Category Archives: Blog

Dilemmas of Authenticity and Belonging

Yahya Birt

It is obvious enough that the debate about the place of Islam in Europe has probably never been so important or sharply contested. The numbers of those who think there can be no genuine or settled place for Europe’s second largest religion seem to be growing; and this sentiment now mobilises politics in many European states, the Swiss vote in 2009 against the building of minarets being a recent example of this politics of fear. The outcome of this vote seems to suggest that if Muslims are to retain a presence in Europe, it should be rendered unnoticeable or even invisible, and that the normal religious freedoms others enjoy are to be especially curtailed for Muslims. Populist politicians like Gert Wilders in the Netherlands can now gain sizeable constituencies by promising to end mosque construction or banning the Qur’an. France, having banned the headscarf from French public schools in 2004, is now debating in 2010 whether to ban face veils from the country altogether, as they are, it is argued, deemed to be incompatible with republican values. Similarly the debate over whether Turkey can be part of the European Union touches upon the very political definition of what Europe is. As the former president of France, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, argued in 2002, Turkey was not fit to be the member of a “Christian club” and, if accepted into Europe, Turkish membership would in any case “destroy the EU” if it went ahead.

Similarly Europe now lives with an ongoing terrorist threat from those whom al-Qaeda inspires to strike in the name of Muslims everywhere. Al-Qaeda operates with a cosmic idea of incessant violent struggle; catalytic acts of political violence, it is believed, will somehow galvanise and unite the Muslim world against the West to restore lost honour and power through indiscrimate carnage as seen in New York and Washington (2001), Madrid (2004), London (2005) and Glasgow (2007). And there have been a number of other foiled plots in the last decade, some dating to even before 9/11. Of course some have been radicalised recent migrants from the Muslim world, but others were European born and bred, and it is around trying to understand how these European Muslims became radicalised that some of the most intense debate about the place of Islam in Europe has raged.

However, I would suspect that even more divisive than the violent fringe have been the political and cultural clashes between liberal Europe and its often conservatively-minded Muslim minorities. Muslim identity politics in Europe can only become widely mobilised across different ethnic, sectarian and class divisions and be able to connect Muslim diasporas with political actors, state or non-state, in the Muslim world for two main reasons. The first cause is a military attack on a Muslim people by a non-Muslim power, where the Muslims are clearly not the aggressors, e.g. the conflict in Bosnia, 1992-95. The second cause is a cultural or political attack on a universal Islamic symbol; this attack is deemed to be a collective insult to Muslim dignity that besmirches the honour of their religion, e.g. the Danish Cartoons Crisis, 2005-8. Both causes relate to the victimization of Muslims, whose pain and suffering because of cultural contempt or political marginalisation plays not only into post-colonial angst and racialized politics in Europe today, but into deeply-felt frustration at the contemporary democratic deficit in the Muslim world and its inability to shape its own future and destiny. Yet what is also noticeable is the very fragility, or thinness, of this universal Muslim identity politics. As soon as any complexity is introduced, such as Muslim-on-Muslim conflict or the public ridicule of any non-universal Muslim taboo, then its appeal and scope is quickly curtailed.

 A similar observation might be made of anything that might be held to somehow undermine the idea of Europe: any universal appeal to a European identity politics must be equally thin to garner together such a diverse constituency of Europeans. At the heart of this European identity politics is cultural uncertainty: an aging continent feels threatened by younger non-European migrants, many of whom are Muslim by faith, and whom it is felt do not sufficiently share Europe’s values; and, as Asia rises and develops multiple modernities, the notion central to European identity that it gave birth a universal and singular modernity appears to be increasingly anachronistic.

So it might be surmised that identity politics is partly based on the anxiety created by the inability to engage with the loss of credible universal narratives. In the case of Islam, European colonialism decisively ended its narrative of imperial and religious manifest destiny in the nineteenth century, and, for the post-colonial Muslim diaspora in Europe, this tension is intensified by the fact of being a European minority of low, or at least ambiguous, social status. This status anxiety is more acute and prolonged that in the case of Europe’s, which has only really slowly developed in the latter half of the twentieth century with the challenges of decolonisation, the rise of America, the divisions of the Cold War, and now the slow shifting of the centre of the world economy to East Asia.

Within a context where many are seeking to diffuse mutually-antagonistic identity politics between Islam and Europe, I want to reflect on one small initiative with which I was recently involved. In 2009, the University of Cambridge won a competitive tender to host a series of seminars to reflect upon “Contextualising Islam in Britain” that was funded by the Department of Communities of Local Government. Inevitably a number of ironic ambiguities were involved in such an unusual endeavour. Why, for instance, would a secular government be interested in Muslim theological reflection as such except for more narrow policy imperatives? How much were the sorts of conclusions sought by government ones of a liberal or progressive bent that were desired and anticipated in advance? How much was the official motivation one that was driven to demonstrate an Islam that was compatible with liberalism, or at the very least could be convincingly shown to be fundamentally harmless and innocuous? How could a small panel of 26 Muslim academics, activists and religious scholars hope to avoid the charge from their own community of promoting their own version of an official British Islam without a proper mandate? And, added to that, what authority or relevance would its deliberations have?  Muslim conservatives might think it too liberal, “Islamists” might think it too politically quiescent, it would be ignored or dismissed by the radicals and wouldn’t most Muslims, holding to an informal and iterative notion of religious authority, baulk at the idea of an official national Islam? Wouldn’t theological reflection in and of itself be overly abstract and divorced from concrete policy issues, e.g. high unemployment, racial discrimination or relatively low educational attainment, that affect Muslim communities in Britain? And wasn’t there a stereotypical element in defining Muslims primarily or even solely in religious terms by assuming that the problems of Muslim communities were best addressed in theological terms?

All those involved were acutely aware of these sorts of dilemmas, which might be summarised as dilemmas of authenticity and belonging. Could such an exercise be theologically serious while not been overly presumptive in the claims to authority that it made? How could such an exercise be more creative and interesting than being a political exercise in reassurance or a plea for acceptance? It is for others to decide how far the “Contextualising Islam in Britain” project succeeded in avoiding these pitfalls; however, a few further reflections are in order.

One obvious irony was that there are few if any comparable platforms, due to internal politics or lack of resources or vision, for sustained reflection on pressing theological issues by such a wide theological diversity of British Muslims, except for official ones. The fact that British Muslim institutions, being perceived as biased in one way or another, would have struggled to collect together Sunnis and Shiites, Sufis and Salafis, liberals and conservatives, and Deobandis and Barelwis (the latter being British Islam’s most important sectarian Muslim division) under one roof. Although an atmosphere of distrust, incompatibility and intransigence was a distinct possibility, and many of 26 participants had not met or worked together before, in practice, a robust but healthy dynamic was established.

In my personal view, the overriding reasons as to why co-operation was easier to sustain than originally feared were threefold. Firstly, the politically parlous public reputation of Muslims sets up an overall context in which intra-faith co-operation becomes more desirable. Secondly, the seminar participants focused upon the theological challenges that faced them all, regardless of their denominational background, which were largely matters of public religion, or the role of Islam in public life, which, as a common circumstance, challenge and opportunity, cuts across other sorts of division. And, finally, there was also sufficient maturity and experience within the group to see such moments of sustained reflection in lives that are otherwise busy and overstretched as rare opportunities that were not to be wasted.

On the question of religious authority, the participants were seasoned enough to realise that as there are many points of religious authority within the Islamic tradition, and that restating Islamic norms is fundamentally an iterative exercise that is ongoing because of changing times and circumstances, the whole exercise was properly framed as opening out the debate and about asking some of the right questions. It was certainly not a series of definitive fatwas that were sought, and no-one claimed either the legal expertise or authority to do so.

On the politics around such an exercise, the participants were clear that a mere reiteration of the idea that Islam is harmless, i.e. that the vast majority of Muslims abjure the violent extremists who misuse the name of Islam, could not be a serious starting point of any sustained theological reflection. Instead, even within a secular Europe, significant parts of which are post-Christian, the idea of religion as a public good, and, within that, the role of Islam as Europe’s second religion, should be further explored and strengthened. There was wide support for Britain’s particular form of secularism, as accommodative of religious pluralism, religious freedoms and of religious institutions, and as providing the overall framework to articulate religion as a public good; however, it was recognised that there were more challenges in framing a positive role for the religious voice within Britain’s traditions of secular public reason and political culture.

The report, in my reading, did recognise that sustained Islamic reflection upon the role of religion in public life within the European context was still in its early stages. The reasons for this were recognised as many and complex but the primary need was to shift the emphasis of Muslim theological languages of public engagement from jurisprudence (fiqh) and legal theory (usul al-fiqh) to become more inclusive of mysticism (tasawwuf), theology (kalam) and philosophy (falsifa). In short, an ethical turn in Islamic public discourses is urgently needed not least because of the widespread misunderstanding of Islamic legalese as a tacit call for parallel legal systems within Europe, but also to reflect more easily an aspiration to serve the common or public good, and not just of the “Muslim good” as it were.

It was recognised that too much emphasis had been put by the Islamic legal tradition on the citizenship contract (ahd, i.e. the duties held by the citizen towards the state), rather than upon the fundamental convenant (mithaq) between humanity and God, that underwrites our inate moral responsibility to each other. It is under this sense of higher ethical purpose that the believer seeks to serve the common good of all through a spirit of service (khidma) and moral excellence (ihsan), rather than a thin legal relationship of citizenship rights. There has been an assumption in Islamic legal tradition that Muslim minority status is a passing and temporary circumstance, which is to be endured through various forms of moral protectionism and community survival. This is wholly at odds with the reality that millions of Muslims have voluntarily and happily chosen Europe as their permanent home to which they belong and wish to make a positive contribution to.  Without this as the basic starting point of any serious deliberation then there is little hope that any amount of reflection will move any of us beyond the politics of fear.

Originally published as “Dilemas de authenticidad y pertenencia“, Akfar/Ideas (No.25, April 2010).

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How not to deal with al-Muhajiroun

Muslim communities around the country have shunned al-Muhajiroun and its various entities for years and refused to give them a platform. Instead, they have to work through front organisations, hire private halls, set up high-street stalls or leaflet people with their poisonous little tracts. They are utterly marginal but are still able to generate huge coverage through provocation. Their recent barracking of British troops returning from Iraq and a counter mini-riot in Luton has poisoned relations in the town. The Muslim community of Luton, which had already chased them out of the mosques, has taken to chasing them off the streets too in a desperate bid to signal their utter disgust and consternation.

Anjem Choudary’s latest wheeze to incite the ire of the national press and to irritate the hell out of Britain’s Muslims as well as everyone else is to use a legal loophole to relaunch al-Muhajiroun this week, which had been disbanded in 2004. Only its successor groups, al-Ghurabaa and the Saviour Sect, were banned in 2006 under terrorism legislation. It seems fairly clear that Choudary expects, and indeed makes the calculation, that the reformed al-Muhajiroun will be banned pretty quickly to generate the notoriety and street-cred that he wants to sustain. As they play a propagandistic role, they will continue to find ways to dodge past legal restrictions by using coded language or forming new entities. The law is obviously a blunt and ineffectual tool.

Well Choudary got his headlines yet again last night when a debate with Douglas Murray of the Centre for Social Cohesion (CSC) on sharia law verses UK law never got started, ending in acrimony and thuggish behaviour after about half-an-hour. Al-Muhajiroun used their own goons to enforce strict gender segregation at the event, and roughed up at least one person who objected, and so the event was abandoned and the police were called in.

I called the CSC earlier this week as I had concerns that they were just being used to promote Choudary’s latest wheeze and that I had my suspicions that the so-called neutral event organiser, the mysterious Global Issues Society (GIS), was just another al-Muhajiroun front organisation, a suspicion that was proved spectacularly correct last night. The Centre had its concerns too but wanted definitive proof that GIS was a front if it was to pull out at such a late stage.

Prior to last night’s debate it was clear that GIS had:

1. Booked Conway Hall as a student society at Queen Mary’s under false pretences. No-one from the local student Islamic society had heard of them and the college authorities had no record of any student group registered under that name.

2. Had only organised a handful of “debates”, all of them involving al-Muhajiroun representatives.

3. The event was heavily promoted by al-Muhajiroun itself through its own website, and they provided a lurid poster and their own contact number for the event.

4. No-one knowledgeable about the Muslim activist scene in London had heard of them.

At the event itself:

5. The security “hired” by GIS turned out to be just more associates of al-Muhajiroun who enforced their gender segregation code.

6. The so-called neutral chair appeared to be associated with al-Muhajiroun.

Now the CSC says it acted in “good faith” in accepting this invitation, an assertion that can’t be left unchallenged. At the very least, CSC showed questionable judgement in giving the GIS the benefit of the doubt when there were so many legitimate suspicions about them. It seems probable that the CSC was more focused on highlighting their own campaign for a quick ban and burnishing their reputation as a scourge of radical Islam by playing up to al-Muhajiroun’s all-too-familiar tactics.

If instead we want to use debate to expose and de-legitimize al-Muhajiroun further, the only way to do it would be to organise a neutral platform with a proper invite list. Most importantly, a debating opponent is needed who could take on Choudary and win among the disaffected and radicalised segment of young Muslims that al-Muhajiroun hopes to recruit from. Douglas Murray better fits the role of an anti-Islam bogeyman, who memorably described Islam as “an opportunistic infection” at a memorial conference for Pim Fortuyn in February 2006, a statement he is yet to resile from. Murray’s mere presence was no doubt designed by Choudary to buttress further the siege mentality of anti-West radicalism and self-righteous victimhood that al-Muhajiroun promotes.

The lesson of this little fiasco is that the stoking of an Islam-West controversy has become predictable, exploitable and even somewhat of an industry. The question is: how to break the cycle and construct better alternatives? Frustration, despair and even ennui at the current standoff is just a cop-out and we need to do better: so, over to you, any suggestions?

This has been cross-posted from City Circle Blogs.

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Sheikh Google vs Wiki Islam

The digital age is crucial to reshaping religious authority among Muslims today. The mass media and the internet have changed the way in which religious teachings are disseminated and indeed how religious disputes are projected and replicated to a vast audience. This is not new but arose two hundred years ago when the ulema began to write treatises addressed to the literate constituency of the Muslim masses through the medium of print. Since then the ulema, and the reformers who now contest their authority, have cultivated constituencies of opinion through the mass media.

Yet while the disagreements of opinion formers help define the scope of public debate, Muslim publics exert considerable influence too. By asking questions they have the power to set the agenda, while, in preferring one religious authority over another, they naturally reflect the existence of a competitive market for religious ideas. Religious debate is now primarily conducted through the mass media as everyone understands its power to reach millions rather than through the more traditional face-to-face method. This drive for mass access has created a global religious public sphere into which all scholarly and non-scholarly disagreements get projected.

The nature of the mass media has changed for good. Whereas it used to be hierarchical, elitist, linear and declarative, it is becoming individualised, demotic, non-linear, and interactive. In the age of print, television and to a lesser extent radio, there used to be an editorial process and a relatively high economic cost to media exposure, but, in the digital age, samizdat multimedia has become the norm and not the exception. Anyone can now publish and project their views globally. They can claim to speak for Islam, issue a “fatwa”, proffer advice, and provide counselling or spiritual guidance. Religious leaders struggle too to project any measure of decorum or scholarly expertise in religious debate in the new media, for it is difficult to be both player and referee in the same game.

Rancorous dispute has gone from street corner discussions in the early nineties to all being preserved in glorious binary digital code, archived and available for retrieval and redeployment. Electronic fatwas and sermons struggle to define a precise audience; they must ignore any original context of time and place to speak for “Islam” globally, for Muslims everywhere, in soundbite format. This loss of context, allied, to bricoloage culture, is injurious to intellectual expertise, proper deliberation and intra-religious pluralism.

The nightmare scenario is that Sheikh Google will lead the unified madhhab of the virtual umma in which a billion-plus, atomized Muslims project their subjective musings, screaming inanities into the ether in a dialogue of the deaf. Sheikh Google’s umma would be protean, individualised, samizdat, postmodern, unregulated and without any agreed standards in interpretive technique. All differences would become mere subjectivity, reducing everything to the will for recognition manifested as the narcissism of small differences.

Yet is this not a rather dismal prognosis, the bias of the conservative to the peril rather than the promise of the new digital age, predicting chaotic mediocrity rather than creative renewal? Charles Leadbeater in his new book We-Think argues that the better future of the internet lies with its emerging ability to harness mass creativity and innovation if it can garner responsible self-governance.

One success story Leadbeater cites is Wikipedia, a prime example of open-source creative collaboration. In 2007, Wikipedia had six million articles in hundreds of languages; its total cost was 1.5 million and it only had five paid employees. It has a small committed core of volunteers alongside hundreds and thousands of other members of the public. In March 2007, Wikipedia was the eleventh most popular website, the Encyclopedia Britannica, 4,449th. Wikipedia has 250 million words, Britannica, 44 million.

But what of accuracy? Is not Wikipedia the repository of conspiracy theorists, gossips and amateurs as well as experts? A study by Nature magazine surveyed forty two corresponding articles in both and found 162 factual errors in Wikipedia and 123 in Britannica, so the difference is less than we might think. Yet Wikipedia, with greater resources of peer review, has been shown to correct itself more quickly. And it is – unlike Britannica – making the inheritance of human learning available to the world for free.

So rather than Sheikh Google, Wiki-Islam provides a better possible future for Islam online, amenable to its unchurched nature. Creative collaboration between scholars, experts, intellectuals and Muslim publics would allow for the social and intellectual process of ijma and ijtihad to become dynamic, relevant and infinitely refinable. The internet is no panacea: real-world conditions of authoritarianism in the Muslim world, the war on terror and intellectual conservatism may stymie unlocking the true potential of Wiki-Islam. But a crucial first step nonetheless to unlocking that potential is to recognize the collaborative creativity the digital age offers to the Muslim.

Yahya Birt is Commissioning Editor at Kube Publishing and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com.

This article first appeared in Emel Magazine, Issue 43, April 2008.

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Brass Crescent Nominations are now up

Nominations for the Fourth Annual Brass Crescent Awards are now up (now that the good folk at the Awards have finished wading through 300 nominations). Voting closes on the 14th December.

It’s the strongest ever British performance this year, although far be for me to suggest that patriotism is the only valid voting criterion! The Brits include Spirit21 for “Best Blog” and “Best Female Blog”, The Cutting Edge, Rolled-Up Trousers and The Islamicist all make it into “Most Deserving of Wider Recognition”, Deenport for “Best Design”, A Muslim Think Tank for “Best Post or Series” on Muslims in the EU, Riazat Butt’s Islamophonic for “Best Multimedia Blog” and The Cutting Edge crops up again for “Best Ijtihad”. Oh, and some bloke managed to sneak in as well and is completely failing to show the requisite faux sangfroid at the moment!

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Roll up, roll up! Vote for the best of the British Muslim blogosphere

It’s that time of year again. The fourth annual Brass Crescent Awards, sponsored by City of Brass and alt.muslim, are seeking nominations for the best of the Muslim blogosphere up until Friday, 9th November. Voting, in ten categories, runs for two weeks from Friday, 15th November.

So let me do a bit of shameless plugging for British Muslim blogs.

British blogs have done well in the past. Thabet (Muslims under Progress), now reincarnated as pixelisation, got an honourable mention for “Best Writing” in 2004, won “Best Group Blog” in 2004, was a runner-up as “Best Thinker” in 2005. Islamophobia Watch got an honourable mention as “Best Non-Muslim Blog” in 2005. The indefatigable Indigo Jo was a runner-up in “Most Deserving of Wider Recognition” in 2005. In 2006, for “Best Post or Series”, Thabet got shortlisted for “Policy, Profiling, Poverty” and Bradford Muslim for his insightful “The Muslim Condition” (in six parts). Again Thabet got more nominations in “Best Ijtihad” in 2006 for “British Muslims Must Fight Extremism” and “Prattle from the Party” and an honourable mention for “Best Thinker”. Dal Nun Strong’s well-informed A Muslim Think Tank got a nomination for “Most Deserving of Wider Recognition” in 2006.

British-focused collective Muslim blogs are beginning to emerge like the MIAH Project, Umma Pulse, Muslimstan and City Circle’s new blog (yes, that’s two shameless plugs). Many of our bloggers are London-based but there is more regional blogging out there: Rolled-Up Trousers, Noman Tahir and Islam, Muslims and an Anthropologist in Scotland, the eponymous Bradford Muslim, Walls Come Tumbling Down, the hilarious The Islamicist and Muslim Minorities in Birmingham, Alternative Entertainment in Manchester, The Cutting Edge in Brighton, Masudblog in Aylesbury and Abdur Rahman’s Corner in Wales. In London, one should make mention of Cricklewood Blogger, iMuslim, Islam’s Green, Muslims and Musings, Radical Muslim, Spirit21, Suspect Paki and The Thing About This Is… alongside the above-mentioned Indigo Jo Blogs and A Muslim Think Tank. Pixelisation is now out in Dubai but hopefully that’s only a temporary relocation and he’ll be back on home territory soon.

Many of our top activists and commentators have been sucked into the omnivorous Comment is Free website that features Ajmal Masroor, Anas al-Takriti, Asim Siddiqui, Ed Husain, Fareena Alam, Inayat Bungalawala, Salma Yaqoob, Soumaya Ghannoushi and Zia Haider Rahman to name but few, as well as American imports like Ali Eteraz. With the current focus on “the Muslim problem”, if you’re a halfway-decent writer, are a “youngish” British Muslim and know a thing or two about British Islam (and have a penchant for “liberal discipline”), then it is not that difficult to get into mainstream publications and their online platforms. It would be interesting to know whether these are eligible for the Brass Crescent Awards or not.

But for the most perennially underrated British Muslim blog, for its sheer honesty and gutsy writing, its mix of the personal and the political, the academic and activist, the surreal and the real, the political and the spiritual, check out Muslim Recovery. It hits you in your comfort zone as you are meant to be hit. Of those not nominated in previous years, I would also have to single out Rolled-Up Trousers, as one of our most important political blogs, which has gotten wider recognition as well (named as the top Scottish political blog and it came in at no. 92 in a recent top 500 list of the UK’s political blogs, which says more about metropolitan bias than anything else).

I have links to nearly all these blogs (and more) here. I’m sure that there are many great British Muslim blogs out there that I’m totally unaware of, so do contact me here to tell me what I’ve been missing. And don’t forget to nominate a few British Muslim blogs for the Brass Crescent awards too.

Update: Aziz (City of Brass) and Shahed (alt.muslim) think it’s fine to nominate individual bloggers on Comment is Free. Just in case you want to nominate someone. And Muslim Recovery usefully provides the necessary corrective, noting the groupie-ness of bloglists and the vanity of wanting to get that virtual bloggery award but not wanting to be seen to be doing so. The kind of fake nonchalance that some of us are so very skilled at! But notwithstanding all that, the Awards do encourage and highlight the talent that is out there, so get nominating away.

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One Year On: Thanks for Your Support

This blog is nearly a year old. I wanted to thank everyone for taking the time out to visit and look at the site, for posting comments and sending emails. Despite only averaging two to three posts a month, I’m amazed that the site has had over 400,000 visits since it started, with over 4000 sites now visiting every month, and around 500 visits a day, alhamdulillah. Any feedback about how I could improve either the site or the blog further would be much appreciated.

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Orhan Pamuk's "Snow": Between Confinement and Freedom

Orhan Pamuk is not only the most recent recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature (2006), but his difficult novels are widely read in his home country of Turkey for perhaps two reasons: they take the pulse of the country’s concerns and they attempt to do this by rescuing literary narrative from the grip of politics. Pamuk’s seventh novel Snow is his first work set in contemporary Turkey, and it is arguably the most insightful fictional commentary on the post-9/11 world that has been written so far, precisely because it does not mention the attacks at all, but contextualises the underlying issues brilliantly.

The plot revolves around the return to Turkey, after twelve years, of an exiled poet, Ka, for his mother’s funeral. He is a rootless figure. Never inspired by the traditional faith of his childhood, Ka has abandoned the idealistic leftist politics of his youth, seeing only how the authoritarian, violent state smashed young people’s idealism. Notwithstanding his retreat from politics to art, in Germany, Ka becomes an isolated figure, who is misunderstood or ignored by the locals, who has lost his muse, and has stopped writing poems. Once in Turkey, he takes up a journalistic assignment to discover why the “headscarf girls”, banned from the local schools in the dilapidated border town of Kars, have taken to committing suicide. (He also has another purpose: to hook up romantically with an old friend, Ipek.)

Once Ka gets to Kars, a bigger story develops, as the town turns in on itself when three days of heavy snow isolate it. All the divisions and tensions between old disillusioned leftists, Kemalists, the military, the virtually omnipresent intelligence services (the “MIT”), the press, the Sufis, Kurds, Armenians and the Islamists are there, and they are about to boil over into violence. But, unlike in Istanbul, where everyone lives separately in “tribes”, in Kars everyone stills knows and mixes with each other, and these divisions get played out within families. And it is worth pointing out that none of main protagonists come across as cardboard cut-out caricatures either.

The forces of the state believe that a wanted Islamist terrorist named “Blue” is behind the religious agitation in the city. The Islamists are poised to win the municipal elections. Ka witnesses the assassination of a local school head (for upholding the ban on hijabs) by a young Islamist in a cafe. The Islamist violence and terror is real enough, but it pales into insignificance beside the manipulation and torture of the intelligence services, and the even more brutal and open violence of the military and the police force. The chief villain in Snow is not “Blue”, but the murky and sadistic figure of Z. Demirkol, head of the local intelligence service, whose runs MIT in Kars with the efficiency of the former East Germany’s Stasi. Everybody suspects somebody else, and there is no such thing as a private meeting.

With Kars temporarily snowbound and unaccountable, the forces of repression take their chance to smash the Islamists with searing brutality. Demirkol’s puppet is the has-been theatrical star, Sunay Zaim (famed for his resemblance to Ataturk), whose performance of the play My Fatherland or My Headscarf at the city’s main theatre becomes the pretext for bloody suppression, with soldiers killing the religious high-school kids in the audience who have come in support of the “headscarf girls”.

The great central metaphor in Orhan Pamuk’s Snow is embedded in the title, and the novel’s deeper themes are connected with it. Ka, like Kafka’s K, is either a witness to events, or occasionally a catalyst for them, rather than a protagonist. He finds love, trauma and inspiration in Kars: all of the town’s profoundest hopes and fears surface violently when snow (in Turkish, “kar”) blocks all ways in and out. Ka, having no traditional faith, having abandoned his youthful political idealism and bereft of poetic inspiration, finds, in the tumult of snowbound Kars, his muse — in the antinomies of religion and atheism, authoritarianism and freedom, aesthetics and politics, love and duty. Finding inspiration, nineteen poems are “dictated” to Ka during his short stay, which he attempts to map through the use of a snowflake diagram, in the years after those three strife-filled days in the town. His poems narrate a complex individuality, irreducible to mere labels, aligned on the axes of logic, imagination and memory in his snowflake diagram. Snow is thus a double metaphor: it stands for both confinement and freedom, and, through Ka’s alternation between these two poles, this doubleness is played out as the dramatic tension between personhood and politics.

Yet it is Ka’s seemingly ambiguous, cipher-like indecisiveness that does much to cause distrust among many in Kars, when, after getting dragged into the town’s political crisis, a local paper accuses him of being a spy. He doesn’t want to take sides, and thus reduce his art to political propaganda. His newfound “faith”, expressed through his rebirth as a poet, is not enough:

“Before I got here, I hadn’t written a poem in years,” he [Ka] said. “But since coming to Kars, all the roads on which poetry travels here have reopened. I attribute this to the love of God I’ve felt here.”

“I don’t want to destroy your illusions, but your love of God comes out of Western romantic novels,” said Blue. “In a place like this, if you worship God as a European, you’re bound to be a laughingstock. Then you cannot even believe you believe. You don’t belong to this country; you’re not even a Turk anymore. First try to be like everyone else, then try to believe in God.”

Ka is similarly berated for his naivety in protesting state violence: it is merely a European vice, an idealistic liberal pretence. Sunay berates him on this score:

“No one who’s even slightly Westernised can breathe freely in this country unless they have a secular army protecting them, and no one needs this protection more than intellectuals who think they are better than everyone else and look down on the people – if it weren’t for the army, the fanatics would be turning their rusty knives on the lot of them and their painted women, chopping them all into little pieces. But what do these upstarts do in return? They cling to their little European ways and turn up their affected little noses at the very soldiers who guarantee their freedom.”

As one reviewer has astutely noted, everyone has a double in Pamuk’s writing. Ka’s “double” is Sunay, who stages a “postmodern” military coup in Kars, who puts his “art” in the service of the state, instigating the imprisonment, torture or killing of Kurds and Islamists in the town. Sunay embraces politics as the culmination of his art, to serve the fatherland, while Ka embraces its contradictions creatively but runs from its practical consequences. Most of all, this running away is a refusal to be labelled as a Europhile, a naive liberal, an Islamist sympathizer, a spy and informant, and so on — all the things he is, in the end, accused of because of his wish not to take sides, but to live for art and love. In the short-circuiting of politics, art becomes escapism, and so, offering no solutions, finds no vindication in the blood and repression of Kars.

What elevates Snow is its pitless observation. No one escapes — the old left, the Islamists, the brutal secular state — not even Ka and the bourgeois liberal intellectualism he represents, represented also by the narrator of Ka’s story in Snow, Orhan (perhaps a sly reference to Pamuk himself). The manuscript containing Ka’s nineteen poems is lost, melting away like a disintegrating snowflake, and Orhan, who has come to write about Ka’s life, finds that the poet was generally disliked and distrusted. Even Orhan gets a reprimand:

“If you write a book set in Kars and put me in it, I’d like to tell your readers not to believe anything you say about me, anything you say about any of us. No one could understand us from so far away.”

“But no one believes everything they read in a novel,” I [Orhan] said.

“Oh yes, they do believe it,” he cried. “If only to see themselves as wise and superior and humanistic, they need to think of us as sweet and funny, and convince themselves that they sympathise with the way we are and even love us.”

As Pamuk’s translator Maureen Freely remarks, Snow‘s only real heroes are the long suffering people of Kars who merely get by, surviving the rhetoric and machinations of middle class elites, secular or religious, European or Turkish, and the presumptions that they make in their claims over the “silent majority”. This leaves us with a book that nobody on any side of the great rhetoric about a “clash of civilisations” would feel comfortable with. This book champions no slogans or caucuses, and it is this pointed lack of advocacy is what makes Snow such a fine and subtle novel that should be heard above the polemical din that defines our times.

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