Troy Jollimore on Martin Amis’ ‘The Second Plane’
Posted on Apr 24, 2008
These days, the attempt is frequently based on a “partners in crime” approach. When one of the participants in a public discussion points out that the Quran does, in fact, contain passages which at least apparently condone violence against non-Muslims and other barbarities, it is almost certain that someone will respond with, “Ah, but so does the Bible.” So a passage in which Allah calls for the mass slaughter of non-Muslims is juxtaposed with, say, Deuteronomy 20:17. (“But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee.”) It is thus supposed to be established that we, as members of a culture shaped by Christianity, are in no position to criticize the Quran for whatever injunctions to violence it might contain.
The popularity of this strategy is both perplexing and appalling. Why is the comparison supposed to carry any weight at all? Why, that is, are we to assume that when someone is criticizing the Quran, he or she is doing it from a Biblical perspective? Why can’t we reject both? Amis would reply that we can, and should—indeed, we can and should—reject them all: “Since it is no longer permissible to disparage any single faith or creed, let us start disparaging all of them. To be clear: an ideology is a belief system with an inadequate basis in reality; a religion is a belief system with no basis in reality whatever. Religious belief is without reason and without dignity, and its record is near-universally dreadful. It is straightforward—and never mind, for now, about plagues and famines: if God existed, and if he cared for humankind, he would never have given us religion.”
This hostility toward religion will displease both moderates and extremists. Amis might seem more tolerant elsewhere, when he draws the distinction between fear of Islam, and fear of Islamism: “I was once asked: ‘Are you an Islamophobe?’ And the answer is no. What I am is an Islamismophobe, or better say an anti-Islamist, because a phobia is an irrational fear, and it is not irrational to fear something that says it wants to kill you.”
But this need not—and, in Amis’ case, does not—imply a tolerance toward moderate religion in the philosophical or emotional sense. To say that we should not fear moderate religion is not to say that we should admire or embrace it. Nor does either amount to a claim about whether moderate faith should be legally or politically tolerated. Nowhere in “The Second Plane” is it suggested that anyone ought to be denied the right to believe and practice Islam, or any other faith. It is perfectly consistent to claim that “[t]oday, in the West, there are no good excuses for religious belief—unless we think that ignorance, reaction, and sentimentality are good excuses,” while allowing that people have the right to act in ways for which they have no good excuse, so long as they do not infringe other people’s rights in the process.
Amis is, moreover, perfectly on target when he decries the current tendency to identify moderate religion as the mainstream, and to treat skepticism and, in particular, atheism as kinds of extremism—mirror images, as it were, of religious fundamentalism: “In this general view, fundamentalists are on one wing, atheists are on the other, and the supposed center is occupied by moderate believers and a few laconic agnostics. Secular fanaticism, secular hatred—these equivalencies are fictions. ... The key point, of course, is that secularism contains no warrant for action. One can afford to be crude about this. When Islamists crash passenger planes into buildings, or hack off the heads of hostages, they shout, ‘God is great!’ When secularists do that kind of thing, what do they shout?”
This is, indeed, somewhat crude, but it is, perhaps, refreshingly crude: There is a truth here that is too infrequently expressed. (One can’t help but wish, though, that Amis had mentioned the second key difference, which is that the standard skeptic, unlike the typical religious believer, is able to say what evidence it would take to make her change her beliefs.)
Amis’ comments in a 2006 interview with The Times of London were cruder still, and less defensibly so. There, he seemed to suggest open discrimination against Muslims and “people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan”—measures including travel restrictions and, potentially, deportation—in order to encourage the community to crack down on its more violent members. Amis has since distanced himself from these remarks, claiming that he was not making a serious policy suggestion but simply “conversationally describing an urge—an urge that soon wore off.”
One might well hesitate to let him off quite so easily: The remarks really were not only, as he himself now admits, “stupid,” but deeply offensive. (Such overtly discriminatory policies have something important in common with terrorism: They violate the rule that the innocent are not to be punished for the crimes of others.) On the other hand, the price of engaging in moral thought in a serious way—rather than simply standing on the sidelines and muttering platitudes about the goodness of peace and tolerance—is that one will on occasion give offense, including legitimate offense; and the only way to guarantee that one never hits the wrong target is to avoid taking any sort of stand at all. This is clearly a price Martin Amis is not willing to pay. In response, his intellectual opponents have attempted to dismiss his criticisms of militant Islamism as nothing more than intolerant expressions of right-wing prejudice. But this charge is badly overinflated. If Amis’ writings are intolerant, then it is intolerance of an admirable sort—the attitude that refuses to tolerate the oppression of, and the infliction of violence on, women, nonbelievers and others. Jihadism, as Amis recently told Rachel Donadio of The New York Times, is “racist, homophobic, totalitarian, genocidal, inquisitorial and imperialistic. Surely there should be no difficulty in announcing one’s hostility to that, but there is.”
Troy Jollimore is Associate Professor in the philosophy department at California State University, Chico. His reviews and essays have appeared in venues including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Book Review and St. Louis Magazine. His first book of poetry,“Tom Thomson in Purgatory,” won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2006.
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