Iranians, and are being funded and harboured by sympathetic Pakistanis.
In short, the decision to knight Salman Rushdie was intended to provoke an occasion for Islamophobia: feelings of fear, anger and resentment coupled with liberal disparagement of the barbaric intolerance and ignorance of those effigy-burning Muslims. And, at the same time, the latest developments in the War on Terror are communicated to the media as being concentrated precisely around the Muslims involved in the latest episodes of extremist Islamic behaviour: the Iranians, waging war against Britain through every avenue available to them (notably, through the insurgency in Iraq and via the Taliban in Afghanistan), and the Pakistanis (the Taliban’s principal ally). The War on Terror – far from being a grotesque foreign-policy misadventure – suddenly starts to seem necessary and worth fighting. Could it be that one of GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] first major achievements will be something that Blair so singularly failed to do: winning liberal backing for military action in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Islamophobia enables the creation of an enemy in the War on Terror: we’re no longer shadow-boxing Al-Qaeda in the mountainous borderland between Pakistan and Afghanistan but fighting a real-life enemy – the Taliban – that really is radically opposed to Western civilisation and is out to get us. And we’re no longer dealing with a nebulous group of internecine, homicidal insurgents in Iraq but with fighters that are being organised and equipped by the would-be regional Islamist nuclear superpower; and a country which has also, including in the Rushdie affair, demonstrated its violent hostility and aggression towards Britain on more than one occasion – and so needs to be stopped, if necessary by Western military force in Iraq.
So the whipping up of Islamophobia, and then focusing it in on specific enemies of British and Western forces, is an attempt to overcome the real PR problem faced by the Iraq War: the failure to find a real enemy and a real threat to correspond to the Terror that the war was supposed to be directed against. Indeed, if you don’t know who your enemy is but know that he’s out there, plotting against you, this does indeed accentuate the power of the terror that is hanging over you: worse the enemy you don’t know than the enemy you do.
But is there not a sense that even the Iranians and the Taliban are not our ‘real’ enemy here? Does the threat they pose really justify Britain in fighting battles that are leaving our armed forces overstretched and possibly under-equipped, and are resulting in the steady attrition of loss of life – not just among our brave soldiers but among all the casualties of war, including many thousands of civilians? Or if the specific threat to Western civilisation or, more concretely, the Western global economic order from the likes of Iran is that significant, should there not be a much more concerted, collective effort on the part of all Western countries – including military action as a last resort – to ensure that the ‘evil’ that is threatening us is eliminated? (Maybe GB is calculating on creating a wave of support for more funding, resources and personnel in the war against our newly defined enemies – who knows?)
The Iranians and the Taliban remain slightly surreal and incomplete symbols for our real enemy in the War of Terror – the one which, as good liberals, we are incapable of seeing as our enemy: Islam itself. The terror in the War on Terror is our Islamo-phobia: our fear of Islam. But this fear can only exercise its power over us if it is unacknowledged, suppressed beneath our liberal reasonableness, and our attempts to rationalise and objectify the threat we feel in the shape of specific, tangible menaces. If we recognise that what we are really afraid of is being defeated in a global clash of civilisations with Islam, and being subordinated to Islam, then this is the beginning of a way out of our terrors. We can either fight the shadows or engage with the reality. We and Islam don’t have to be enemies; we can live together and equitably share the threatened resources of the earth (including those of Middle Eastern oil) that we all need.
The lesson from the Troubles in Northern Ireland was that you don’t defeat terrorism by continuing to deny the dignity and the rights of those whose cause is championed in extremis by the men of violence, and by trying to secure a military victory over them. The resolution can come only through reconciliation, dialogue and the recovery of mutual respect. But in order to achieve this in relation to Islam, we may have to compromise something of our liberal sense of superiority over that vibrant monotheistic faith. We certainly will also have to attend to healing the open wound at the heart of the whole conflict: the suffering of the Palestinians and, through and beyond that, the question of ownership of the Holy Land and Jerusalem – Judaeo-Christian or Muslim? No one should be under any illusion that the reconciliation will be easy – there are real enemies out there. But we have an obligation to seek grounds for peace, not false reasons for war.
Can our intransigent liberalism be reconciled with dogmatic Islam? Doubtless, there’ll need to be movement on both sides. And will that mean that we, too, may have to recover some of our own, Christian, ground of truth? Perhaps only then can we really meet our Muslim brothers face to face, and heart to heart, and see our common humanity to which our terror blinded us.