Monday, March 24, 2008

Anti-Islamism

The words "anti-fascism" and "anti-semitism" are subtly different in their grammar. An anti-fascist is against an ideology while an anti-semite is against a group of people. That is, the suffix "ism" in the two cases has a different significance. In the case of anti-fascism it is attached before the prefix "anti", so that it is part of what is being countered. In the case of anti-semitism the suffix is attached after the prefix. It is anti-(fascism) but (anti-semite)ism. Anti-semitism is itself an ideology, while anti-fascism is the stance against a particular ideology.

The grammar of "anti-Islamism", as far as I can tell, is more like that of "anti-fascism" than "anti-semitism". At least when used by anti-Islamists, themselves. Last week, I encountered two very different examples, which got me thinking about this political stance. (I think anti-Islamism will, for obvious reasons, be as characteristic of the twenty-first century as anti-semitism and/or anti-fascism are of the twentieth.)

I found the first example in Granta 100. It includes a fragment of an "abandoned" story by Martin Amis called "The Unknown Known". In his note to this story, Amis says that "Islamism is a total system, and like all such it is eerily amenable to satire" (163). The fragment is a first-person account of an outrageous terror plot intended to out-9/11 9/11. Here's an example of its satire (the protagonist is describing how he felt when he lived in Greely, Colorado):

A thousand times a day I would whisper it ('But her father...her brothers...'), every time I saw a luminously bronzed poitrine, the outline of underwear on a tightly packaged rump, a thin skirt rendered transparent by a low sun, a pair of nipples starkly staring through a pullover, a white bra strap contending with a murky armpit, a stocking top arresting the architecture of an upper thigh, or the very crux of a woman sliced in two by a wedge of denim or dungaree. They strolled in swirly print dresses across the Walkway, indifferent to the fact that anyone standing below, in the thicket of nettles and poision ivy, could see the full scissoring of their legs and their shamelessly brief underpants. And when, in all weathers, I took a late walk along the back gardens, the casual use of a buttress or a drainpipe would soon confront me with the sight of a woman quite openly undressing for bed. (160-1)

The satirical element here lies not just in the style of the description but the way it becomes obvious that the narrator's offence at the "shamelessness" of American women is connected to his own lack of respect for their privacy. Thus, the serious cultural difference between Muslim modesty and American promiscuity is not analyzed but simply played out from the perspective of the latter, and obviously at the expense of the former. Modesty in dress (at least when founded in the Muslim experience) is presented as silly (and ultimately perverse), while suggestiveness in dress is presented as wholly innocent (and innocently wholesome).

The second example can be found in Ursula K. Le Guin's recent piece in Harper's (Feb 2008). Le Guin uses "Muslim" attitudes to women in passing (her essay is about something completely different), characterizing it in the arguably standard manner, namely, as medieval:

In the Dark Ages, a Christian priest could read at least a little, but most laymen didn't, and many women couldn't—not only didn't but couldn't: reading was considered an inappropriate activity for women, as in some Muslim societies today.

Islamism (the "total system" that Amis is against) is related to, but not identical with, Muslim beliefs about the proper relations between men and women. Amis also satirizes polygamy, it should be noted. But who's the prude now? we might ask. The point here is that there are a number of perfectly serious discussions about the role of women in society that are pre-empted by this anti-Islamist rhetoric, a rhetoric that is always in danger of becoming anti-Islamic. It simply depends on where your satire or, as in the case of Le Guin, your standard illustrative example, suggests that Islamism originally goes off the rails.

Too often, it turns out, the anti-Islamist thinks that the problem originates in (emanates from?) the Koran. So we have Geert Wilders denouncing it as "fascist" (Economist, March 22-28, p. 38), for example. When pressed, he would no doubt argue that its role in Islamism (not Islam) illustrates what he means. But his critique, like Amis's satire, and Kurt Westergaard's cartoon, is offensive to a much broader audience. We have to watch developments very carefully if we want to see when this opposition to a total system itself becomes a total system.

5 comments:

Kirby Olson said...

Thomas, what if there is something objectively fascist or evil about a group? Could you address it?

In the Wall Street Journal yesterday they had an article about a moderate Muslim in Italy named Magdi Allam who renounced Islam "and declared himself a Christian."

"I realized that Islam is not compatible with core values such as respect for life and freedom of choice," said Mr. Allam.

Here's a link:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120667020675970743.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

I don't know very much about Islam.

But I find it interesting to think that at least some inside of the religion find it icky.

I wonder if there is any way you'd find it icky, or whether you have a policy of total tolerance toward all religions no matter what they think or do.

Thomas Basbøll said...

I don't think cultural formations as a big as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam can ever have a simple set of objective group characteristics. That's what's disturbing about Le Guin's "some Muslim societies today". Oldfashioned views about women travel under all faiths.

The Amish spring to mind as somewhat oldfashioned about many things in a Christian sort of way. Haredi Judaism would offer another sort of oldfashionedness. I don't know exactly which communities Le Guin means, but there are of course Muslim examples.

I don't know what Mr Allam means by Islam. I just read in the paper today that an scholar at Harvard sees Islam as more amenable to democracy than any other religion. On it goes.

My view is that there are are icky and innocuous corners of all religions. I think perfectly harmless religions are pointless, actually. I go to religion for a serious concept of sin (the notion that one's soul can be lost). And I think Islam's got a lot of good ideas there.

That is, I don't tolerate or object religions as such. I look at particular practices and try to understand them.

Thomas Basbøll said...

So what I mean is that there is really no such thing as a perfetly harmless religion, but there are perferctly harmless applications of religious dogma to the art of the living. And there are perfectly vile applications of the same dogmas. No faith, I suspect, is free of either kind of application.

Thomas Basbøll said...

One more thing. I think fundamental conversions are strange. I can imagine converting from Lutheranism to Catholicism or vice versa as part of one's developing relationship with Christ (if you will). But I'd be very surprised if there is not an interpretation of Christianity that comes close enough in practice to whatever I might get out of becoming a Muslim qua "respect for life and freedom".

Kirby Olson said...

The article mentioned that Magdi Allam had been "educated in a Catholic school run by Italian nuns" in Cairo.

So perhaps this was not a wholesale leap for him from one faith to another.

Although we have a lot of those in the US: particularly Jewish and Christian to Buddhist. But in those cases the person generally lights an incense candle now and then and says om.

They don't really join a Buddhist temple society, and truly take part in it.

A lot of Hollywood types fascinated by Buddhism. But it's a pretty thin veneer which basically means they think the DL is kind of cool.

I think he's kind of cool, too.