Martin Amis’s Iran fantasia
Amis’s understanding of Iran is shallow and his take on Islamism superficial. Is this the best western liberalism has to offer?
Some 20-odd years ago, not out of any sense of patriotism or self-defence, young Iranians with bombs strapped to them dived under advancing Iraqi tanks. Khomeini promised them a few dozen virgins you see. Now, as Martin Amis tells us today, that evil genius’s followers, hungrier than ever, are combining apocalyptic zeal with advanced nuclear engineering to usher in the Messiah, destroy western civilisation, and kill every remaining Iranian who isn’t a mullah or mindless fanatic.
The myth that madness has motivated Muslims throughout 1,400 years of history and continues to drive political Islam today is a pretty old one, and I must say it is getting rather boring, so it’s especially hard to understand how a figure as prolific as Martin Amis can still make a good living out of it. Nonetheless, it seems that Amis is again ready to wear the fashionable Islam expert hat, this time gracing us with his profound insights on Iran, which even if dead wrong are at least momentarily entertaining.
Amis obviously shouldn't take up political forecasting as a second career. Consider his phrase " … what we seem to be witnessing in Iran is the first spasm of the death agony of the Islamic Republic." But haven't we had this "first spasm" before? When the Mujahideen-e Khalq blew up the offices of the Islamic Republican party taking out the entirety of Khomeini's vanguard? Or when the old fellow finally died? Or the student protests in 1999? No, really, this is it. Rafsanjani is leading prayers alongside Mousavi – it will all be over soon. Amis makes the same mistake as countless others have done about the nature of the mysterious Mousavi: "Had Mousavi won, Obama would have rewarded Iran." Is that the same Mousavi who before the election answered "the west should stop asking for the impossible" in response to a question about halting Iran's nuclear energy programme? The same Mousavi whose website's header boasts a portrait of Khomeini and whose every communiqué calls for a reclamation of the Islamic revolution? Amis's historical naivete is also noteworthy: "The 1979 revolution wasn't an Islamic revolution until it was over … it was a full-spectrum mass movement, an avalanche of demonstrations and riots." True, but it is rather curious, then, that decades of communist and nationalist resistance, not to mention the thousands abducted and murdered by the Shah's secret police only drew out the masses after the megalomaniac sent his forces to the dusty city of Qom to beat up a few kids at a religious school and then kicked an old cleric out of the country. Among the more sinister schemes in Amis's essay is his narrative history of the soul of "one of the most venerable civilisations on earth … divided between Xerxes and Muhammad." Nothing could sound worse than an English writer in the 21st century defining the essence of a foreign people in this monolithic way. With the same impulse for reduction and sheer negligence he manages to completely mistake Khomeini's participation in a centuries-old Sufi poetic tradition that analogises spiritual ecstasy with material intoxication for some kind of repressed Persian angst. Even my own undergraduate students don't make that mistake. But more troubling than the follies of a novelist turned pundit is that Amis's hyperbole represents the sad way in which the liberal intellectual tradition reacts to the challenge of a viable alternative to its secular humanist hegemony. In that vein, Amis's comments on Iran must be seen as part of a growing intellectual reaction that in the face of decades of rising Muslim political power seems capable only of producing stomach-churning multicultural apologists or Islamophobic ideologues. Finding the real explanations to the36in Iran and the rest of the Muslim world, where political-religious experiments unfold in dozens of contexts daily, requires first interrogating our own myths and superstitions. Reason, democracy, independent thinking, and human rights – timeless universals or complex socio-historical constructions? Only then one might proceed to understand the ways in which secularism and religion, reason and insanity, modernity and Islam have all been partners locked in step on the road to the present day. There is no mystery as to why secular fundamentalists like Amis look at Islamism through the lens of the Protestant reformation – the sight of a religiously-inspired alternative to secular materialism would make a mockery of the last few hundred years of European history. Any attempt at getting it right would also require recognising that Muslim projects in Islamism are being carried out not by medieval zombies turned contemporary robots but by real, breathing people who happen to be motivated by the same feelings of fear, dignity, rage, and hope that stir the rest of humanity. I, perhaps naively, ask at least this minimum from anyone in a position of influence who wants to talk seriously about the Islam and the Muslim world. So, the that Amis has moved from revered novelist to Geert Wilders wannabe, shares the paranoid alarmism of Netanyahu and his foreign minister and is one of many suppliers of the discursive fodder needed to nourish 21st century Euro-American imperialism is not the truly disturbing issue here. Nor is the fact that Amis has given us nothing more than false consciousness with which to understand the truly frightening world around us. More troublesome is that at this profound juncture in human history, one of liberalism's greatest sons can do no better than to respond in this fearful, superficial way. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jul/17/iran-martin-amis
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