Books

Blitcons

Ziaudden Sardar writing in the New Statesman reminds me why I rarely bother reading that journal anymore.

In this article he attacks British novelists Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan for writing about the contemporary world and not coming to the same conclusions as Sardar does.

The British literary landscape is dominated by three writers: Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan. All three have considered the central dilemma of our time: terror. Indeed, Amis has issued something of a manifesto on the subject he terms “horrorism”. In their different styles, their approach and opinions define a coherent position. They are the vanguard of British literary neoconservatives, or, if you like, the “Blitcons”.

Nice play on words, but does the charge have any substance? What is it Sardar is saying?

Blitcons come with a ready-made nostrum for the human condition. They use their celebrity status to advance a clear global political agenda. For all their concern with the plight of the post-9/11 century, they do not offer a radical new outlook on the world. Their writing stands within a tradition, upholding ideas with deep roots in European consciousness and literature.

His evidence? Seemingly that Amis distiguishes between good and bad writing. Sardar sees something exclusionary about that divide. Who’s good according to Amis?

Writers such as John Updike, Anthony Burgess, Gore Vidal and Vladimir Nabokov. Women (apart from Jane Austen) and non-western writers (apart from the Islam-hating V S Naipaul) need not apply.

“wall-to-wall white men”:

Sardar doesn’t appear to consider that historically the conditions neccessary for publishing good novels – which by definition attempt to explore political and social ideas, and often criticise them – have been a by-product of the freedoms won and inherited by Europeans and North Americans. It’s not racist to say that being able to publish challenging literature is a by-product of the Enlightenment, merely an observation that it’s much easier to tell people what they don’t want to hear if you live in a society in which publishing a book in which ideas about society are fully explored doesn’t earn you a bullet in the back of the neck.

Unfortunately and until comparitively recently that security has only been enjoyed by a small proportion of writers. Non-Western writers have simply had more to fear by publishing than those in Europe or North America. The great contemporary Iranian novel has yet to appear not because Iranian writers are less able than their counterparts in the West but because there is too much risk attached to telling the truth in that society.

There is nothing remotely wrong about pointing that out.

What’s the next charge?

The second Blitcon conceit is that Islam is the greatest threat to this idea of civilisation.

Sardar cites Rushdie’s mocking of the behaviour of some of his co-religionists in a number of his novels as supporting evidence:

In Shalimar the Clown (2005) the protagonist of the novel, Shalimar, turns from a loveable clown and tightrope walker into a fuming terrorist. But what motivates his fury? The sexual betrayal of his wife and the fanatical zeal of an “Iron Mullah” who forces people to build mosques and shroud their women in burqas. In Rushdie’s world, a humane interpretation of Islam is a total impossibility.

Does the last sentence of the paragraph flow logically from the first two? Of course not. A humane interpretation of Islam is not inconsistent with mocking those of any religion who become zealots and confuse their own inner rages with divine obligations. To argue otherwise is to argue for self censorship.

Marin Amis’s sketch of the 9/11 hijacker Muhammad Atta also earns Sardar’s opprobrium:

But this jihadi is motivated by the characteristic flaw inculcated by Islam: hatred of women. In particular, a woman he once saw on a plane: a “swinishly luxurious” air hostess. The only thing Atta wants to do to this woman is to “hurt it”.

Just as, for Rushdie, Islam is so flawed that it cannot be interpreted humanely, Amis can’t engage with it on any level other than that of a (bad) joke.

I don’t think Amis is neccessarily engaging with Islam here though, he’s attempting to get inside the mind of a mass-murderer who uses his religion as an excuse to kill large numbers of innocent people. Are we really not allowed to explore and criticise the motivations of people like Atta without being labelled Islamophobes?

The final part of Sardar’s contention is that the three British novelists he examines are that they are not critical enough of the US foreign policy:

The third Blitcon conceit is that American ideas of freedom and democracy are not only right, but should be imposed on the rest of the world.

Proof?

For Rushdie, the main adversary of a humane and enlightened American empire is the evil of the Taliban, “the cruellest regime on earth”.

So Rushdie didn’t shed any tears when the Taliban were removed from power. Big deal. As a man who lived in hiding for years after a neighbouring Islamic regime put a price on his head in 1989 what else would you expect him to say? Let the Taliban be?

Sardar’s attack on Ian McEwan’s 2005 novel is even less convincing:

‘Saturday’ is subtle enough to give a dual warning against both interventionist and isolationist politics. But that doesn’t stop McEwan from taking sides: to argue for peace, he declares, is to side with torture. The iPod generation, he suggests, has no idea about genocide and torture, mass graves, and the totalitarian states created by the Islamists.

It’s true McEwan explored the political consequences of both deciding to attack and not attack Iraq in his book but it would be a lesser work if it hadn’t.

There was torture and mass graves in Iraq under Saddam and these facts weren’t dwelt on by those who organised the march against the war – is that observation proof of anything more than the fact that a novelist attempted to explore the moral consequences of action and/or inaction?

In attempting to make the point that the triumverate of British literary ‘neocons’ hate Islam and that this fact was proved by the Iraq war Sardar also elides the distinction between the ‘totalitarian states created by Islamists’ he refers to and the fact that Iraq was a secular rather than Islamist hell on earth.

Sardar describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. Readers may draw their own conclusions.

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