Notes and Comment Blog

Make a Splash

Jul 25th, 2005 9:29 pm | By

This comment says pretty much exactly what I was thinking (and saying) a few days ago. I would guess that a lot of other people are thinking it too – but that’s just a guess. But it is related to Mona Eltahawy’s point, that it’s insulting for non-Muslims to think Muslims can’t take responsibility.

The notion that the British Muslim suicide bombers of July 7 were spurred on by some passionate form of public-spiritedness, of course, is both flagrantly idiotic and deeply dangerous…Yet Mr Ahmed’s apparent reasoning – that his nephew was compelled to kill himself and seven innocent people near Liverpool Street station by a combination of righteous anger and sheer desperation at injustices suffered by fellow-Muslims – is not too distant from the explanations that have in the past been provided for Palestinian suicide bombers by non-Muslim British public figures…I wonder, however, if the recent apparition of British suicide bombers – raised in circumstances that were far from desperate – might have caused Baroness Tonge and Mrs Blair to reconsider the psychological ingredients they once naively deemed necessary to the phenomenon…Suicide bombing, however, fired by a volatile combination of religious and political fervour, is a vigorous act of self-assertion: the bomber hopes to make his triumphant, bloody mark upon the world before proceeding to his reward in Paradise.

Bingo. It’s not righteous anger, it’s not altruistic rage at injustices suffered by other people – it’s narcissistic mark-making (peeing on a bush writ large and bloody, one might say) and Look At Me-saying, dressed up as altruistic whatnot. It’s not about other people, it’s about me, me, me. Get me, look at me, admire me, respect me, fear me, scream when you see me, dream about me, run away from me, tremble at the thought of me, hate me, pay attention to me. Be blown to pieces by me, be blasted full of nails by me. I’m powerful, I’m scary, I’m brave, I can make things happen, I can pee higher than you.

That impulse should never be confused with altruism.

It is no accident that the bulk of suicide bombers are young men, a group particularly drawn, not necessarily to hopelessness, but to the potent romance of a “cause”. They are easily bored by the dreary, complicated business of living peacefully: the dull job, the squalling baby, and the round of minor compromises. Their professed desire to “avenge injustice” is not their driving motivation: that is a palatable excuse to buoy up their self-image. The real spur is an arrested, adolescent craving for immortality and legendary status among their peers.

Well – exactly. At least I think so. I think it’s all about self-image, combined with disaster-porn. A bunch of dreary shits bigging themselves up. No, I know, as commenters pointed out the other day, I don’t know that. But boy it’s plausible.

But let us be under no illusion that Islamist suicide bombers, whether they immolate themselves in a Haifa restaurant or the London Underground, have any love for justice: they murder the most vulnerable without compunction. Nor have they any protective instinct for their fellow-Muslims, despite their rhetoric: one glance at the newspaper photographs after the July 7 bombings will proclaim that. For there, staring back from the page of victims, is Shahara Islam, a beautiful 20-year-old bank cashier from Plaistow; Atique Sharifi, 24, an Afghan man whose parents were killed by the Taliban, and who was struggling to forge a new life in London; and Ihab Slimane, a 24-year-old student from France. They were all Muslims too, and they are all dead, their dreams forcibly extinguished by a bunch of selfish fools who hoped, with some frantic gesture, to render themselves more significant in death than they could ever be in life.

There it is, you see. Their desire for significance at the expense of other people’s dreams. That’s why pious talk of their grievances and disaffection is so – loathsome.

Eltahawy and Manji

Jul 25th, 2005 2:30 am | By

Mona Eltahawy in the Washington Post.

The July 7 London bombings did it for me. Perhaps it was because my parents moved us from Cairo to the British capital when I was 7 years old, and so London was my childhood “home.” Or maybe it was because our route to work and school every morning crisscrossed those same Underground stations that were targeted.

I know the feeling. As, of course, do countless other people – literally millions of them. They live there, they once lived there, they visited there, they have friends and relatives there. Many, many millions of people know the feeling.

I’m sure it was also those dog-eared statements that our clerics and religious leaders read out telling us that Islam means peace — it actually means submission — and asking us to please forget everything they had ever said before July 6, because as of July 7 they truly believe violence is bad. Their backpedaling is so furious you can smell the skid marks.

Yes, I’ve been noticing that ‘Islam means peace’ bromide lately, and wondering at it. I certainly was under the impression that it meant submission. I thought maybe it meant both, or that the two words are the same thing in Arabic – so it’s good to see that correction. (Of course, it may be that in the minds of clerics, sumbission in fact is peace. Reminds one of that old bitter remark of Tacitus’: they make a wilderness and call it peace. Submission is peace, in a sense, as is being dead. Give up, give in, empty yourself, empty your mind, become an obedient blank – and that’s peace. In a way. But if that’s peace, give me turmoil.)

I was against the invasion of Iraq and would not have voted for George Bush if I were a U.S. citizen, but I’m done with the “George Bush made me do it” excuse. We must accept responsibility for this mess if we are ever to find a way out. And for those non-Muslims who accept the George Bush excuse, I have a question: Do you think Muslims are incapable of accepting responsibility? It is at least in some way bigoted to think that Muslims can only react violently.

It’s also in some way bigoted – or condescending – to apply special standards to Muslims. If the bombers were anti-abortionists or Nazis, would the same people be talking the same nonsense about rage and alienation in the same tone? Give me a break.

Irshad Manji in the LA Times.

I believe thursday’s bombings in London, combined with the first wave of explosions two weeks ago, are changing something for the better. Never before have I heard Muslims so sincerely denounce terrorism committed in our name as I did on my visit to Britain a few days ago. We’re finally waking up. Except on one front: the possible role of religion itself in these crimes…To blow yourself up, you need conviction. Secular society doesn’t compete well on this score…Which is why I don’t understand how moderate Muslim leaders can reject, flat-out, the notion that religion may also play a part in these bombings. What makes them so sure that Islam is an innocent bystander?

And not only moderate Muslim leaders. For some understandable reasons, plenty of non-Muslims also don’t want to admit that religion may play a part in the bombings.

What makes them sound so sure is literalism. That’s the trouble with Islam today. We Muslims, including moderates living here in the West, are routinely raised to believe that the Koran is the final and therefore perfect manifesto of God’s will, untouched and immutable. This is a supremacy complex. It’s dangerous because it inhibits moderates from asking hard questions about what happens when faith becomes dogma. To avoid the discomfort, we sanitize. And so it was, one week after the first wave of bombings. A high-profile gathering of 22 clerics and scholars at the London Cultural Center produced a statement, later echoed by a meeting of 500 Muslim leaders. It contained this line: “The Koran clearly declares that killing an innocent person [is] tantamount to killing all mankind.” I wish. In fact, the full verse reads, “Whoever kills a human being, except as punishment for murder or other villainy in the land, shall be regarded as having killed all humankind.” Militant Muslims easily deploy the clause beginning with “except” to justify their rampages.

Interesting clause for clerics and scholars to leave out, isn’t it. Interesting game to play. Produce a statement saying ‘the Bible/the Torah clearly states [something with a key phrase that profoundly alters the meaning omitted].’ Not good. Not honest.

How about joining with the moderates of Judaism and Christianity in confessing some “sins of Scripture,” as Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong has said of the Bible? Anything less leaves me with another question: Why is it that in diverse societies, those who oppose diversity of thought often feel more comfortable getting vocal than those who embrace it?

Interesting paradox, isn’t it.

Wrong Verb

Jul 25th, 2005 12:03 am | By

The Guardian has booted Dilpazier Aslam, because of his membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir. You may remember his comment in the Guardian July 13:

Second- and third-generation Muslims are without the don’t-rock-the-boat attitude that restricted our forefathers. We’re much sassier with our opinions, not caring if the boat rocks or not. Which is why the young get angry with that breed of Muslim “community leader” who remains silent while anger is seething on the streets.

Sassy. Rocking the boat. Oh, is that what this is – sassy boat-rocking. Interesting take. Okay, and what is it that all this seething is about? Somalia? Bosnia? Kosovo? The Kurds? No?

Anyway, as Norm points out, Aslam did a silly thing after getting the boot. He chose the one word of all words in the dictionary that would most make him look like a hypocritical prat. The same word Louis chose – sarcastically – when he raided Rick’s. Dilpazier Aslam is shocked, shocked, at the naughty Guardian.

Aslam said: “I am shocked by the manner in which this whole affair has been handled. My treatment throws up issues which will be of grave concern to all journalists. I am currently taking legal advice.”

But what did he just get through saying, in that boatrocky sassy comment?

If, as police announced yesterday, four men (at least three from Yorkshire) blew themselves up in the name of Islam, then please let us do ourselves a favour and not act shocked.

Then – apparently thinking he’s onto a good trope, here – he starts no fewer than four paragraphs with the same word. He gives us all a damned good talking-to for having the nerve to be shocked about the July 7 bombs when we should have realized that the bombings happened through our own responsibility. Right. We mustn’t be shocked by bombings that kill 56 people and injure a lot of others, but he is shocked because the Guardian told him to piss off. What, apart from any other consideration, an admirable sense of proportion. Mass murder, entirely understandable; the firing of a seething trainee, shocking.

Dazed and Theorized

Jul 24th, 2005 4:15 am | By

Apparently in Australia schoolchildren are being taught Theory. Or postmodernism, or critical literacy, or deconstruction, or cultural relativism. Poor little tads. Bad enough there are all those dingoes around eating your babies – but critial literacy theory for schoolchildren? Ice cream, Mandrake? Children’s ice cream?

For Australian academics John Stephens, Ken Watson and Judith Parker, compilers of the manual From Picture Book to Literary Theory, the story of the Three Little Pigs is really about “the virtues of property ownership and the safety of the private domain” — both “key elements of liberal/capitalist ideology”.

Mind you – there is interesting stuff about the not very hidden messages in fairy tales – Jack Zipes, Marina Warner, and the like – but they’re slightly more subtle than those Australian academics sound, and anyway I didn’t read them when I was ten.

But postmodernism’s intellectual assumptions – truth is a matter of opinion, there is no real world outside of language and hence no facts independent of our descriptions of them – render it an entirely inappropriate teaching tool in an era of information excess. As Julian Baggini, editor and co-publisher of The Philosopher’s Magazine, observes in Making Sense, Philosophy Behind the Headlines, that cultural relativism is widespread in the classroom.

But in From Picture Book to Literary Theory, a booklet addressed to teachers pushing the barrow of postmodern theory in the classroom, edited by academics JohnStephens, Ken Watson and Judith Parker, John Brown demonstrates to students the way in which we are socially constructed as readers.

From Picture Book to Literary Theory – doesn’t that just make you laugh and laugh? From the Little Red Hen to Grammatology, from the Mary Poppins to Discipline and Punish, from Five Children and It to Social Text. Makes you wish you were a child again, doesn’t it?

Present Mirth

Jul 23rd, 2005 9:12 pm | By

Howard Jacobson’s a funny guy. Writes well, too.

The other proof of our philistinism is our politicising of literature…The old complaint that Jane Austen left out the Napeolonic wars is making itself heard again. If a novel isn’t politically au courant, if it isn’t ratified by events outside itself, we have trouble remembering what it’s for.

What used to be (tediously) called ‘relevance.’ How is Shakespeare ‘relevant’ to the yoof of today? Answer: he isn’t, so let’s not read the pesky old bastard any more.

It takes the most responsible of writers to see why irresponsibility is so important…Once upon a time, when we knew aesthetically what we were about, the novel was comic or it was nothing…Gargantua and Don Quixote are novels of grand design and purpose; they mean to liberate us from the debilitating certainties of God and hero worship, whether those certainties take the form of sermons, laws, sagas, patriotism, idealism or romance…

Yeah. If only someone would – liberate us from all those debilitating certainties. We’re all badly in need of some certainty-liberation these days.

In their guidelines for aspiring writers of eroticism, the publishers of Black Lace warn specifically against comedy. What they do not go on to say is that laughter is the operation of intelligence, an act of criticism, and the moment you subject porn, soft or hard, to intelligence, it comes apart like a mummified artefact exposed to light. Ditto The Da Vinci Code. Ditto the modern novel of highly responsible ideological intent.

Now that is really interesting. ‘No comedy, don’t forget, it messes up the concentration. Focus on the throbbing genitalia, and leave the wit at home.’

The isolation of comedy from everything else we do is symptomatic of this. We are right to shrink from the very idea of a “funny” book. There should be no such genre. We should expect laughter to be integral to the business of being serious. We are back in a new dark age of the imagination. We read to sleep.

And that’s even more interesting (well, to me), because that’s the Dictionary. It is funny (in intention), but it’s also serious. We even bothered saying that in the introduction. And I felt quite squirmy about having it shelved in the comedy section with all the chav books and crap town books. It’s not that kind of book. (But, as Jeremy kept sagely pointing out when I whined, more people would see it among the crap town books. They still wouldn’t buy it, but they would see it.) But anyway, this idea of laughter being integral to the business of being serious – that’s very B&W, I think. B&W has been lashed and laced and intertwined with mockery from the very beginning – but it’s also been quite serious.

Some things, we believe, should not be scrutinised or ridiculed. And day by day the list of sacred sites and objects – like one of Gargantua’s spiralling menus of excess – gets longer. Soon parliament might even harden our jokelessness into law. A radical confusion between art and action is at the heart of this. What we consider unacceptable in human behaviour, we consider unacceptable in art, forgetting that art exists precisely to say the otherwise unsayable.

Just so. The list of sacred stuff gets longer and longer and longer. That trend really needs to be reversed.

Pretentious! Moi?

Jul 22nd, 2005 4:56 pm | By

I have to learn to write in words of one – um – syllable. I am too – er – pretentious. People keep telling me that. ‘OB,’ they say, looking all stern and disapproving (okay, mostly one syllable – anyway, I said I have to learn: I haven’t learned yet, I’m working on it) – looking all grim and censorious, ‘you are too pretentious. You use big words that you don’t know what they mean or that other people don’t know what they mean, and you only do it to be pretentious. You should be cool and ironic like us. We have 75 degrees and you have one, and that is why you are pretentious and we are cool and ironic. You see, people like you, who know nothing but wish they did, do not like it when people like us, who know everything, are cool and ironic about knowing everything. And that is not entirely a bad thing – it is mostly a bad thing, but not entirely. It is a little bit good that people like you who know nothing should go on thinking knowledge is a good thing, because that gives people like us something to be cool and ironic about. May I pat you on the head? Hold still – there. However, you are too pretentious. You don’t talk about pop culture enough. You don’t talk about how ironic you are enough. You don’t write a book every three months. All that adds up to a severe case of pretentiousness. You must do better.’

So I have to try to do better, you see. When people get all grim and censorious at me I take it for granted that there is something badly amiss with my behavior and way of thinking, and I resolve to improve – I mean fix it.

Actually I suppose the simplest way to do that would be to say the hell with all this and get a job cleaning toilets. Nobody ever tells janitors they’re pretentious (well, except other janitors).

Two Observers

Jul 22nd, 2005 3:55 am | By

Ian McEwan, July 19.

Inevitably, we’re going to start seeing around the preposterous political correctness that allows us to have radical clerics preaching in mosques and recruiting young people. We have been caught too much by a sense that we can just regard these clerics as being like English eccentrics at Hyde Park Corner.

So being ‘devout’ isn’t enough then? Huh.

I don’t buy the arguments in the Iraq war. What keeps getting forgotten here is that the people committing massacres in Iraq right now belong to al-Qaida…But the massacres in Iraq now are being conducted by al-Qaida against Muslims. I also think it’s extraordinary the way in which we get morally selective in our outrages. When there was a rumor that someone at Guantanamo Bay had flushed a Koran down the lavatory, the pages in The Guardian almost caught fire with outrage, but only months before the Taliban had set fire to a mosque and destroyed 300 ancient Korans.

I didn’t know that – remind me to look into it. But the selectiveness of the moral outrage – oh yeah. Big time. All the guff about rage and alienation and disaffection – no, not offered as pure disinterested explanation, as one might offer overexposure to the midday sun to explain a sunburn – which never, ever gets rolled out for the BNP or Timothy McVeigh or murderers of doctors who do abortions – that guff. Why is that? I don’t know, but I hope people get over it soon.

Polly Toynbee, July 22.

The death cult strikes again, unstoppable in its deranged religious mania. This time no deaths but a savage reminder of the unknown waves of demented killers lining up to murder in the name of God…In the growing fear and anger at what more may be to come, apologists or explainers for these young men can expect short shrift. This is not about poverty, deprivation or cultural dislocation of second-generation immigrants. There is plenty of that and it is passive. Iraq is the immediate trigger, but this is about religious delusion.

Partly – I think. Religious delusion joined to testosterone-syndrome joined to a fascist love of violence for its own sake joined to thrill-seeking. But r.d. sure does its bit.

Enlightenment values are in peril not because these mad beliefs are really growing but because too many rational people seek to appease and understand unreason…Meanwhile the far left, forever thrilled by the whiff of cordite, has bizarrely decided to fellow-travel with primitive Islamic extremism as the best available anti-Americanism around. (Never mind their new friends’ views on women, gays and democracy.)

Exactly – except for the far left bit. I refuse to consider anyone who hugs talibanism as any kind of left at all. If that’s far left it’s so ‘far’ that it’s gone all the way around to the other side.

Bombs do change things, maybe not in the extremists’ favour. A great shift in attitude seems to have swept through many Muslim groups who signed the full-page newspaper statement yesterday headed “Not in Our Name”. Many were equivocators on the fatwa that had Salman Rushdie locked away for years.

And as ‘The World Tonight’ pointed out on Tuesday (I think it was Tuesday), if people who rush off to interview ‘the Muslim community’ would stop talking exclusively to men, that might help too. The Muslim women that reporter talked to had nothing but contempt and anger for the whole sorry mess.


Jul 20th, 2005 11:32 pm | By

Wait – what?

It is 97 per cent certain that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead – based on sheer logic and mathematics, not faith – according to Oxford professor Richard Swinburne…This conclusion was reached after a complex series of calculations. In simplified terms, it began with a single proposition: the probability was one in two that God exists. Next, if God exists, the probability was one in two that he became incarnate.

A single proposition – that the probability is one in two that God exists. Um.

We talked (or wrangled) about this last year, when this article on a similar but not identical theme appeared.

A scientist has calculated that there is a 67% chance that God exists. Dr Stephen Unwin has used a 200-year-old formula to calculate the probability of the existence of an omnipotent being. Bayes’ Theory is usually used to work out the likelihood of events, such as nuclear power failure, by balancing the various factors that could affect a situation. The Manchester University graduate, who now works as a risk assessor in Ohio, said the theory starts from the assumption that God has a 50/50 chance of existing, and then factors in the evidence both for and against the notion of a higher being. Factors that were considered included recognition of goodness, which Dr Unwin said makes the existence of God more likely, countered by things like the existence of natural evil – including earthquakes and cancer.

Big assumption to start from, as we said at the time. A commenter knowledgeable (at least apparently, and as far as I could tell) about probability, said yes, it’s quite reasonable to take as a starting point a 50/50 shot of God, or the Easter Bunny, Spider-man, Attila the Hun, or anything else, existing if you don’t know better. If you don’t know better. If you start from zero, with no idea either way of the likelihood that the Easter Bunny does or does not exist. But we’re not starting from there, are we. So – why should the probability be one in two that ‘God’ exists? (Not to mention what exactly Swinburne means by ‘God’ in this, er, equation.) No doubt Swinburne says why in his book, but the probablity is 492 in 493 that I would be unconvinced. And then the business about becoming incarnate – please.

“Does he have reason to become incarnate? Yes, to make atonement, identify with our suffering and to teach us things, ” Professor Swinburne said. Even Jesus’ life is not enough proof, he said. God’s signature was needed, which the resurrection was, showing his approval of Jesus’ teaching.

Bollocks. He has reason to become incarnate so that he can have sex, and go hang-gliding, and eat peach ice cream, and get a new hairdo and a sweatshirt with the B&W logo on it. ‘To teach us things’ – well is it working? I’m not so sure. I think we must need somebody cleverer to teach us things, because the things we know seem to get us into some bad places. So skate off back to disincarnateland, Goddy baby, and let someone else take over.

Another item from the ‘Yes religion is mandatory, why do you ask?’ file.

The next big debate for Democrats concerns the r-word: Do they need to get — or at least start talking about — religion? A progressive evangelist and an aggressive secularist have at it.

Perfect, isn’t it? A ‘progressive’ evangelist and an ‘aggressive’ secularist. Good job, American Prospect! Don’t tip your hand or anything.

Absurdity and manipulation – whatever it takes to win, eh.


Jul 20th, 2005 8:42 pm | By

The trouble with the ‘rage, injustice, grievance, violence inflicted on Muslims, marginalization’ approach is that it takes the action being explained too seriously, too politically, too as-if-rational-y, too as-if-adult-ly, and above all, as an instrument, a tool, a means, rather than as an end in itself, which is what it is. It is not a case of: bang: redress our grievances lest we do it again; it’s a case of: bang: hooray, ha ha, nyah nyah, take that, suffer, die, hooray. Period. The killing is the goal. 7/7 is not October 1917 or the Easter Rising, it’s Auschwitz and Rwanda and Srebrenica.

Along with a huge element of childish fun and games. It’s important not to overlook that. It’s necessary not to ignore the sheer and mere thrill element, the disaster movie element, the fire-crash porn element, the video game element, the macho element. Don’t think all that is not part of it, because it is. Everybody must know that, at some level (because it’s kind of obvious), but it doesn’t get mentioned much. Odd, that. It must be true. (It was true of many of the people – maybe all of them – who put together Little Boy and Fat Man, too. They were scared, they were overawed, they were worried, but damn, they were excited and thrilled too, and not just at the success of the physics, although that was part of it. They were thrilled about the great big bang and the fire. People like this stuff. It’s as well to remember that.) I’d be willing to bet (not that there is any booky I could place the bet with, because no way to confirm) that if there had been a way to achieve the same number of deaths instantaneously silently and painlessly – that way would have been rejected with scorn and derision. No – the bang and the smoke is part of the fun, and would not have been given up. The whole undertaking was an Excellent Adventure. I can do that, watch this, ooh let’s get rucksacks, ooh let’s do it at 8:50 just like 9/11, ooh people will see us on CCTV just like the guys at the airport on 9/11, ooh aren’t we cool.

This is Eichmann in Jerusalem stuff of course. The court, and people in general, wanted to see Eichmann as scary and grand and important, in proportion to what he wrought. But Arendt pointed out that he wasn’t. He just wasn’t. There is no proportion. There just isn’t. There is no mechanism that prevents terrible things happening for the most trivial of reasons, or wonderful valuable people from being casually killed by shallow petty unthinking people with nothing much in mind. It happens.

Narcissus Leaves the Pool

Jul 20th, 2005 2:56 am | By

I wrote that comment before I read David Aaronovitch’s piece which says some of the same things.

Mass murder, however, with your own slaughter centre stage, is a pretty extreme act. It is an act of such narcissistic destructiveness, displaying such an incapacity to empathise (you have to be there in the carriage with the Polish girls), that you’d imagine some warning signs, if only you could recognise them…It was also, in a psychological sense, a perverted act. The boys will have known (don’t the relatives remind us?) something of the wrongness of what they did, just as the Columbine school killers did. For whatever reason, however, the pleasure of contemplating the act was greater than the knowledge of its error.

Just so. It’s the narcissism that is so striking – and so oddly ignored by the people who babble about their ‘rage.’ It’s so me me me – I’m pissed off, I want justice, I’m upset, I want to do something, I want to make a difference. Well it’s not about you. Why should it be about you? Why should what you want outweigh all those other people? What makes you so damn special? And don’t tell me it was because they were so concerned about their fellow Muslims, because I don’t believe a word of it. I just don’t. I think it’s all about vanity and showing off. Get me I’m a martyr.

I blame the ideology and the psychology of Grievance — the pleasurable, destructive business of imagining that “they” are being bad to “you”, and of therefore calculating every event on that basis. We call it “nursing” a grudge for a reason. We take this aspect of existence and add to it, almost lovingly…It’s not me, it’s not us, it’s them. They keep doing bad things to us.

Go together, don’t they – narcissism and Grievance. They have to. Grievance-hugging goes with having a badly inflated sense of one’s own importance to the scheme of things.

The elected Government in Iraq, the Shia majority, the new fact of Kurdish rights in that country, don’t count. All these peoples are de-Muslimified for the purposes of victimology. And that happens because they simply don’t fit the narrative. The Sunnis of Iraq are imagined to be “us”, but the Shia and the Kurds aren’t. The bombed villagers of Afghanistan are “us”, the liberated women aren’t. The Kosovan Muslims aren’t, either, though you can bet they would have been had Nato not intervened to save them. As it is, they too have disappeared from Muslimhood…It simply is not an accident — in psychological terms — that anything that conflicts with the Grievance is discounted, and anything that contributes to it is emphasised…All populist right-wing movements, inciters to violence and hatred, are adept in the language of Grievance. The only way to fight it ultimately is to argue — again and again and again — that it just ain’t so.

Hanif Kureishi is not so skeptical. He thinks the rage is genuine.

The burning sense of injustice that many young people feel as they enter the adult world of double standards and dishonesty shock those of us who are more knowing and cynical. We find this commendable in young people but also embarrassing. Consumer society has already traded its moral ideals for other satisfactions, and one of the things we wish to export, masquerading as “freedom and democracy” is that very consumerism, though we keep silent about its consequences: addiction, alienation, fragmentation.

Oh, crap. Really – just pure unadulterated crap. Can’t you do better than that? Consumerism? ‘Damn, look at all these people with their Starbucks cups and their expensive undershirts – I think I’ll bomb them all into atoms.’

Burning sense of injustice my ass. Please. Rampant hormones and an insufficiently tamed ego do not add up to a burning sense of injustice – they add up to a tendency to posture at having such a thing. And as for consumer society – yes yes, I used to whinge about it a lot myself, but it has become way too clear to me that there are far worse things. I’ll take people buying stupid garments and kitchen artifacts they don’t need over religious bullies any day. Though to be fair, Kureishi does get there in the end.

If we need to ensure that what we call “civilisation” retains its own critical position towards violence, religious groups have to purge themselves of their own intolerant and deeply authoritarian aspects. The body hatred and terror of sexuality that characterise most religions can lead people not only to cover their bodies in shame but to think of themselves as human bombs.

David Goodhart also talked about grievance the other day.

But the overwhelming theme of public comment, even after the recent bombings, is one of Muslim grievance. Britain’s Muslims are among the richest and freest in the world and most of them are groping successfully towards a hybrid British Muslim identity, but when did you last hear a Muslim leader say so? Iqbal Sacranie is a capable leader who has helped to turn the Muslim Council of Britain into an effective lobbying body, but his organisation’s default position remains grievance. Here he is in the introduction to a recent booklet for British Muslims: “The unleashing of a virulent strain of Islamophobia, inflammatory media reporting and the misconceived wars against Afghanistan and Iraq have all contributed to the undoubted increase in prejudice we face.”

An undifferentiated rhetoric of grievance contributes to alienation, lack of integration and even indirectly to extremism. If you are constantly being told by even moderate Muslim leaders that Britain is a cesspit of Islamophobia and is running a colonial anti-Muslim foreign policy, you might well conclude, like one young Muslim quoted after the bombs: “I would like to give blood but they probably won’t want mine.”

Like so many things, Grievance gets a momentum of its own. Once it gets started, it’s hard to back away from it, because that seems conservative and ruthless and indifferent. But…there’s a price for that.

Not Prince Hamlet, Nor Meant to Be

Jul 19th, 2005 7:32 pm | By

All right, why did they do it? That’s the question people keep asking or rather answering. They did it because of rage, because of a sense of grievance, because of injustice, because all those people marched and no one listened, because of Fallujah, because of Afghanistan (but not because of Bosnia or Kosovo), because of exclusion and marginalization, because of the violence perpetrated on Muslims. But hey – maybe they didn’t. Maybe even apart from the fact that those are all contemptible ‘reasons’ – maybe they’re not reasons anyway. Maybe they’re only pseudo-reasons, like the ‘reasons’ people protest the G8 summit or the ‘reasons’ people toss a brick through Starbucks’ window and then run away. Maybe all that is bullshit and rationalization and above all camouflage.

Maybe the reasons were way more stupid and trivial and self-oriented than even the bogus reasons the Grievance-polishers have been trotting out. Maybe in fact rage at injustice doesn’t have a god damn thing to do with it except as window dressing. Maybe the real reasons are to do with wanting to make a mark, with fantasies about fame and glory and being Somebody. Maybe the whole thing is like that conversation in the back of the cab between Terry Malloy and his mobbed-up older brother in the expensive coat. ‘I coulda been somebody, I coulda had class.’

Maybe the guff about injustice and Grievance is merely an ingredient in a narrative of self in which the hero is a freedom fighter, a rebel, a guerilla warrior, another Che or Osama or Tupac. Maybe anything would have done – any ‘injustice,’ any ‘grievance’. Maybe it’s all just a combination of testosterone and a feeling of insignificance and stupid fantasizing. Maybe four guys just wanted to feel Special, and at this particular moment for those particular guys, the way to do that was to strike a blow for their ‘community.’ At another particular moment for another group of insignificant guys, the way to do that was to strike a blow for a different ‘community’ – by shooting Archduke Franz-Ferdinand and triggering The Great War. A few overexcited boys commit a murder, and tens of millions of people wind up dead.

Maybe there was a monstrous disproportion between the enormity of what they did and their own personal stature. Maybe all this handwaving about injustice is partly because we can’t stand the thought that it was all actually very petty and childish and narcissistic and stupid. Because what they actually did was so horrible, caused such wretched misery to so many people – we want to think there was something at least grand and significant – at least interesting – about the people who did it. A touch of Macbeth, a bit of Clytemnestra; a little tragic and operatic. But maybe there wasn’t. Maybe they were just about as grand and significant as some pimpled youth who gets drunk and drives a car at ninety miles an hour into another car, killing six people. Maybe they were just about as grand and significant as the non-entities who killed Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Rabin. Just four creeps who wanted to be a big deal, and had too little imagination to prevent them from going for it.

Virtue Trounces Vice Again

Jul 19th, 2005 4:22 am | By

This is funny. I know, I shouldn’t laugh, it’s serious, but it’s funny.

A statement that has warned against the dangers of allowing women to drive in Saudi Arabia was released on the Internet on Friday…It said the enemies of Islam have portrayed the image of Muslim women being without rights and having “a broken wing,” saying that their homes are prisons, their husbands mistreat them, and their hijabs are a sign of backwardness. It said that they have come up with the terminology of “injustice for women” in our country and have used it in the media lately introducing the fact that they are not allowed to drive as a sign of injustice.

They did? Those bastards. How can they say a thing like that? How can they possibly get from the fact that women are not ‘allowed’ to drive in Saudi Arabia to the ‘image’ that those women don’t have rights? It’s insane! I’m sure if men were not ‘allowed’ to drive in Saudia Arabia while women were, no one would suggest that men were without rights as a result. And would they see that as a sign of injustice? Of course not!

The statement added that though it acknowledged that foreign drivers are an economic burden on the country, their presence does less damage than the economic burdens of allowing women to drive which are: The multi-ownership of cars in one family instead of just one being used by the driver; the replacement of a car by another one since women are known to like everything new and the burden of the government having to open special female sections in all Traffic Departments.

These guys should do stand-up, I mean it. ‘Women are known to like everything new’ – why those miserable lazy greedy gold-digging whores! No wonder they’re not allowed to drive – the empty-headed materialistic demanding cows. It’s quite true, too – I’m a woman and I buy a new car once a week, and as for my clothes – ! I’ve had to have a fourth closet built to hold them all. Obviously, because I’m a woman, see, and women are known to like everything new.

But the thing about the special female sections in all Traffic Departments is the clincher, of course. That would be a budget-buster, wouldn’t it, so obviously women have to be locked up to avoid that. The US is a rich country, so it can afford that kind of thing – special women’s buses, women’s supermarkets, women’s libraries, women’s post offices, women’s Starbuck’s, women’s Office Depots – all staffed by women, all equipped with special guy-catcher prongs in the doorway. It adds up, that kind of money.

It concluded by saying that no Islamic scholar or good figure in society has called for women to drive and that all those who have been calling for them to drive are people who tend to damage the image of Islamic women. One of the signatories, Sheikh Muhammad Al-Ghamdi, head of the Commission of the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in Al-Mikhwah in Al-Baha region, said a group of righteous people approached him and other sheikhs in the region to include their signature to the statement. “They showed us the statement and we read it and agreed with its contents. That is why we signed it,” he said.

Well, that explains that. Good to know that virtue is thriving over there.

Aporias and Avatars

Jul 19th, 2005 2:02 am | By

Tzvetan Todorov has a good essay in Theory’s Empire. I’ll give you a quotation from it.

The renunciation of judgment and of values leads to insurmountable aporias, as well. To make their own task easier, deconstructionists seem to have assimliated all values to religious values, thus rejecting the distinction between faith and reason, and they treat reason as an avatar – no more and no less – of God, thus wiping out several centuries of struggle with a single stroke of the pen.

Rejecting that distinction between faith and reason is – such a bottomlessly terrible idea.


Jul 17th, 2005 10:15 pm | By

It’s time to reform Islam, a lot of people are pointing out. (The other big religions could do with some reforming too, while you’re at it – though Islam’s need is obviously fairly urgent.)

Tariq Panja thinks UK mosques should do better.

The trouble for many young Muslims in Britain comes from the one-dimensional nature of Islamic instruction given in most mosques. Islamic consciousness comes from visits to the mosque and by going to madrassas to learn to read the Koran in Arabic. For many, though they can read the language, it is incomprehensible. Then there are the sermons delivered at Friday prayers, which are read in the language of the founders of the mosque. So in Beeston they are delivered in Urdu. The content rarely considers the lives of the scores of young men in the mosque. The result is a little like creating religious automatons, who go through the motions but have no concept of why they do what they are doing.

So ‘Islamic consciousness’ in that situation must be pretty empty of content.

Islam is a way of life. So in the home, parents – many of whom lack the education to explain to their children how to come to terms with their dual identities – simply demand that their children do certain things. Indeed, it feels as though there is a competition between parents to get their children to finish reading the Koran first. At a party, parents will say: ‘He’s only six; he’s finished the Koran’. So what? What has the child understood?

What have madrassa students who learn the Koran (in a language most of them don’t understand) and nothing else understood? Not much, it seems safe to say. Since they haven’t had an opportunity to learn or understand much, they probably don’t.

Boris Johnson is blunt.

That means disposing of the first taboo, and accepting that the problem is Islam. Islam is the problem…Judged purely on its scripture — to say nothing of what is preached in the mosques — it is the most viciously sectarian of all religions in its heartlessness towards unbelievers. As the killer of Theo Van Gogh told his victim’s mother this week in a Dutch courtroom, he could not care for her, could not sympathise, because she was not a Muslim. The trouble with this disgusting arrogance and condescension is that it is widely supported in Koranic texts, and we look in vain for the enlightened Islamic teachers and preachers who will begin the process of reform. What is going on in these mosques and madrasas? When is someone going to get 18th century on Islam’s mediaeval ass?

Well, now; that’s when. Some people are indeed doing their best. Homa Arjomand, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Irshad Manji will all be speaking at a no sharia conference in Toronto in August. If people (and especially newspapers like the Guardian and broadcasters like the BBC) would pay a lot more attention to them and a lot less to Tariq Ali and Dilpazier Aslam…maybe reform would start to take hold.

Lose Ten Points

Jul 17th, 2005 9:33 pm | By

Open Democracy made en error – at least, one of its writers did, which comes to the same thing. It’s a fairly gross error, too. (I emailed them about it – I wonder if they’ll fix it.)

Coming from a sophisticated thinker, that is a surprising assessment of the man who declared during last year’s election: “I’m not here offering myself to you because that’s how it’s done in a democracy, but because that’s just how I am, and I don’t give a damn who says different.” For Ignatieff, Bush is a “gambler from Texas” because he is the first president “risking his presidency on the premise that Jefferson was right”.

Trouble is, if you follow the link, you find that Bush didn’t say that. I was a bit staggered by it (Bush says staggering things all the time, but that remark seems a tad incautious even for him) so was curious about the context so looked it up. Here’s the context.

When Bush appeared in person, moments later, he seemed surprisingly ordinary. “I’m here to ask for the vote,” he told the audience. “I believe it’s important to get out and ask for the vote. I believe it’s important to travel this great state and the country, talkin’ about where I intend to lead the country.” He made this sound like an original idea, and perhaps a controversial one, and the way he repeated the words “I believe” carried an air of defiant conviction: I’m not here offering myself to you because that’s how it’s done in a democracy but because that’s just how I am, and I don’t give a damn who says different.

Oops. The bit that Mariano Aguirre put in quotation marks is not in quotation marks in the article, it’s in italics – while actual quotations are in quotation marks. Obviously the ‘I don’t give a damn’ (Gourevitch forgot the ‘Frankly, my dear,’ part) bit is authorial interpretation, is what Gourevitch takes to be the subtext of what Bush actually said. And since Aguirre is using the quotation that is not a quotation to raise an eyebrow (at the least) at Ignatieff as well as at Bush – that’s pretty sloppy. I thought you’d like to know that.

Basic Training

Jul 17th, 2005 7:28 pm | By

Here’s this one again. I’ve pointed it out before, but it’s a mistake that crops up all the time, so it bears repeating. This one is via the drink-soaked Trotskyist popinjays quoting Christopher Hitchens.

RR: I guess because I listen to the 9/11 Commission, and read their report, and they said that Saddam Hussein was not exporting terror. I suppose that’s how, Christopher…

CH; Well, I’m not sure that they actually did say that. What they did say was they didn’t know of any actual operational connection…which was the Iraqi Baath Party and…excuse me…and Al Qaeda. A direct operational connection. Now, that’s because they don’t know. They don’t say there isn’t one. They say they couldn’t find one.

There. It’s a really basic point – right up there with the distinction between proof and evidence. Saying you haven’t found something is not, repeat not, repeat not the same thing as saying that the something is not there. News flash – something can be there even if no one has found it yet. Especially if the search area is, instead of being the size of, say, your living room, the size of, say, Iraq.

Two of the other times I’ve pointed this out were: 1) a journalist interviewing a military journalist: mj said investigators have found no WMD, j said ‘You say there are no WMD,’ mj interrupted to say with suppressed fury, ‘No I didn’t say that, I said investigators hadn’t found any,’ j said ‘What’s the difference?’ !!?!! 2) a different journalist interviewing Hans Blix, who said ‘We haven’t found any WMD,’ j said ‘Can you tell us for certain that there are no WMD?’ Blix answered with exasperation, ‘No, of course we can’t.’ Journalist said ‘Why not?’ !!?!!

Really basic.

[Just to make clear – I can’t boast. Someone did a very basic ‘are you paying attention?’ test on me a few weeks ago, and I wasn’t. To put it mildly (and rude Someone did a lot of rude laughing at me as a result). Of course I didn’t know I was being tested, I thought I was just confirming that a message had been sent – but that’s the point. I guess. Anyway, I can’t boast. Not that I would anyway. I’m tremendously modest.]

Blair Hits the Bull’s-eye

Jul 16th, 2005 8:32 pm | By

Well I must say – I think Blair nailed it. And if the people who disagree with him are ‘left-wingers’ – well then I’m a right-winger, which is not what I think I am – but then why in hell are they ‘left-wingers’? What the sam hill is ‘left-wing’ about sympathizing with or understanding the point of view of or wanting to negotiate with extreme right-wing religious fundamentalist tyrants? What? What? What?

The greatest danger is that we fail to face up to the nature of the threat we are dealing with…But it is a global struggle and it is a battle of ideas, hearts and minds, both within Islam and outside it. This is the battle that must be won, a battle not just about the terrorist methods but their views. Not just their barbaric acts, but their barbaric ideas. Not only what they do but what they think and the thinking they would impose on others…Neither is it true that they have no demands. They do. It is just that no sane person would negotiate on them.

Well exactly. So what can people mean when they say we should negotiate? Negotiate what? Women’s right to leave the house, to go to school, to work? Even David Rieff, who said many sensible things, ended up saying political compromise and negotiation are inevitable. Compromise with what? You might as well try to ‘compromise’ with Hitler over how many Jews to gas. There is no compromise.


Terrorism can often be contained and even blunted by effective military and intelligence activities, but it can only be defeated by political compromise and negotiation…Sooner or later, such negotiations will have to start, as it is widely reported that they have already begun between the US and Iraqi authorities and the Ba’athist insurgents in Iraq. The alternative is treating the Islamic immigrant populations of Europe like a vast fifth column, and that choice would be a disaster for Europe and for the Islamic world. It is true that negotiating with mass murderers is the opposite of justice. But what adult ever thought history was just?

And the choice to compromise and negotiate with Islamists would not be a disaster for Europe and the entire world? Would not be the entry to a new dark age?

Back to Blair.

…the establishment of effectively Taleban states and Sharia law in the Arab world en route to one caliphate of all Muslim nations. We don’t have to wonder what type of country those states would be. Afghanistan was such a state. Girls put out of school. Women denied even rudimentary rights. People living in abject poverty and oppression. All of it justified by reference to religious faith.

And don’t forget the stonings – the stonings to death of women in front of their own children, children who were made to go up to the stoned woman to see if she was dead yet. And don’t forget the football stadium executions. And the beatings of women with car radio antennas, and the banning of kites and music. Yes, let’s compromise and negotiate with people like that.

It cannot be beaten except by confronting it, symptoms and causes, head-on. Without compromise and without delusion. The extremist propaganda is cleverly aimed at their target audience. It plays on our tolerance and good nature. It exploits the tendency to guilt of the developed world, as if it is our behaviour that should change, that if we only tried to work out and act on their grievances, we could lift this evil, that if we changed our behaviour, they would change theirs. This is a misunderstanding of a catastrophic order. Their cause is not founded on an injustice. It is founded on a belief, one whose fanaticism is such it can’t be moderated. It can’t be remedied. It has to be stood up to.

There you go. ‘Their cause is not founded on an injustice. It is founded on a belief, one whose fanaticism is such it can’t be moderated.’ Exactly. It is odd how many people don’t seem to grasp that – which is odd since it’s all very explicit and out in the open. Do people think the jihadists are kidding or something? That it’s all a mask or a joke or a pretext?

We must be clear about how we win this struggle. We should take what security measures we can. But let us not kid ourselves. In the end, it is by the power of argument, debate, true religious faith and true legitimate politics that we will defeat this threat. That means not just arguing against their terrorism, but their politics and their perversion of religious faith. It means exposing as the rubbish it is, the propaganda about America and its allies wanting to punish Muslims or eradicate Islam. It means championing our values of freedom, tolerance and respect for others. It means explaining why the suppression of women and the disdain for democracy are wrong.

I could do without the ‘true religious faith’ bit, but that’s a quibble, and anyway he has to say that. But it’s strong stuff, much stronger than I would have expected. It’s also dead right. Well done Tony.

Words 2

Jul 15th, 2005 8:58 pm | By

Another tendentious word, while we’re on the subject – another one that we’ve been hearing a lot lately (and hear a lot all the time anyway).


Yeah, so, what’s wrong with that? Well, it depends. It can be benign enough, if and when everything is going well. Except that condition never seems to apply, does it. And when things are not going well, community can decidedly cut the other way. Community works to exclude as well as include, as many people have pointed out; it fosters dislike or hatred of non-members as well as loyalty to and solidarity with members; and it can isolate. Trevor Phillips on yesterday’s The World Tonight talked about the way the multicultural emphasis on ‘difference’ works to drive people apart rather than bringing them together. I think both words do that. Every time the radio or newspaper refers to ‘the Muslim community’ it drives the nail in a little further – there is such a thing as ‘the Muslim community,’ it is in some way homogenous enough to be labeled a community (how? how can it be?), and for everyone in that putative community, their being Muslim is the most salient thing about them. Which, apart from anything else, is depressing for secularists and atheists (as well as converts to other religions) in that ‘community’ who really don’t want to be or to be called ‘Muslim’ at all, but who feel shoved back into that category by the constant iteration of the label.

The word is meant to be kind and caring and respectful, but it has some highly coercive, limiting overtones, along with a separatist one. Raise an eyebrow when you hear it.


Jul 15th, 2005 2:05 am | By

There’s been a lot of discussion of the BBC’s policy on the use of the t-word. But that’s not the only tendentious word around. I was reading this article earlier today and I noticed another one.

Around this time, he was sent to Pakistan to visit relatives. He also went on the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, grew a beard and began to wear robes. Despite becoming devoutly religious, he was arrested for shoplifting during 2004.

Can you tell what word I have in mind? I bet you can. I saw it in other articles too – it’s quite popular. ‘Devout.’

Devout. Hmm. That is one word for it, of course, but others come to mind. ‘Devout’ is not a neutral word – it’s a hooray word. It’s one of those words like ‘faith’ and ‘spiritual’ that are meant to convey, ever so subtly and covertly, that being religious is a good and virtuous thing – all by itself, not because of any further transformation in behaviour. Well, is it? No, not necessarily. It seems safe to say, not in this case! So why use words that imply that it is? Granted, I can’t think of any neutral equivalent for the word ‘devout’ – but then why do we need one? It’s a tautology anyway – religiously religious. It functions as an intensifier, but an intensifier with a lot of baggage. Why not just say ‘intensely religious’ or ‘very religious’? No reason, that I can see, other than to show a kind of reflexive ‘respect’ for religion – which is pretty stupid, in this context, frankly. Yeah, he became devoutly religious, and that’s why he blew up fourteen people. Fourteen people, including Gladys Wundowa, who had finished her shift as a cleaner at UCL and was on her way to a college course in Shoreditch – that’s ‘devoutly religious’ for you.


Jul 14th, 2005 4:17 am | By

Norm on apologists.

Imagine a thought experiment, he gently urges.

On account of the present situation in Zimbabwe, the government decides to halt all scheduled deportations of Zimbabweans who have been denied the right to remain in the UK. Some BNP thugs are made angry by this decision and they take out their anger by beating up a passer-by who happens to be an African immigrant. Can you imagine a single person of left or liberal outlook who would blame, or even partially blame, this act of violence on the government’s decision to halt the deportations, or who would urge us to consider sympathetically the root causes of the act? It wouldn’t happen, even though (ex hypothesi) the government decision is part of the causal chain leading to the violence in question. It wouldn’t happen because the anger of the thugs doesn’t begin to justify what they have done.

I’ve been having a similar thought for days, ever since reading Tariq Ali. It’s July 7, 1944. Bombs explode on three tube trains at 8:50 in the morning, and on a bus an hour later. The perpetrators turn out to be fans of Oswald Mosley, would-be members of the British Union of Fascists. Diana Mosley writes an article titled ‘The price of occupation’ in which she says ‘But it is safe to assume that the cause of these bombs is the unstinting support given by the national government and its prime minister to the US-led invasion of Nazi Europe’ and ‘Most Londoners (as the rest of the country) were opposed to the anti-Nazi war. Tragically, they have suffered the blow and paid the price for the takeover of Churchill and a continuation of the war.’ Can you imagine a single person of left or liberal outlook who would blame, or even partially blame, this act of violence on the government’s decision to resist the Nazis, or who would urge us to consider sympathetically the root causes of the act? (If you go back five years from 1944, of course, you can indeed imagine that, which just goes to show that some people of left or liberal outlook can be – more than a little foolish.) But you get the drift. Nazi terrorists blow up tube trains because they’re really pissed off, and – ? And nothing. So they’re pissed off, so what? Anybody can be pissed off, anyone can have a ‘grievance,’ that doesn’t mean their cause is any good. People are always going to get pissed off when someone stops them doing what they want. But if what they want is to kill half the village, or torture children to death because they are ‘witches,’ or kill the whole village – then it is better to stop them, rather than attending a ten year anniversary of the mass slaughter they managed to pull off in full view of the UN.