Ronan Bennett:
Amis’s views are symptomatic of a much wider and deeper hostility to Islam and intolerance of otherness. Only last week, the London Evening Standard felt able to sponsor a debate entitled: Is Islam good for London? Do another substitution here and imagine the reaction had Judaism been the subject. As Rabbi Pete Tobias noted…the so-called debate was sinisterly reminiscent of the paper’s campaign a century ago to alert its readers to the “problem of the alien”, namely the eastern European Jews fleeing persecution who had found refuge in the capital. In this context, Rod Liddle’s contribution to the proceedings — “Islamophobia? Count me in” — sounds neither brave, brash nor provocatively outrageous, merely racist. Those who claim that Islamophobia can’t be racist, because Islam is a religion not a race, are fooling themselves: religion is not only about faith but also about identity, background and culture, and Muslims are overwhelmingly non-white. Islamophobia is racist, and so is antisemitism…

Amis sought to excuse the passage quoted above by pointing out that it was prefaced by the words “There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, ‘The Muslim community … (etc)’… In a letter to the Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, he explained, “It was a thought experiment, or a mood experiment.”

….If, for some, the distinction was not quite clear, Amis expanded his defence in a live interview with Jon Snow on Channel 4 News. He maintained that the target of his attack was Islamism, “an extreme ideology within a religion”. He was not, he stressed, attacking Islam itself or Muslims in general, though he ran into some difficulty when Snow reminded him of his observation on the alleged “extreme incuriosity of Islamic culture”, and of his reaction on seeing his six-year-old daughter’s toys being searched by airport security: “Oh yeah, and stick to people who look like they’re from the Middle East” (itself further proof, if such were needed, of the racist nature of Islamophobia). Taken along with his assertion that “there are great problems in Islam”, did not these statements, Snow proposed, indicate that he was taking “scattergun” aim at all Muslims? Amis retorted: “I do not believe in any persecution of the Muslim community. I think that would be counterproductive.”

At which point, the question becomes unavoidable: is efficacy now to be the benchmark for persecutors?

…We can dispense with Amis’s polite fiction that he is talking about “Islamism”; there are just too many generalisations (“The impulse towards rational inquiry,” Amis wrote elsewhere, “is by now very weak in the rank and file of the Muslim male”), too many references to “them” and “us”. When he says, for example, “they” are gaining on “us” demographically, he is demonstrably not talking about “Islamists”. The danger of being overrun, outnumbered, outbred is a repugnant trope beloved of supremacists everywhere…When Amis voices his fears of being overrun, he is, and he knows he is, perpetuating and enhancing the spectre of the other, and loading it with the potent imagery of swarming poverty, violence and ignorance.

At the Cheltenham literary festival, Amis treated his audience to a discussion on the relative value of Muslim and western states, the former being, in his estimation, less evolved than the latter. “I am just saying that some societies are more evolved than others,” he said. (Evolved is an interesting choice of word. In the Belgian Congo, the colonisers used to employ a system of rewarding colonised people who alienated themselves from indigenous society: they were raised to an officially designated category of évolués.) “There is no inoffensive way to put this,” Amis continued provocatively. “By evolved, I mean more civilised. We have more respect for civil society.”

This is not the time or place to debate the proposition or the definitions Amis employs, though I would say, in a general response to the generalised argument, that I have seen, at times, rather more respect for civil society, from how they treat their families and the elderly to strangers in the street, in Damascus, Ramallah and east Jerusalem than I have seen, at times, in London, New York and Paris. Equally, when he says, “Here in the west we have the most evolved society in the world and we are not blowing people up”, it is hard not to think of the ghosts of tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Muslim dead from Iraq to Afghanistan who might take issue with him. No, here the salient point is that Amis, contrary to his assertions, is talking about Islam, not Islamism, Muslims, not Islamists.

It is one thing – and the right thing – to challenge at every turn antisemitism, misogyny, homophobia, incitement to violence and hatred where it exists among Muslims, just as we should where it exists in the police, the church, the political parties, newspapers or anywhere else. But British Muslims I have spoken to now talk about feeling “deluged” by hostile comment. Hardly a day goes past when they are not lectured and scolded by writers claiming to be the champions of true liberalism….

This is a community under attack, and not just by novelists. By every official index, violence and discrimination against Muslims have increased since 2001….

Muslims bridle at the broad strokes by which they are depicted. Every time a writer or politician or policeman begins a sentence by saying “Muslims must …”, there is little recognition of the sheer variety of belief within Islam, or of the cultural diversity among Muslims, or of the everyday pragmatic reality of what it means in a secular age to believe in God and to try to live by that belief. In this respect Muslims are like anyone else. Some are devout, some are not at all, some are not very much, and some are devout sometimes. Some are sinners; they fall down and try to get up again. Some are hypocrites who fall down and pretend to be still on their feet. Many fail to live up to their religion’s, and their own, high expectations of themselves. Many have sex outside marriage, as many Catholics do. Some Muslims drink alcohol, as some Jews eat pork. A few, in common with a few Christians, think gay people should be murdered. Observant Muslims contest, dispute, accept and reject points of doctrine exactly as those from other faiths do. The Qur’an, as one Muslim put it to me, is not a program to be loaded and Muslims are not computers….

Four days after the Pentagon and the twin towers were attacked, the novelist Ian McEwan wrote on these pages: “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.” As an expression of outraged, anguished humanism, McEwan’s formulation was truthful, moving and humbling, and can hardly be bettered. But it seems to me the compassion is flowing in one direction, the anger in another. I can’t help feeling that Amis’s remarks, his defence of them, and the reaction to them were a test. They were a test of our commitment to a society in which imaginative sympathy applies not just to those like us but to those whose lives and beliefs run along different lines.

And I can’t help feeling we failed that test. Amis got away with it. He got away with as odious an outburst of racist sentiment as any public figure has made in this country for a very long time. Shame on him for saying it, and shame on us for tolerating it.

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