Martin Amis’s remarks about Muslims, made in the course of an interview with The Times more than a year ago, have turned up in the headlines again. I wrote about them in this column in February this year to illustrate the way in which ‘muscular’ Western liberals have tried to make anti-Muslim bigotry respectable. The reason Amis’s comments are in the news again is because Terry Eagleton, a Marxist academic, attacked them in the introduction to a recent book.
This is what Amis said:
“There’s a definite urge — don’t you have it' — to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering' Not letting them travel. Deportation — further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Stripsearching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan...Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children...They hate us for letting our children have sex and take drugs — well, they’ve got to stop their children killing people.”
Accused by Eagleton of advocating a deliberate programme of harassing the Muslim community in Britain, Amis’s defence, as set out in letters to The Independent and The Guardian, went like this. He pointed out that Eagleton’s claim that these remarks were contained in an essay he had written around the same time was wrong. Also, Eagleton had excised the crucial preliminary remark “There’s a definite urge — don’t you have it' — to say, etc”, which indicated that Amis’s list of measures for making Muslims suffer that followed wasn’t a prescription but a ‘thought experiment’ or, alternately, Amis’s way of ‘conversationally describing an urge — an urge that soon wore off.’ Amis made a distinction between ‘advocating’ the harassment of Muslims (which he denies doing) and ‘adumbrating’ it. Further, there was a historical context in which the remarks had been made, the discovery of a plot by Muslim terrorists to blow up planes flying out of England, and this, Amis suggested, made a dark, retributive mood understandable.
Eagleton’s sloppiness in mistaking an interview for an essay damages his credibility but it does nothing to improve Amis’s remarks. Their vileness is specifically related to the ‘conversational’ way in which they were put out for public consumption. “There’s a definite urge — don’t you have it'...” invites the complicity of the reader, encourages him to give his inner bigot some living space, reassures him that it’s all right to think those thoughts, to vent those understandable urges, because, look, Martin Amis is doing it and no PC Plod, no cruising jihadist can stop him.
The urge, Amis now tells us, soon passed. This is an important part of Amis’s attempt to slide out of the corner into which he has painted himself. It’s now commonplace in Western liberal rhetoric to hold Muslims as a community responsible for the fanaticism of some of their young men, but it isn’t respectable (yet) to ‘adumbrate’ (outline, suggest, foreshadow) the collective punishment of a community. The historical parallel is recent and ready to hand: the corralling of Japanese Americans during World War II.
So, more than a year after his urge first found free play in print, Amis gives us an update. In a letter to Yasmin Alibhai Brown, a columnist with The Independent who had classed Amis with the ‘beasts’ after reading about his boot camp for British Muslims, Amis tells her (and us):
“Anyway, the mood, the retaliatory ‘urge’ soon evaporated, and I went back to feeling that we must, of course, build all the bridges we can between ourselves and the Muslim majority, which we know to be moderate. Moderate, and mute. The quietism is perhaps no mystery. In 15th-century Spain, not many people, I imagine, were proclaiming that the Inquisition had gone too far. The extremists, for now, have the monopoly of violence, intimidation, and self-righteousness. Meanwhile, I don’t want to stripsearch you, Yasmin, or do anything else that would trouble or even momentarily surprise your dignity, or that of any other eirenic Muslim.”
The remarkable thing about this letter (apart from its creepy meld of intimacy, ingratiation and patronage) is that Amis doesn’t think it’s odd that it has taken him fourteen months to let the world know that his urge to collectively punish Muslims, to single out brown people to strip at airports, had been a shortlived mood swing. In fact, in his letter to The Guardian, he makes the need for clarification seem a wearying, pro forma business: “And I hereby declare that ‘harassing the Muslim community in Britain’ would be neither moral nor efficacious.”
Amis’s tactic here is to express no regret, to carry on as if a vindictive little ‘urge’ like his was a normal, robust response to Muslim terrorism, and to wearily clarify that of course he didn’t mean it.
To judge the plausibility of this defence, let me suggest a thought experiment. Think of a well-known Indian novelist or playwright or poet — U.R. Ananthamurthy or Vijay Tendulkar or Mahashweta Devi or Amitav Ghosh — saying the things Amis said about Indian Muslims or Sikhs in an interview with a major newspaper. It’s hard to imagine any Indian writer talking like a Bajrang Dal spokesman, but if, for the sake of this experiment, we allow that one of them spoke these words, and then a day or a week later felt, as Amis apparently did, that the retributive urge had passed, I think it’s not just likely but a dead certainty that he would be burning the newspaper’s phone lines to express contrition or put out a clarification.
Amis didn’t. He waited fourteen months and then reacted only because Eagleton’s attack made the papers. In all that time, he either didn’t care that his statement made him sound like a National Front fellow-traveller, or, more likely, he recognized the vileness of his remarks and was happy to own them, so long as there was no blow-back, no consequences.
Which brings us to the real significance of the Amis affair. For more than a year no English journalist or writer called Amis to account. Christopher Hitchens, Amis’s friend, cited the interview with approval; it was, for Hitchens, a sign of Amis’s muscular liberalism, a proof of his intellectual courage, an encouraging willingness to see that extraordinary threats called for extraordinary responses.
Let’s return to our experiment: imagine Sunil Gangopadhay or Mahasweta Devi calling for Muslims to be interned, or stripsearched in Indian airports after the discovery of a bomb plot, in the pages of The Telegraph, and this outburst passing without a single word of criticism or dissent. It’s impossible to imagine such a circumstance: in a day, two days at most, the writer would be at the centre of a perfect storm of criticism and argument. And India is a country which has seen more than its share of terrorist violence, so it isn’t as if our intellectual responses to it are conditioned by complacency or naïvete.
But no one in the English press objected. Pankaj Mishra has recently suggested in The Guardian that “…muscular European liberals are no more than a few middle-aged pundits rattled to see their assumptions defied by the upstart regimes of Iran and Venezuela, as well as India, China and Russia.” We must hope he’s right, but the silence that followed Martin Amis’s evil little rant in August 2006 (a silence in which The Guardian was complicit) seems to suggest a more substantial majoritarian consensus, a larger loss of liberal nerve.