Category Archives: Bookish Pursuits

Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist: A Review

The Reluctant FundamentalistMohsin Hamid‘s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (London: Penguin, 2007) is a little gem of a novel. It is the story of Changez, a Pakistani from an old Lahori family fallen on genteel poverty, who goes to America to get a good education and make money. It is a tale of enchantment followed by disenchantment. Changez wins a scholarship to Princeton, is a straight-A student and goes right into a top valuation firm, Underwood Samson, earning $80,000 a year. By “focusing on the fundamentals”, the firm’s motto, Changez helps to value companies prior to sale for asset stripping or downsizing. At the sharp end of the market, he is to embody “change”, to be a mujahid for global capital, and not to succumb to “nostalgia”, or to be overly-concerned by the resentful looks of workers who know they are about to be sacked. He is not without compunctions on this score, but hides this well, both from others and himself, and is complimented on being a “shark”, an outsider from a shabby-genteel background who will always be hungry to prove himself. While at Princeton he meets and is captivated by the magnetic but guileless Erica, the daughter of a wealthy investment banker, who secures his entry into New York’s high society.

All, then, seems well until 9/11 when Changez’s new world begins to crumble. He is somehow “remarkably pleased” by the attacks. At the Paki-Punjab Deli, a tiny home away from home, the taxi-drivers talk in quiet voices of friends being beaten up or disappearing, of the bombing of Afghanistan. Changez scours the internet for news of India’s potentially nuclear stand-off with Pakistan after the bombing of its Parliament by Kashmiri separatists. While working in Manila, a look of “undisguised hostility” from a Filipino unnerves him as he glides by in his limousine: should he identify with the downtrodden Filipino or be content with his new-found status as a “Master of the Universe”, as Tom Wolfe dubbed the species? His relationship with Erica becomes stillborn, as she succumbs to her “nostalgia”, her loss and grief for a deceased childhood sweetheart, Chris. Changez can only connect with Erica, break into her intense reverie of love, if he play-acts being Chris, literally becoming not-himself.

Changez’s moment of realisation comes during a business trip to Chile. Juan-Bautista, the book-loving director of the troubled printing firm he is assessing, somehow discerns this discontent in Changez, and poses to him a question that he cannot answer:

“I have been observing you, and I think it is no exaggeration to say, young man, that you seem upset. May I ask you a rather personal question?” “Certainly,” I said. “Does it trouble you,” he inquired, “to make your living by disrupting the lives of others?” “We just value,” I replied. “We do not decide whether to buy or to sell, or indeed what happens to a company after we have valued it.” He nodded; he lit a cigarette and took a sip from his glass of wine. Then he asked, “Have you heard of the janissaries?” “No,” I said. “They were Christian boys,” he explained, “captured by the Ottomans and trained to be soldiers in a Muslim army, at that time the greatest army in the world. They were ferocious and utterly loyal: they had fought to erase their own civilisation, so they had nothing else to turn to.”

He tipped the ash of his cigarette onto a plate. “How old were you when you went to America?” he asked. “I went for college,” I said. “I was eighteen.” “Ah, much older,” he said. “The janissaries were always taken in childhood. It would have been far more difficult to devote themselves to their adopted empire, you see, if they had memories they could not forget.” He smiled and speculated no more on the subject.

Changez’s response is to return to New York immediately: he can no longer be “a modern-day janissary”, “a servant of the American empire at a time it was invading a country with a kinship to mine”. With his newly-grown beard a source of suspicion, he is fired by Underwood Samson and is escorted from the premises by security guards. He also finds out that Erica, committed to a private retreat on the banks of the Hudson river, has drowned herself. With his work visa expired, Changez returns to Pakistan, determined to do his part to stop America “in the interests not only of the rest of humanity, but also in your own”. He leaves his jacket at a kerbside in memory of Erica, who had left her clothes at the riverside before drowning herself.

What is unusual about The Reluctant Fundamentalist is that the entire setting of the novel consists of two strangers, two men, a Pakistani, Changez, and an unnamed American, meeting together at a bazaar restaurant in Lahore one evening. The whole novel is told in Changez’s voice, relating his tale to an American, whose voice we never hear, a telling inversion of normal relations.

Changez’s story is continually interrupted by the American, who seems paranoid and even frightened. Changez offers constant reassurances. No, the tea or grilled meats they are eating are not poisoned. No, the waiter does not seem to have a hostile intent towards you. At the same time Changez’s pointed questions to the American reveal that he has some ill-intent in mind. Is that the bulge of a shoulder-holster under your jacket? Don’t the hourly calls on your satellite phone recall Agency practice?

In the novel’s denouement, Changez is revealed as a fanatic, reminiscent, with his mixture of ingenuity, charm and ruthlessness, to the LSE graduate Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who murdered the journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. As Changez walks the American back to his hotel, he relates the final chapter of his story. A lecturer in finance at a local university, he has become the voice of anti-American discontent on campus and helps to mentor and lead student protests. One of his students gets wrapped up in an attempt to murder an American aid worker; a television interview with Changez condemning American imperial violence is flashed around the world. He has become a target, and feels “rather like a Kurtz waiting for his Marlowe”.

The book ends just before the moment of violence. The unnamed American agent is pulling out a gun as Changez and his student supporters (from the restaurant) close in to either kidnap or kill him. As such the book ends on a question mark and offers no conclusions. It works to confirm the clash of civilisations, embattled as it did then seem in 2002 with the neoconservative project yet to realise its full ambition (and limit) in the killing fields of Iraq. Changez’s reluctance to be the janissary of capitalism seems matched by his reluctance to casually dispatch the unnamed American: he must relate his story first and explain why. The potential of resolution only resides in true dialogue, exchange and understanding to build a more equal world, to find a luminous mixture between “change” and “nostalgia”. Instead, here, there is no dialogue: only indifferent empire and nihilistic resistance.


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Farewell, Robert Jordan

It was sad to hear of the passing away of Robert Jordan on 16th September, whose Wheel of Time series was a modern, if flawed, fantasy masterpiece. The series had captured the imagination of a generation, selling some thirty million copies and was translated into twenty languages.

Of course literary critics are usually sniffy about popular literary genres like fantasy or sci-fi, and Jordan’s works were no exception, although, as the Times obituary notes, the Wheel of Time series had even begun to win some of them over:

In fact, the epic sweep, intricate plotting, constructed languages and intelligent character development of Jordan’s work won over many sceptics, and, some would say, helped to imbue his genre with a new respectability.

An epic tale of good and evil, The Wheel of Time was metaphysically interesting in that the chief protagonist was more a Hindu or Buddhist avatar than a messiah figure. The series felt more dualist than monotheist in positing the Devil figure as a powerful and active malevolent force for evil in the world. The series had a complex and rigorous moral framework with real insights into ambition, duty and politics, and, most importantly, into how difficult it can sometimes be to recognise evil if it is disguised as the good. The plot reached a level of complexity that, in trying to get to grips with it, felt like keeping track of current geopolitics, attempting to get one’s head around a thousand factions, each with their own agendas. Jordan completed eleven books in the series, spanning several hundred thousand pages, in which the heroes criss-cross the map, discovering all the peoples and lands of Jordan’s intricate and prodigiously imagined fantasy world. It’s as if Frodo and company had embarked on several quests and not just the one to Mordor. Jordan, who also saw military action in Vietnam, described the epic swordfights and massive battles in the series with the veteran’s unsentimental insight into the complex interplay between fear and courage, self-interest and altruism, and loyalty and betrayal on the battlefield. The series was also notable for having several central heroines in a genre that has generally been male-centred.

I thought there was some influence of Frank Herbert’s Dune series in the Wheel of Time series as the main protagonist in both returns to conquer and renew civilisation through the support of nomadic and uncorrupt desert peoples. It seems highly likely that Herbert drew on Ibn Khaldun‘s famous theory of civilisational renewal to provide the philosophical and architectural underpnnings to the Dune series. For Jordan’s Aiel read Herbert’s Freman; for Herbert’s Freman read Ibn Khaldun’s Bedouin. (A hint is a reference to Ibn Khaldun’s Kitab al-Ibar in Dune, a history that he wrote, which is used to refer to a moral and survivalist handbook used by the Fremen.) Both Jordan and Herbert also portray the medieval Catholic Church as power-hungry and manipulative: Herbert with his matriarchal spin on the Papacy in the form of the Bene Gesserit and Jordan with his take on the Inquisition in the form of the Children of the Light.

The Wheel of Time was well sustained in the first half of the series but began to loose its intensity and focus with the sixth novel, becoming overly drawn out, meandering and wordy in the second half. Still, many readers persevered because the series retained an epic momentum that kept them wanting to see it through to the end.

At the age of 58, Jordan was struck down by coronary complications caused by a rare blood disease, amyloidosis. In his last year he had attempted to finish the final and twelfth installment, A Memory of Light, and he wrote with dignity, humour and determination online about his struggle to overcome his condition. No doubt he will be missed by his millions of readers.

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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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Wisdom and the Universal Library

Would it be feasible to imagine a convincing universal library, one that contained not only every book in existence, but every possible book? Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), the Argentinian writer famous for exploring philosophical conundrums through short stories and fictive essays, once did so in his parable “The Library of Babel” (1941). Well before the age of the internet, Borges, once the director of the National Library of Argentina, “imagined paradise as a kind of library”, a yearning that is reflected in this story.

Borges’ library is eternal and infinite in size, composed of hexagonal rooms, each one housing the necessities of human survival and 640 books arranged on 20 shelves in a completely random order. The books contain all possible combinations of a full stop (N. Amer., ‘period’), a comma, the space and twenty-two letters of the alphabet. Much of the library is gibberish, or perhaps the gibberish is some secret unfathomable language. But at the same time, for the human-librarians whose existence is defined by the library, the hope persists that amidst all the gibberish:

Everything is there: the minute history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalogue of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, a demonstration of the fallacy of these catalogues, a demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary of this gospel, the commentary on the commentary of this gospel, the veridical account of your death, a version of each book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books. [1]

With the discovery of this proposition, orthodoxies and heresies appear among the librarians. Some go in search of the future inscribed in the library. But hope wanes in the infinitude of the library and some argue that searches be given up in favour of the random shuffling of letters and words to produce canonical works by chance. Others think the priority is to destroy useless books (a futile gesture as countless imperfect facsimiles exist that differ by only one character). One persistent hope is the discovery of a book that is the key to all other books, the perfect compendium, housed in a crimson hexagon, which must exist as it is possible that it exist in the universal library.

It seems that six decades after Borges imagined the universal library and futility of discovering the perfect key that would order all human knowledge, the technology to so inventorise this prodigious legacy of human thought and speculation has arrived.

Currently no one knows how many books there are in the world. WorldCat, the largest catalogue, has 32 million titles from more than 25,000 libraries around the world. But the race is now on to digitize texts and to make keyword searches of this ever-expanding digital library available online. Several projects are already underway, one of the largest being Carnegie Mellon University, which has already scanned one and half million books. However, the clear front-runner, at present, is Google, which aims at the very least to scan a number of book-texts equivalent to WorldCat within the next ten years. The scale of this ambition fits Google’s corporate mission “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, and Google Books is regarded by the company as “Google’s moon shot”. [2] The obvious motive for such a huge undertaking is set out by Google’s vice-president, Marissa Mayer:

Google has become known for providing access to all of the world’s knowledge, and if we provide access to books we are going to get much higher-quality and much more reliable information. We are moving up the food chain. [3]

So the technology is available, and, in the grander scheme of things, this looks like a hugely exciting and worthwhile prospect, but one that may stumble not for technical but for legal reasons around copyright. With respect to copyright, there are broadly three categories of books:

(1) Twenty per cent of all books are in the public domain: they have either passed out of copyright or were never originally copyrighted.
(2) Ten per cent of all books are copyrighted and in print.
(3) Seventy per cent of all books are copyrighted, or have an unclear copyright status, and are out of print.

Category One presents no legal problems whatsoever, and Google has agreements with major universities and public libraries to digitize this with the quid pro quo of providing the digital archiving and preservation of their back catalogue for them. Category Two has been the subject of commercial agreements between Google (or Amazon for instance) and its publisher partners to provide another form of searchable advertising for the 175,000 or so books that are published every year, from which Google does get advertising revenue. Publishers understand too that browsing online leads to buying if surfers find a book in print on a topic they are interested in. Usually on Google Books, the title page, contents, index and part or all of the introductory chapter are displayed in full, while the rest of the book is word searchable.

The real problem lies with Category Three, which has become the subject of an ongoing legal dispute in the United States between Google and some its partner publishers. The publishers argue that Google has infringed copyright by scanning in the entire texts of books within Category Three. Google’s counter-argument is that the company only makes “snippets” available, lawful under fair usage rights available to all researchers, that are the product of a keyword search. Thus web research is analogous, in Google’s eyes, to book research. Searchability of texts is not the same as making entire texts available. (And it should be noted that Google does not put advertising on search pages for books from Categories One and Three, which it has obtained from libraries and not from publishers.) The stately progress of the federal legal process means, however, that this case might not be heard until early 2008, thereby increasing the chance of an out-of-court settlement. It is to be hoped that whether the outcome emerges from a settlement or from a courtroom verdict, it is one that favours access to learning over profit.

So if the gamut of human bookish learning does eventually become available online, what would Borges have made of it all? Besides the delights of instant searchability, cutting out the drudgery of wading through the dross, Borges would perhaps have thought that the key to human understanding lay not within the perfect compendium but in the hermeneutical relationship between the reader and the text.

A sheikh once recalled that when he used to visit the home of his teacher, they would meet in his voluminous library. In his early student days, the sheikh hoped to find a book that would be the key to unlocking all the others. The teacher reminded him that it was, of course, a dialogical process, that if we read books that change us, then we see new meanings and attain deeper levels of understanding in what we read (even from books we have read before). In other words, the perfect compendium lies not within a universal library but within the wisdom of the human subject, illuminated by an integration of learning, reflection, experience and imagination. To express it as a counterfactual, books read us differently as we go through a process of transformation.


[1] Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel”, Fictions, trans. by Anthony Kerrigan (London, 1991 [1965]), 72-80, quote at 75-76.
[2] Jeffrey Toobin, “Google’s Moon Shot”, New Yorker, 5 February 2007, available online at
[3] Ibid.

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British Emigration and the Muslim Question

The effects of globalisation show very clearly how nationalism and the free flow of capital work against each other. Nations seek to maintain their border controls; the deregulated global economy (deregulation starting with currency exchange in the early 1970s) is breaking down borders, as the flows of capital, people and ideas increase. With respect to the movement of people at least, the politics, predictably, focuses on immigrants, but less so on emigrants. While the release of inward migration figures usually sparks heated debate, an important new report on outward migration by the Institute of Public Policy Research, [1] gets presented instead as a slightly jocular item further down the television news agenda.

The figures produced by the report are quite staggering:

Between 1966-2005, some 2.7 million British citizens left the UK (excluding any Britons who came back).

  • Currently 5.5 million British citizens live overseas, or 9.2% of the UK’s population; in other words, more Britons live abroad than do foreign nationals in the UK.
  • Including those who claim British ancestry, the figure rises to 58 million, constituting a diaspora large enough to rival those of the Indians and the Chinese.
  • In order of preference, three-quarters of Britons abroad live in Australia, Spain, the US, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, France, Germany and Cyprus, and there are populations of over a thousand in another 112 countries.
  • Two-thirds of British migrants are seeking employment opportunities abroad, usually in highly-skilled sectors, and other ‘pull’ factors include re-strengthening family ties, seeking a better quality of life and, for young Britons, seeking adventure abroad.
  • Only 12% left Britain because of a negative ‘push’ factor – i.e. they did not like what Britain was becoming.
  • Another million Britons are expected to migrate in the next ten years.

However, it would also be true to say that besides this picture of increased mobility, there is also a ‘moral panic’ about British emigration, which the great Stanley Cohen has defined as:

A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to became defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible. … [P]ublic concern about a particular condition is generated, a symbolic ‘crusade’ mounted, which with publicity and actions of certain interest groups, results in…moral enterprise [or] ‘the creation of a new fragment of the moral constitution of society.’ [2]

A recent example of this moral crusading comes from the fluent, acerbic pen of the former Conservative Education Minister, George Walden, who spends two hundred pages in Time to Emigrate? (London: Gibson Square, 2006) trying to understand why a fictional son is looking to leave Britain for greener pastures.

What makes this book important is its frank ‘drawing room’ prejudice, to be found in parts of the Right in Britain, which get a regular airing in its preferred dailies and weeklies. He is particularly cutting about the English people’s hypocrisy and cant, and what he sees as their ability to trot out the usual platitudes about Islam and multiculturalism, without saying what they really think. Walden doesn’t seem to like much of England except the South-East, and parts of Manchester and Leeds. Even London has become too diverse to retain its character. The English, with their usual stoic resignation, rather than kicking up a fuss about these sea-changes, he argues, are quietly leaving. The lion no longer roars but is abdicating. All in all, England has become an overly crowded land. The schools, hospitals, transport, the housing market are now overburdened or too expensive. The streets seem more crime-ridden; rudeness and incivility have become common.

A new, middle class generation, caught between the ‘anvil of globalisation and the hammer of Islamism’, to paraphrase Gilles Kepel, look not to vote for the Front Nationale as in France, but to slope off in ever increasing numbers. They can no longer afford the comforts of their parents, and have few real options left to them except perhaps America and France, at a pinch. The hoodies and the asylum-seekers and most migrant communities get very short shrift from Mr Walden, with the exception of the diasporic Indians and Chinese, who are not only to be admired for their industriousness, but feared in their ability to outperform their English counterparts in a merciless global jobs market. Thus the indigenous middle classes will be undercut from below and outperformed at the top by the new migrant groups.

Yet at the heart of this lamentably broad demonstration of prejudices is Walden’s acute obsession with Muslims. They are accorded a special status to explain or exemplify all that is wrong with the country; in other words, for England to become England again she has to be morally reclaimed by defining herself against the Muslim.

Ominious Fertility, or the Demographic Trope: ‘With Muslims it’s bad form to say they have the biggest households in the country, an average of 3.8, because someone will say it’s racist to talk about them breeding like rabbits, even if the rabbit word never entered your mind.’ (45) ‘At this rate of expansion it’s reasonable to wonder how many minarets will be mixed in with the spires in ten years’ time, to the benefit of the skyline perhaps, though not necessarily to the cause of religious toleration. Or how many boarded up churches and pubs there’ll be of the kind I’ve seen in ghettoes in the North?’ (46)

No Sense of Humour, Unlike Us English: ‘You don’t hear many jokes about race or religion, partly because they’re not allowed, mainly because it’s stopped being funny. … Ali G sent up black culture a treat, to the point where everyone was doing the voices, but I doubt he’ll try his hand on Muslims. Imagine if he did, and everyone started going around taking off imams, I don’t think so.’ (56)

Muslim Youth are either Fanatics or Gangstas: ‘People fret about the rigours of Muslim life – compulsory prayers, the segregation of women and girls, the brain-washing side of religious education – and they’re right to worry. But we’ll worry even more when the younger generation makes the break and adapts to British values and customs, because we’ve got a fair suspicion what sort of values they’ll be. … Often they may be the victims of the rigidities of a religious culture which, when it falls apart under Western pressure, leaves anarchy in its wake. Madrassas at ten, drug-dealing at twenty.’ (62-63)

Muslims Tend to Form Ghettoes Naturally: ‘whatever you do there’ll be a tendency for Muslims to end up in sour, alienated crime-ridden ghettoes. … Threat Muslims as Frenchmen and you get ghettoes, unemployment and riots. Treat them as British Muslims with rights to diversity and you get ghettoes, unemployment, and bombings.’ (159-160)

Burqa-Clad Women are either Terrorists or Chattels: ‘When you’re walking in the street and you see a woman in an all-over veil, how do you feel? Your first reaction is probably the same as mine: to censure your thoughts. Tell yourself it would be wrong to feel anything. The sight may not warm your heart, but then that’s their way of life, and who are we to find it primitive and oppressive? The woman obscured from head to toe in black, as if condemned to a lifetime of mourning, is driven by the dictates of her religion, her husband, or her own preferences, insofar as they count, and she has every right to dress as she wants. After all she’s British as yourself, is she not? But it’s all self-deception isn’t it? The truth is that the sight of the woman spooks you. Don’t feel ashamed: it has nothing to do with racial prejudice, because when you see an Ibo woman in her glory you feel exactly the reverse: she’s giving Britain a touch of colour, which women who cover themselves in shrouds do not exactly do. And if the veiled woman makes for the Tube, and you find yourself sitting opposite, it might cross your mind that … [she’s] a female martyr in the making…You smile to yourself, uneasily. Well they’ve certainly made us paranoid, to the point where here you are thinking that every burqa hides a bomb. … On the third hand the very fact of the veil tells you something about where her ultimate allegiance lies, and it may not be to Britain.’ (160-161)

Muslim Politics is Irrational: ‘One of the things that worried you about Muslims, I remember you saying, was that so many of the representatives they put up in TV and radio debates were unable to talk about politics in a rational way. In a sense there’s no reason why they should. Islamic doctrine embraces the whole of life – the religious and administrative, the spiritual and the everyday, the emotional and the factual. There’s no separate sphere in which politics can be discussed, so there’s a limit to how much sense you can expect from uncompromising believers. The hope that we’re winning hearts and minds through education, and that strange-sounding process, “acculturation”, is illusory if the hearts are hardened by atavistic resentments and the minds are addled by fanatical religion.’ (116)

There is No Political Analogy, or the Clash of Civilisations: ‘The threat from the IRA was ultimately political. That from Islamist terrorism is civilisational. … It’s up to politicians to play mood music in a crisis, and up to the people to understand that there’s little else governments can do. The last thing they can say is that we face a threat to which we can see no end because it’s based on a fundamental clash of cultures. On the IRA we told the truth; on the Islamic problem, we lie. That itself is a terrorist victory.’ (120) ‘What is there to restrain Islamic terrorists? Where is the disincentive that would prevent them from attacking? And if Al Qaeda struck, what would we strike back at? In the Cold War disarmament talks were permanent and failsafe procedures were in place. How do you negotiate with Al Qaeda? Where is the hot line to Osama bin Laden, and what exactly would the British Prime Minister or the American President say if they got through? And how would Osama, speaking from the Dark Ages, respond? Looking at where we stand today deterrence based on Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) begins to seem rather less crazy than once it did. Who would have thought we might one day be nostalgic for the Soviet Poliburo, with their homburgs and their granite faces?’ (182)

Muslims are Not Truly ‘Moderate’: ‘so we know where the fundamentalists stand, where the genuine moderates stand, and where we stand. Where the “moderates” stand we can never be sure. Which in an odd way makes the “moderates” the greater menace, especially among the Muslim new elites. By this I mean the sons and daughters of wealthy immigrants who use their social and ethnic advantages to get themselves over-promoted, then take a fashionably indulgent view of terrorism. […] The “moderates” are tardy and ambiguous in any condemnations of terrorism that are wrung out of them, though quick enough on the draw when it comes to playing the moral equivalence card, whereby a British soldier trying to bring civilised, democratic life to Basra is put on the same level as a religious extremist murdering 52 people on the Tube. Sometime you get the impression that “moderates” are only moderately in favour of democracy, freedom of speech, or women’s rights. So whereas the wild men have every reason to live here–for them it’s the front line–it’s less easy to see why a “moderate” should want to spend his life in a country whose way of life is only moderately satisfactory to him. Unless of course he’s a pretty-looking rich kid playing radical chic games who gets taken up by the Establishment, like Rageh Omaar.’ (121-122)

The So-Called ‘Moderates’ have been Appeased and Require Rather Stiffer Treatment: ‘What got [Salman Rushdie’s]…goat was that when Muslims were calling for his murder in 1989 Iqbal Sacranie, until recently the head of the Muslim Council of Britain, had said that “Death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him.” Since then Sacranie has been knighted to keep the Government sweet with the community, something which can’t have improved Rushdie’s mood. I suppose you would feel narked if you were him, seeing Her Majesty tapping Sacranie on the shoulder, rather than running him through as punishment for threatening her subjects. It must be the first time the monarch has ennobled a man who speaks in this manner—an illustration of the way the Muslim question is deforming the way we think and live.’ (209)

The Tiresomeness of Reforming Muslims: ‘So much for politics. Though if you stay conventional politics could become increasingly overshadowed by race and religion…. Next to the security risks the worst thing is the boredom factor. … We know for an absolute certainty the form the soul-curdling debate about Islamic extremism will take, and how it will invade our lives. Think of the…time…that will be devoted for decades to come to containing the repercussions of a virtually uncontrolled influx of people we have no room to accommodate and little cultural ability to absorb. Think of the tensions, the misguided passions, the evasions, the poisoned feelings, the hatreds and bitterness and hypocrisy and mendacity all this will occasion.’ (155)

The Equally Tiresome Appreciation of Second-Rate Muslim Culture: ‘You see it [appeasement] in art. We’ve been to a couple of Islamic shows in the last year, both of which were so-so; enlightening if you don’t know much about it, with moments of brilliance, but seen over a long historical period, by any international measure, not outstanding. How could they be, when religion has so fettered the Muslim artistic imagination by forbidding depictions of the nature, sensual world? I see the attractions of calligraphy and abstract geometrical forms in carpets, poetry, architecture and so on, but have difficulty with the notion pushed at me by race-conscious critics that this is the equivalent of the Renaissance, the neo-classical school, the Romantics and Impressionists and modernists and the rest, and that far from being in any sort of decline over the last centuries, Islamic creativity has continued in full flood. Of course we have to show respect for Islamic culture, and I can see the point of making that respect doubly clear today. But when you start exaggerating the value of art forms in the hope of lessening the chances of getting yourself blown up, it’s not a great day for intellectual freedom is it?’ (211)

There is a rhetorical nod to the good Muslim, although always as a matter of potentiality:

‘Maybe the experience of living in a tolerant society will weaken the power of extremists quicker than we think and hasten a belated reformation of Islam. Perhaps we’ve seen the worst of the terror attacks, and the police will get a grip on criminality. And Muslims could inject a dose of moral seriousness, family values and spiritual depth into a cynically irreligious, hedonistic culture. … The more successful they [Muslims] become the less prickly they will be. In commerce Muslims can be a dynamic force, when they’re not hamstrung by the Islamic prohibition on interest, and ways around this are currently being devised. ’ (75-77)

‘When it’s not stymied by dogma and passivity, Muslims can approach their children’s schooling with a seriousness that has long been out of fashion here.’ (196-197)

‘There is an optimistic scenario in Britain which you have a duty to imagine before you take the leap. It’s this. The political parties settle down to mainstream politics, with less of the posturing and point-scoring of the past. A less adversarial approach open the way to tackling the NHS and education, with gradual but significant improvements in both. The tide of immigration tails off, as British traditions of tolerance prevail. They not only contribute to the economy, they give a huge boost to science, intellectual life, the arts. After a bad start, the Muslim community turns its face against violence and throws up educated, modern-minded and moderate imams. The efforts of black leaders and social programmes gradually bear fruit in turning black youth away from guns and drugs. Meanwhile the country continues to get richer, even if a regrettable percentage is due to a black economy, Italian-style, and we hold off Far Eastern competition. And in the arts, we tire of our bouncy castle culture, become bored to death with the non-shock of the not-all-that-new and grow up.’ (226-227)

To rehash an old phrase, Islamophobia is the conservative nationalism of fools, in other words, a moral panic about ‘the country’ in general, driven primarily by the forces of globalisation, that is projected back as a cultural and political stereotype onto a particular minority community, a mere 3% of the population. The hope is that if the Muslim question is solved then by some magical transference all other ills will somehow get addressed too.

Although this book was only published in October, it is now already in its third edition. Let’s hope it’s more the fag end of a Thatcherite version of neoconservatism than the signal of a new consensus among the cultural elite and the political classes. A recent wide-ranging study of British prejudices (about disabled people, black people, Muslims, people over 70, Gay men and lesbians and women in general) showed that 65% never feel any prejudice against Muslims, 9% don’t mind if they come across as prejudiced about Muslims and that 26% ‘sometimes feel prejudiced [about Muslims] but try not to let it show’. [3] There are comforts in this large majority, but it is also noticeable that of all these groups that experience prejudice, none has a smaller non-prejudicial majority than Muslims, and certainly it seems to me that the space for ‘respectable Islamophobia’ has increased.

The research shows that most people are not prejudiced against each other, and that if Britons leave this country, it is for the usual reasons of finding better opportunity, a motive that seems to transcend all kinds of purported cultural clash. The retreat into an English arcadia (or its Muslim obverse, the more obtuse form of Muslim identity politics) does nothing to work hard to make Britain a shared home, even in these interconnected and complex times. Instead this retreat leaves them at home precisely nowhere — which is no way forward for anyone.


[1] Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah and Catherine Drew, Brits Abroad: Mapping the Scale and Nature of British Emigration (London: Institute of Public Policy Research, 2006).

[2] Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers (St Albans, Herts: Paladin, 1973), 9, 11.

[3] Dominic Abrams & Diane M Houston, Equality,Diversity and Prejudice in Britain: Results from the 2005 National Survey (Report for the Cabinet Office Equalities Review October 2006) (Kent: Centre for the Study of Group Processes, University of Kent, 2006), Figure 17, 54.

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Beyond the language of guns, bombs and development

In a wonderful, lyrical work, In an Antique Land, the novelist-anthropologist Amitav Ghosh charts the story of his fieldwork in the Nile Delta. Calcutta-born and Oxford-educated, Ghosh embarks on two parallel journeys. One records his attempt to ‘understand’ contemporary Egyptian village culture, which he always sees as fumbling, somehow an ‘impossible’ stab at cross-cultural ‘translation’ (an endeavour partly defined by the Oxford school of British social anthropology in which Ghosh was trained, but, as this book indicates, never felt at home in). [1] His second journey goes back in time. Ghosh attempts to unearth the history of Bomma, an eleventh-century Hindu slave of an Egyptian Jewish merchant, Ben Yiju, recorded fragments of whose lives were discovered in the nineteenth century behind an ancient Cairene synagogue. (Synagogues traditionally housed a repository, or geniza, to store any Hebrew-language papers or books out of reverence for the name of God, as in Muslim tradition, before they could be properly disposed of. The Cairo Geniza constitutes one of the richest archives of ordinary medieval life to be found anywhere.) [2]

A confrontation with a local imam during his fieldwork causes Ghosh to reflect upon the changed nature of the relationship between non-Western peoples both before and after European colonialism. Towards the end of their argument, the Egyptian imam and the Indian writer-anthropologist begin to compete in terms of their respective nations’ material and military progress — ‘our bombs and guns are much better than theirs’ — which has become the only common benchmark of value, or shared language, by which they might measure each other. Modern Egyptians and Indians thus speak a truncated language to each other, far removed from the complex nuanced relations Ghosh uncovers between Bomma and his master Ben Yiju nine centuries earlier.

We would probably have stood there a good while longer, the Imam and I: delegates from two superseded civilizations, vying with each other to establish a prior claim to the technology of modern violence.

At that moment, despite the vast gap that lay between us, we understood each other perfectly. We were both travelling, he and I: we were travelling in the West. The only difference was that I had actually been there…but…that was mere fluff: in the end, for millions and millions of people on landmasses around us, the West meant only this — science and tanks and guns and bombs.

…it seemed to me that the Imam and I had participated in our own defeat, in the dissolution of the centuries of dialogue that had linked us: we had demonstrated the irreversible triumph of the language that has usurped all others in which people once discussed their differences. We had acknowledged that it was no longer possible to speak, as Ben Yiju or his Slave, or any one of the thousands of travellers who crossed the Indian Ocean in the Middle Ages might have done: of things that were right, or good, or willed by God: it would have been merely absurd for either of us to use those words, for they belonged to a dismantled rung on the ascending ladder of Development. Instead, to make ourselves understood, we had both resorted…to the very terms that world leaders and statesmen use at great, global conferences, the universal irresistible metaphysic of modern meaning; he had said to me, in effect: ‘You ought not to do what you do, because otherwise you will not have guns and tanks and bombs.’ It was the only language we had been able to discover in common. [3]

If today we live in times where the language of tanks and guns and bombs predominates, of immense off-screen collateral damage and mega-death horror media events (as one sheikh has described them), we would do well to still resist the ‘irresistible’ language of Development to sing quieter songs of God, and of what is good and right.

[1] See the chapter ‘The Concept of Cultual Translation in British Social Anthropology’ in Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993), 171-199.
[2] S. D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, 6 vols (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963).
[3] Amitav Ghosh, In an Antique Land (London: Granta, 1998 [1992]), 236-237.

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