Sunday, September 17, 2006

Pankaj Mishra responds to Martin Amis

Pankaj Mishra, who wrote a rambling, self-indulgent yet sometimes illuminating fable of his re-discovery of India, An End to Suffering, responds to Martin Amis' imperious essay in last week's Observer.

Although Mishra can be faulted on refusing to engage with the sheer irrationality of fundamentalism (whether Christian or Muslim), his critique of Amis' essay is spot on in many respects - what right has Amis to make such spouting pronouncements? Has he any knowledge of the history of Islam, or sound understanding of the long arc of history between the West and the Arab world from the Crusades and since? There are some good comments in the letter's page. Clearly, we should not look to someone who made their name in the 1980's inventing an urban vernacular for the wilder reaches of Thatcherite experience to exlain the complexities of contemporary Islamic-Western relations. We can learn much more from moderate Muslim thinkers such as Ziauddin Sardar, who is perhaps the most engaging guide to the complexities of various forms of Muslim experience. His regular pieces in the New Statesman are always enlightening and informative.

There are several key issues which Amis, and Mishra for that matter, do not articulate as clearly as they might:

1. The West is largely to blame for the creation of fundamentalist Islam, for several reasons. First, direct support of fundamentalists like Bin Laden or the House of Saud at times of economic convenience. Eg, without American military support, Saudi Arabia would not have the wahabist problem it now has. This must be seen against a long historical sweep of dangerous meddling, most notably in Palestine and in Iran.

2. Western commentators almost always homogenise various forms of Islamist resistance. Hamas, Al-Qaeda, Hizbollah, the Taliban, the Mujahadeen etc etc are all thought to espouse the same 'islamo-fascist' ideologies. This a massive over-simplification. In most cases, these groups are local responses to local conflicts (resource wars, tribal conflicts etc). Any generalisation of a global Islamist threat is pure Hollywood. Compared to the tens of thousands of lives Western intervention has wreaked in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Lebanon, the few thousand lives taken away by Islamists does not really figure.

3. It is not in the West's interests to promote moderate Islam. Moderate Islam will not feed the military-industrial complex (the engine room of Capital), help to defend huge increases in defense spending, nor continue to justify Homeland Security-esque incursions into the freedom of individuals. Therefore, neither Washington nor its Whitehall puppets will ever come out and support it.

4. Meanwhile, there are huge forms of in-country opposition to Bin Laden-esque fruitcakes and the simpletons who rant for living in the Madrassas. There is a hidden and repressed liberal sub-culture in almost all Islamic states. But these movements are locked in and trapped, a) by popular hatred of brutal Western interventions, b) by the support the West continues to give to the fundamentalists and c) because of a lack of opportunity to write and be published.

5. The Islamic world in general is at least as differentiated as the Christian world. Beyond the Sunni-Shia schism, there are hundreds of sects and sub-cultures within Islam, just as there are countless interpretations of the Koran. The popular image of the teachings of the Koran as 'literal truth' are undermined by the hermeneutic contestation that continues, just beneath the surface.

6. More than anything else from a Western perspective, Europeans and Americans are completely ignorant of the debt of gratitude owed to Islamic intellectuals a thousand years ago for preserving and nurturing Classical learning and developing perhaps the most sophisticated design aesthetics ever known to humanity. An Islamic renaissance is possible, and latent again just beneath the surface. Unfortunately, it is neither in the interests of the West, nor its fundamentalist clients, to promote it. We must therefore try to work out other strategies to promote harmony between the various sons and daughters of Abraham/Ibrahim. Any other strategy is fratricide.

Rather than the mirage dreams of establishing a new Caliphate, and the pure stupidity of a War on Terror as response, we need to recall a common history of advanced culture and foster a deep respect for the best in both worlds. There is much that is awesome and beautiful in Christian culture (one thinks of the Cathedrals, the hymns, the devotional journeys to Canterbury or Santiago), just as there is much that is pure wonder in Islam (one thinks of the Al-Hambra, the Mezquita, the Qawwalis of Nusrat Fateh Ali Kan, the Zillij designs on endless ceramic surfaces, the magnificent Riyads of Morocco and the mosques of Istanbul). Humanity went perhaps as high as it is possible to reach towards a perfect Spirit in these achievements.. Tolerance, respect and even love and admiration of each other's faiths and worlds is available, at just 2 degrees of inflection away from the disastrous status quo. Another world is possible.

Or, is it the fate of myopic humanity, that although we may be the only beings in the universe capable of conscious, reflective thought and profound spiritual enquiry, we will always allow a self-destructive ego-centric logic to defeat our common aims? Must we always deserve the Bushes and Blairs, the Ahmadinejads and Omars that precipitate so much global suffering?


Soul 11:50 am  

Jeremy, this post is just too perfect. just too perfect.

Chxta 3:21 pm  

Great post Jeremy. Great post. Permit me to make use of it in future.

Shango,  5:14 pm  

Ooh Jeremy, you've gone and done it!

Re your #1 point: it is irresponsible and a bit silly to think Islamic fundamentalism is a Western creation. I call bullshit (as the Americans say) on that for largely historical reasons: there has always been Islamic fundamentalism even in the absence of Western influences.

So that we're singing from the same page, we have to start by asking what fundamentalist Islam is. If fundamentalism is defined to adhere to the strict dictates of the Qu'ran and the Hadith, then absolutely, yes indeed, Islam, even absent any external (read Western) influences has always been a warring, oppressive, intolerant religion from its beginnings in Arabia.

Let's go back, shall we? Mohammed did not teach "peace and tolerance", Mohammed led armies and ordered assassinations of his enemies. He begain in 610 by teaching to his tribe the worship of One God and his own position as a prophet, but he wasn't well received so he became enraged. When his uncle Abu Lahab rejected his message, Mohammed cursed him and his wife in violent language that has been preserved in the Qu'ran: "May the hands of Abu Lahab perish! May he himself perish! Nothing has his wealth and gains avail him. He shall be burnt in a flaming fire, and his wife, laden with faggots, shall have a rope of fibre around her neck" (Quran 111:1-5)

Sound familiar?

In 622, he fled to Medina and started raiding the caravans of the Quraysh, his tribe. There was one raid that occurred during the sacred month of Rajab, when fighting was forbidden. When the raiders returned to Mohammed, he at first refused to share in the booty, but then a New revelation came from Allah (as it almost always did) that the Quraysh opposition to Mohammed was a worse transgression that the violation of the sacred month. ("They question thee, O Mohammed, with regard to warfare in the sacred month. Say: warfare therein is a great transgression, but to turn men from the way of Allah, and to disbelieve in Him and in the Iviolable Place of Worship, and to expel His people thence is a greater sin with Allah; for persecution is worse than killing" --Qu'ran 2:214) This was a momentous revelation because it led the the Islamic principle that has had repercussions throughout the ages. Good became identified with anything that redounded to the benefit of Muslims, regardless of whether it violated moral or other laws. The moral absolutes enshrined in the Ten Commandments, and other teachings of the great religions that preceded Islam, were swept aside in favor of an overarching principle of expediency.

It is the divinely ordained duty of all Muslims to fight in the literal sense until man-made laws has been replaced by God's law, the Sharia, and Islamic law has conquered the entire world. For every text a moderate, liberal Muslim produces, the mullahs will use dozens of counter-examples that are exegitcally, philosophically, historically far more legitimate.

In the battle of the Muslims against the Quraysh at Uhud, Mohammed wore two coats of mail and, brandishing a sword, led the Muslims into battle. But this time, they were routed. The Prophet himself had his face bloodied and a tooth knocked out. When he was able to find water to wash the blood off his face, Mohammed vowed revenge: "The wrath of God is fierce against him who bloodied the face of His prophet." Mohammed vowed revenge again when he found the body of his uncle Hamza. Hamza had been killed at Uhud and his body horribly mutilated by a woman, Hind bint 'Utba, who cut of Hamza's nose and ears and ate a part of his liver. The Prophet said: "If God gives me victory over Quraysh in the future, I will mutilate thirty of their men"

Jihadists were fighting long before "American neocolonialism" or Abu Ghraib or Isreal. Indeed, they've been fighting and imitating their warrior prophet ever since the seventh century, casting their actions as responses to the enormities of their enemies ever since Mohammed discovered his uncle's mutilated body. Read "The Life of Mohammed: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah" by A. Guillaume for more.

The Qu'ran counsels war against Jew and Christians, and war in general (When you meet the unbelievers in the battlefield, strike off their heads and, when you have laid them low, bind your captives firmly--Qu'ran 47:4; "O ye who believe! Fight the unbelievers who gird about you, and let them find firmness in you: and know that Allah is with those who fear Him" Qu'ran 9:123) This warfare was to be directed against both those who rejected Islam and those who professed to be Muslims but did not hold to the fullness of the faith. There's also this: "O ye who believe! Take not the Jews and Christians for your friends and protectors: they are but friends and protectors to each other. And he amongst you that turns to them (for frienship) is of them (Qu'ran 5:51); and this: Slay the idolators wherever ye find them (Qu'ran 9:5).

Mohammed taught his folowers that there was nothing better (or holier) than Jihad warfare, he told his men to offer non-Muslims only three choices: conversion, subjugation, or death. These teachigns are not marginal doctrines or historical relics--they are still taught in mainstream Islam. Islamic law mandates second-class status (the Dhimma) for Jews, Christians, and other non-Muslims in Islamic societies, these laws have never been abrogated or revised by any Islamic authority. The Qu'ran and Islamic law treat women as nothing more than possessions of men; the Qu'ran sactions wife-beating and it also allows for child marriage, and the virtual imprisonment of women in their homes.

What is known today are the "Islamic world" was created by a series of brutal conquests of non-Muslim lands. These were wars of religious imperialism, not self-defense, in sharp contrast to that of Christianity in that Islam was spread by force. 450 years before the Crusades, the forces of Islam united the scattered tribes of Arabia into a single community, at which time the newly Islamic Arabia was surrounded by predominantly Christian lands--notably the Byzantine imperial holdings of Syria and Egypt, as well as the venerable Christian land of North Africa. Four of Christendom's five principal cities--Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem--lay within striking distance of Arabia. All these areas are now Islamic, which was spread by the sword. Under Islamic rule, the non-Muslim majorities of those regionswere gradually whittled down to the tiny minorites they are today, through repression, discrimination, and harasment that made conversion to Islam the only path to a better life.

One must understand that the Crusades, the West's first real encounter with Islamic forces, were not acts of unprovoked aggresion by Europe agains the Islamic world, but were a delayed response to centuries of Muslim aggression, which grew fiercer than ever in the Eleventh century. These were wars for the recapture of Christian lands, not religious imperialism and were not called in order to convert Muslims or anyone else to Christianity by force.

There's more, much more, but I'm tired. Suffice it to say Islamic aggression existed way before anything we know today as "The West"

Anonymous,  10:36 pm  

Brilliant response Shango...brilliant...its amazing how much nonsence Jeremy writes-as intelligent as one might be tempted to take him.
Islamic fundamentalism? a creation of the West? or,he might even suggest, of Bush and blair-the convenient explanation of the world's evil!
Your intelligence might shine through a bit more in your analysis if it werent so badly dimmed by your impulsive extreme left bias...

Jeremy 11:04 pm  

Some interesting historical/textual points my friend Shango. However, one could if one could be bothered point to equal levels of violence and bloodthirst in the Bible.

Both faiths have violent stories to tell, just as both faiths abound with ethical stories and stories of love. All the more reason to select the positive aspects of both texts and leave aside the old fashioned blood and guts stuff. Reconceptualising jihad is one such form of necessary selection. Your concurrence with the Pope's gaffe is a sign of intolerance, betraying a lack of appreciation of the ways in which millions of ordinary Muslims carry out their lives: in peace, with peace in their hearts.

As to the point that somehow it's my left-wing bias that draws me to conclude that the West created fundamentalism - no, it's historical fact. At least the original Martin Amis article detailed some of this. The US funded the Taliban against the Russians in Afghanistan during the Cold War in the 1970s (fact); the West has supported the wahabist House of Saud against all popular resistance for the past few decades (fact) - there's no better extractive strategy than supporting internal repression to enable external resource control. The West's creation of Israel was the root cause of the Palestine problem and the ultimate cause of Hamas extremism. It was the US-backed incursion into Lebanon in the Six Days War that directly led to the formation of Hesbollah in the 1980's etc etc.

Contemporary Islamic fundamentalism is fuelled and driven by Western foreign policy and the misdeeds of its client-states, and uses distortions of Islamic theology to justify its response. Contemporary by-the-sword jihad has therefore little to do with what Mohammed did or didnt do, and has everything to do with the murderous and ill-thought through incursions of Bush 1 and Bush 2 in the past decade.

The links between the Bush dynasty and the Bin Ladens is well-known. It is no real surprise that despite all the sophisticated technology the US has, Bin Laden has yet to be sniffed out.

Shango,  5:41 am  

Jeremy: understand that I do know that majority of the world's Islamic population lives in harmony and wants nothing more than most other civilized people: to live in peace. I'm not painting every single Muslim with the same tar brush.

That said, it is a fallacy to say that Islamic fundamentalism is a Western construct. It's not, it's built into the DNA of Islam. Unfortunate, but true.

Furthermore, any Christian who decides to take up arms, as it were, is doing so in full recognition that Christianity does not condone violence in any form and for any reason. Whatever violence has been carried out in Christianity's name is unjustified, period, end of story. Jesus Christ said "All who take the sword will perish by the sword" while Mohammed said "Know that Paradise is under the shades of swords (Jihad in Allah's cause)."

Attempting to morally equate Christianity and Islam is historically incorrect and intellectually dishonest. While it is certainly true that no group, religious or unreligious, has a monopoly on either misdeeds or virtue, it doesn't follow that all religious traditions are equal either in the nature of their teachings or in the capacity of those teachings to inspire violence.

For nearly the first three centuries of its existence, Christianity was outlawed and subject to sporadic persecution by Roman authorities. Not only was the religion not spread by violence, but the lists of Christian matrys are filled with the names of people subjected to violence because they became Christians. In contrast, by the time of Mohammed's death, the Muslims faced no organized or sustained opposition, and yet continued to take up the sword for their faith.
In the early days of Christianity, the Church sent missionaries to preach to non-believers and convince them of the truth of their faith. The ancient Christian nations of Europe all remember the Christian missionaries who brought the faith to them: Saint Patrick in Ireland; Saint Augustine of Canterbury in England; Saints Cyril and Methodius in Central and Eastern Europe; and others like them. They were priests and monks--not military men. Muslims, by contrast, put armies in the field that faced non-Muslims forces and offered them Mohammed's triple choice of conversion, subjugation, or death. They drew their largest number of converts from among conquered dhimmi populations that saw the embrace of Islam as their only path to a livable existence.
Witness the many stories in northern Nigerian history of Usman Dan Fodio's many battles and the offering of the very same choices mentioned above.
Given all the depradations of dhimmitude, it is hardly surprising that many dhimmis ultimately chose Islam.
Today, many Muslims hotly deny that Islam spread by force, and point out that forced conversion is forbidden in Islam. That is absolutely true: What spread by force was the political and social hegemony of the Islamic system. Conversions to Islam followed the imposition of that system as the dhimmis began to feel their misery.

I don't understand what the inference here: "It is no real surprise that despite all the sophisticated technology the US has, Bin Laden has yet to be sniffed out." Are you saying that the US is deliberately not finding Bin Laden? If so, Jeremy, you've simply got to stop drinking the Krazy Kool Aid. Conspiracy theories do not become you, a PhD in Philosophy.

Jeremy 10:28 am  

Shango, while one can be impressed with your historical and textual knowledge of both the Koran and the Bible, it really is besides the point. You're trying essentially throwing a lot of knowledge at me to deny a distinction between fundamentalist and moderate Islam - which is tantamount to suggesting that the latter cannot exist for theological reasons alone.

Your argument therefore blinds you to seeing any difference between the antics of the Taliban and say a devout Moroccan in Cassablanca who worships at his mosque everyday and looks after his family. Both are fundamentalists on your account, simply because of jihads in times past and because of the copious people put to the sword (or threatened with it) in the Koran.

Should one therefore expect modern day Catholics to still want to torture and put to the stake free thinkers who reject Papal doctrine? If contemporary Catholicism is no longer influenced by the cruel excesses of the Inquisition, why should Muslims still be guided by Jihads centuries ago? History and texts are always open to interpretation and revalorisation - to think that they only act as 'literal' guides which their members must follow unthinkingly is to deny historical agency to people in the present.

What you don't see is that many strains of fundamentalist Islam are entirely a post-modern media age phenomenon, a bit like Al-Jazeera (and certainly influenced by it) - and how fundamentalism was propagated by the US in its various proxy wars with the USSR. And you don't see that there is huge resistance to the madness in every Muslim society.

Take Iran. Do you think every Iranian really wants Israel to be pushed into the sea? Just beneath the surface, out of sight of the raving Clerics, is a young modern society with liberal values. Many young Iranians just want to go ski-ing or listen to good music rather than listen to the old men rant away with their foolish Persian Empire fantasies.

Finally - on Bin Laden. It beggars belief that the US cannot capture someone hiding, especially when everyone knows he's somewhere in Waziristan. You've seen Syriana - the US can spot anything moving down to the last metre and zap it. More significantly, the historical and commercial links between the Bushes and the Bin Ladens are well documented. There is still this strange unaccountable fact that the day after 911, when all planes in the entire country were grounded, the only plane that was allowed to fly was a special charter flight taking the Bin Laden extended family out of the States to safety. Go see Fahrenheit 911.

And note the growing suspicion that 911 itself was a manufactured event by Americans - especially those dissatisfied with the stitch-up that was the 911 Commission Report. Or are they all just slurping down too much Kool Aid too?

Anonymous,  2:07 pm  

There go Jeremy and Shango again - Sweet! Welcome back guys!
"Many young Iranians just want to go ski-ing or listen to good music."
How does ski-ing or listening to 'good music' or owning an ipod /visiting theatres etc make one liberal? Can one be liberal without exposure to the western way of life/values?

Jeremy 2:31 pm  

Great question anon!

We need to delink liberalism from all geographic reference points. Liberalism should be a universal value enjoyed by all humans - it needs to be tied closely in with human rights. Just as all humans should be entitled to free speech, association etc, so we should work towards a world where freedom-to-choose one's lifestyle is also seen as an inalienable right - so long as no one is harmed or hampered in the process.

This doesn't necessarily reduce itself to Western consumerism (Ipods et al), but it does mean that people everywhere in the world are not coerced by religious or political dogma. Faith and the battle of ideas would continue to be significant in this scenario, but they should never be allowed to be coercive.

Put flipside: if you insist that liberalism must always be seen as a "Western" project, would you say the same for human rights discourse more generally? The issue of consumerism and the prospect of impending ecological disaster need not be lumped together with liberal values or everyone eating burgers and slurping mocachocachinos at Starbucks, although most often they are.

I strongly suspect that what we are witnessing is an Islamic world rapidly in transformation and modernisation, just as the Catholic church was radically transformed in the 18th century during the so-called Enlightenment.

The fundamentalist movements in various places are therefore entirely modern endgame phenomena (not as Shango believes, routed in some deep historical source code).

If only Western foreign policy was more carrot and less stick, we'd see how weak and desperate Al-Qaeda and co actually are. They can only resort to shock-tactic psychological games (tapes and the odd bomb) because they could never seriously harm Western societies as a whole. The fundamentalists are both fanatics and fantasists..

But as I said, the tension is that America needs its enemies almost more than it needs its friends. Until we see that the West needs fundamentalism as much as it is pyschological damaged by it, we will still not have the conditions for a peaceful solution. Christian fundamentalism and Bible-belt political boostering may not be explicitly involve violence (suicide bombs and all the other paraphernalia), but don't be fooled - the ideology is just as vicious and violent in its aims as Islamism. And the Project for a new American Century (Richard Pearl et al) are just as dangerous and every bit as deluded as the Mullah Omars of this world.

Just like Africans, we-the-people need to attack the globalising viral perception that Muslims are alien beings, prone to foreign modes of incendiary behaviour. 99% of Muslims lead ordinary lives, do ordinary stuff like you or me. And 99% of 'em probably wouldn't mind an Ipod!

Shango,  3:09 pm  

My intentions weren't to compare and contrast Christianity and Islam. I brought up those points to specifically rebut some of your assertions.

If there's anything that should be taken away from my lengthy posts, it is that Islam has a nasty kernel of violent fundamentalism that is absent in other of the world's great religions. While it is indeed true that 99 per cent of the world's Muslims are peace loving, it only takes a fraction of the remaining one per cent to commit terrible atrocities.

It is also an unfortunate fact that even those who will never commit any such acts, do actively sympathise with the Jihadists, as polls always show.

Secondly, to rely on the bag of camel shit (Moore)'s movie is ludicrous, Jeremy. To quote your countryman, Christopher Hitchens, "Fahrenheit 9/11 is a sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness. It is also a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of "dissenting" bravery."

Here is Hitchens' great rebuttal to most everything in that movie. A Google search for the name of the movie will show close to 60 proven lies in the movie. You're committing the classic, if worn argumentum ad verecundiam with this one.

Again, and for the last time, I do know that majority of the world's Islamic population are peace-loving people.

Anonymous,  3:21 pm  

jeremy just came by your blog. simply great.

Most of us Iranians do not align ourselves with these lunatic clerics or these bombers. the only thing we have in common is our Iranian, Islam and hatered of American fascism. you are right, many of us live ordinary lives, many of my friends just want to hang out in Cafes and discus our latest download on the ipod and yes, go sking, get laid, discus about the best place to find thongs and drink ourselves silly. Yes we do drink and we do wear thongs under those heavy black layered garments.

Often times we only get to understand about ourselves and culture through western eye - they tell us a bit of our history (however contested it may be). I have learnt quite a lot about Islam from you and shango's exchange. thanks people.

But I wonder what Edward Said would think about all that is going on now.

peace man!a

Jeremy 4:36 pm  

Hmmm Shango - I know Michael Moore is yet another imperfect being - take a look at this:

However, to rely on Christopher Hitchens is a more egregious form of dependency. The man used to talk sense, but nowadays?

All those years as a professional Clinton-hater turned his mind. He's often wheeled onto to spout some opinion or other on tv - usually he has a fag in his hand, always his face has the red sheen of an alcoholic. A bit of a sad fuck really.

I'm sorry but I'll continue to deny your intrinsic-violence theory about Islam. Exactly the same could be said of the Old Testament, and one might tentatively argue more violence has been done to the world in Christianity's name than Islams (although this would be hard to quantify). Christianity was used as the ideological justification of colonialism remember - and so while it may not have physically harmed people, we are still living with the psychological damage and inferiority complex to this day..

Shango,  5:34 pm  

Hitchens may be a "sad fuck" alcoholic smoker, but I'd expect a bit better argument from a Philosophy PhD than an ad hominem, Jeremy!

I guess we'll simply have to "agreeably agree to disagree" on this issue, although I'd suggest a more thorough reading of your history.

As always, a pleasure.

Jeremy 5:44 pm  

Dear Iranian Anonymous. All this talk of thongs in Iran certainly aroused my interest. I wonder if they are thongs for the boys or thongs for the girls? If the former, it would seem that Iran is a lot more liberal than we all suspected!

Anonymous,  3:06 am  

As a medievalist studying Post-Lateran IV penance manuals, I am most impressed by Jeremy's crticalm keenedd and clarity. All his responses are among the most nuanced readings I have encountered in a blog on Islam.
Raj, PhD Candidate, English and Medieval Studies, Fordham University, New York.

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