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Martin Amis's Iran fantasia

Amis's understanding of Iran is shallow and his take on Islamism superficial. Is this the best
western liberalism has to offer?

Abbas Barzegar

21 July 2009

Some 20-odd years ago, not out of any sense of patriotism or self-defence, young Iranians with
bombs strapped to them dived under advancing Iraqi tanks. Khomeini promised them a few dozen
virgins you see. Now, as Martin Amis tells us today, that evil genius's followers, hungrier than ever,
are combining apocalyptic zeal with advanced nuclear engineering to usher in the Messiah,
destroy western civilisation, and kill every remaining Iranian who isn't a mullah or mindless fanatic.
The myth that madness has motivated Muslims throughout 1,400 years of history and continues to
drive political Islam today is a pretty old one, and I must say it is getting rather boring, so it's
especially hard to understand how a figure as prolific as Martin Amis can still make a good living
out of it. Nonetheless, it seems that Amis is again ready to wear the fashionable Islam expert hat,
this time gracing us with his profound insights on Iran, which even if dead wrong are at least
momentarily entertaining.
Amis obviously shouldn't take up political forecasting as a second career. Consider his phrase "
what we seem to be witnessing in Iran is the first spasm of the death agony of the Islamic
Republic." But haven't we had this "first spasm" before? When the Mujahideen-e Khalq blew up
the offices of the Islamic Republican party taking out the entirety of Khomeini's vanguard? Or when
the old fellow finally died? Or the student protests in 1999? No, really, this is it. Rafsanjani is
leading prayers alongside Mousavi
it will all be over soon.
Amis makes the same mistake as countless others have done about the nature of the mysterious
Mousavi: "Had Mousavi won, Obama would have rewarded Iran." Is that the same Mousavi who
before the election answered "the west should stop asking for the impossible" in response to a
question about halting Iran's nuclear energy programme? The same Mousavi whose website's
header boasts a portrait of Khomeini and whose every communiqué calls for a reclamation of the
Islamic revolution?
Amis's historical naivete is also noteworthy: "The 1979 revolution wasn't an Islamic revolution until
it was over
it was a full-spectrum mass movement, an avalanche of demonstrations and riots."
True, but it is rather curious, then, that decades of communist and nationalist resistance, not to
mention the thousands abducted and murdered by the Shah's secret police only drew out the
masses after the megalomaniac sent his forces to the dusty city of Qom to beat up a few kids at a
religious school and then kicked an old cleric out of the country.
Among the more sinister schemes in Amis's essay is his narrative history of the soul of "one of the
most venerable civilisations on earth
divided between Xerxes and Muhammad." Nothing could
sound worse than an English writer in the 21st century defining the essence of a foreign people in
this monolithic way. With the same impulse for reduction and sheer negligence he manages to
completely mistake Khomeini's participation in a centuries-old Sufi poetic tradition that analogises
spiritual ecstasy with material intoxication for some kind of repressed Persian angst. Even my own
undergraduate students don't make that mistake.
But more troubling than the follies of a novelist turned pundit is that Amis's hyperbole represents
the sad way in which the liberal intellectual tradition reacts to the challenge of a viable alternative
to its secular humanist hegemony. In that vein, Amis's comments on Iran must be seen as part of a
growing intellectual reaction that in the face of decades of rising Muslim political power seems
capable only of producing stomach-churning multicultural apologists or Islamophobic ideologues.
Finding the real explanations to the events in Iran and the rest of the Muslim world, where politicalreligious
experiments unfold in dozens of contexts daily, requires first interrogating our own myths
and superstitions. Reason, democracy, independent thinking, and human rights
universals or complex socio-historical constructions? Only then one might proceed to understand
the ways in which secularism and religion, reason and insanity, modernity and Islam have all been
partners locked in step on the road to the present day. There is no mystery as to why secular
fundamentalists like Amis look at Islamism through the lens of the Protestant reformation
sight of a religiously-inspired alternative to secular materialism would make a mockery of the last
few hundred years of European history.
Any attempt at getting it right would also require recognising that Muslim projects in Islamism are
being carried out not by medieval zombies turned contemporary robots but by real, breathing
people who happen to be motivated by the same feelings of fear, dignity, rage, and hope that stir the rest of humanity. I, perhaps naively, ask at least this minimum from anyone in a position of
influence who wants to talk seriously about the Islam and the Muslim world.
So, the that Amis has moved from revered novelist to Geert Wilders wannabe, shares the paranoid
alarmism of Netanyahu and his foreign minister and is one of many suppliers of the discursive
fodder needed to nourish 21st century Euro-American imperialism is not the truly disturbing issue
here. Nor is the fact that Amis has given us nothing more than false consciousness with which to
understand the truly frightening world around us. More troublesome is that at this profound
juncture in human history, one of liberalism's greatest sons can do no better than to respond in this
fearful, superficial way. ... 9/jul/17/iran-martin-amis

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