Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Martin Amis On The Jihad

If I had anything of value to give away, I would run an internet contest offering a prize to anyone would could explain what the point of this tripartite article by Martin Amis in The Guardian is supposed to be. He ruminates at length on Paul Berman's book Terror and Liberalism (with quick quotes from Bernard Lewis and V. S. Naipaul and others) then recommends that the answer to the problem of Jihad is atheism. Sure, there are some sections of fine, pithy writing, but also some things that are so misconceived that they are, in Wolfgang Pauli's famous phrase, "not even wrong." For example:

Religion is sensitive ground, as well it might be. Here we walk on eggshells. Because religion is itself an eggshell. Today, in the West, there are no good excuses for religious belief - unless we think that ignorance, reaction and sentimentality are good excuses. This is of course not so in the East, where, we acknowledge, almost every living citizen in many huge and populous countries is intimately defined by religious belief.

So Western believers are ignorant, reactionary, sentimental anachronisms, while Eastern believers are merely authentic denizens of their native lands. He should really get out of London's intellectual circles more. Hope Richard John Neuhaus doesn't hear about this!

The long examination at second hand of Sayyid Qutb is interesting, not least because I read Berman's book a couple of years ago (reviewed it on Amazon, too). But it seems kind of pointless. Here we have a portrait of the founder of Islamism, (intertwined with a gloss of a stillborn novella of Amis') the modern Jihad, with all the horrors that proceeded from his thought. And Amis is in fact reassuringly lucid about the seriousness and implacability of the threat:

Suicide-mass murder is astonishingly alien, so alien, in fact, that Western opinion has been unable to formulate a rational response to it. A rational response would be something like an unvarying factory siren of unanimous disgust. But we haven't managed that. What we have managed, on the whole, is a murmur of dissonant evasion. [...] Contemplating intense violence, you very rationally ask yourself, what are the reasons for this? And compassionately frowning newscasters are still asking that same question. It is time to move on. We are not dealing in reasons because we are not dealing in reason.

But the trouble with all this is the same as the trouble with his book on Stalin, Koba the Dread*. It's eloquently stated, and true enough, but hardly the scoop he seems to want it to sound like. At the end, what does Martin Amis think we should do? Have Islamic lands enfranchise their women. Good, good. And have us turn into deracinated relativists, apparently. English deracinated relativists, with a post-modern horror of those martial virtues without which the survival of the West is much less assured. I wonder if Amis has ever considered some form of Dennis Prager's distinction between moral violence and immoral violence? His final call reminds me of this quote by John Maynard Keynes, referring to Bertrand Russell:

Bertie in particular sustained simultaneously a pair of opinions ludicrously incompatible. He held that in fact human affairs were carried on after a most irrational fashion, but that the remedy was quite simple and easy, since all we had to do was to carry them on rationally.

And this from Dostoyevsky's Notes From The Underground:

Oh, tell me, who first declared, who first proclaimed that man only does nasty things because he does not know his own real interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble because, being enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would see his own advantage in the good and nothing else... Oh, the babe! Oh, the pure, innocent child!

His Joseph Conrad quote extolling rationalism is trumped by another from The Secret Agent, which has become much more famous since 9/11. More apposite too, if you ask me:

"I have always dreamed," he mouthed, fiercely, "of a band of men absolute in their resolve to discard all scruples in the choice of means, strong enough to give themselves frankly the name of destroyers, and free from the taint of that resigned pessimism which rots the world. No pity for anything on earth, including themselves, and death enlisted for good and all in the service of humanity--that's what I would have liked to see."

When the Humanist Society takes the field to blow holes in people like that, then I'll know that Amis' call has found its audience.

*An excerpt of my Amazon review: About a quarter of this book should have been confined to a personal journal. But that would have taken away the raison d etre from the rest of it, so what can you say? For a while in the 19th century authors would pen flowery, mock self-disparaging introductions, apologizing for imposing on the public s attention. We certainly need to have the evils of communism forcefully and regularly repeated, but such a forward wouldn t have been out of place for Koba the Dread.


  1. Inspector:

    What was Martin Amis's point? My ex-husband used to like to cite something the very successful Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood told to the class of York U students she taught many, years ago, "Writers write to make money."

    I haven't read the article myself, but your precis suggests it is a patchwork of other writers' thoughts and explorations. If Sam Harris's "End of Faith" was also on Amis's recent reading list, even the conclusion that athiesm is the antidote to jihadism ain't original thought either.

  2. He did indeed quote Sam Harris, now that you mention it. Go ahead and read Amis' article, especially if you haven't read Berman's book. Just be prepared for the non-sequitur ending, is all.

  3. 1. Suicide-mass murder is astonishingly alien, so alien, in fact, that Western opinion has been unable to formulate a rational response to it.

    How about Judges 16:30?

    2. Conservatives, like yourself, simply don't take original sin seriously enough. It appears that only others (or perhaps the Other) suffer its effects. Evidence? The Prager quote on righteous violence.


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