Thursday 22 November 2007

Criticism of Islam is not racist

I've been wanting to write about Ronan Bennett's extraordinary savaging of Martin Amis in Monday's Guardian, but I haven't had the time or energy for the detailed fisking it demands. However, here are a few thoughts. First, Amis' original comments were unwise and open to misinterpretation, but they were not racist. Second, one wonders why Bennett and the Guardian have sought to revive this debate at such length and with such ferocity weeks after the dust had settled on it. Thirdly, Bennett's claim that 'we' have let Amis get away with racism is overblown, given the novelist's denunciation in the introduction to Terry Eagleton's book, not to mention the mostly hostile media coverage at the time. Fourthly, Bennett's claim that hostility to a particular religion is necessarily racist is a threat to freedom of expression and should be fought tooth and nail.

Anyway, there's no need for a line-by-line response to Bennett's piece, as more able critics have since weighed in. A resounding riposte by Christopher Hitchens appeared in Wednesday's Guardian, while yesterday's letters page included this defence of Amis by fellow-novelist Ian McEwan, which is so good I make no excuse for reproducing it in full:

A religion is above all else a thought system. Since Islam, like Christianity, has many adherents and makes highly specific, extravagant and supernatural claims about the world, it should expect, in an open society, to be challenged. Ronan Bennett insists that because religion is "also about identity, background and culture, and Muslims are overwhelmingly non-white", to criticise this thought system is "Islamophobic", and therefore racist. This is an old ploy, familiar to the extremes of the political left and right, of attempting to close down debate. Seventy years ago, a critic of the Soviet Union could expect to be called a fascist. Something of the same spirit prevails today in relation to Islam, especially in the pages of the Guardian.

Much of what passes for moral guidance in the Bible, especially, but not only, in the Old Testament, appears to me to be morally repugnant. I like to feel free to say so. Similarly, there are firmly held beliefs in "mainstream" Islam that are questionable. One instance is apostasy. The orthodox view appears to be that men and women who turn away from their religion are guilty of a serious thought crime. Recommended punishments range from ostracism to death. There are numerous websites now on which courageous ex-Muslims across the Middle East, Pakistan and Bangladesh correspond with each other in secret. The dominant emotion is fear of being discovered. Such a dispensation appears to me to be an offence to rational inquiry and free thinking. To say so, Mr Bennett, is not to be a racist, but to exercise the gift of consciousness and the privilege of liberty.

I've known Martin Amis for almost 35 years, and he's no racist. When you ask a novelist or a poet his or her view of the world, you do not get a politician's or a sociologist's answer. You may not like what you hear, but reasoned debate is the appropriate response, not vilification by means of overheated writing, an ugly defamatory graphic, and inflated, hysterical pull-quotes. I wonder whether Ronan Bennett would care to expend so much of his rhetorical might excoriating at similar length the thugs who murdered - in the name of their religion - their fellow citizens in London in 2005.

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