Ronan Bennett’s clumsy tirade against Martin Amis in G2 on Monday will not have been a complete waste of space if it allows us to revisit the words “discriminate” or “discrimination”. In a public quarrel that originated between two professors of English (Amis and Terry Eagleton) it ought not to be necessary to remind people that these terms are, at root, complimentary. To have a discriminating palate, for example, is to enjoy good taste. I have argued for years that the concept is absurd when applied to racists. “Discrimination” is something that they just can’t manage. Indeed, it is the very thing of all things that they cannot, by definition, manage. A racist is a racist precisely because he can’t distinguish between a Jew and another Jew, or an Asian or West Indian or Chechen. The “out” groups are all made up of generalised amalgams and there can be no exceptions.
Thus to accuse Martin Amis of being a racist is to say that he can’t tell the difference between, say, one Irishman and another. Now, a moment’s thought on the part of his worst enemy would reveal that accusation to be silly and vicious, and baseless on its face. I am not writing as Amis’s worst enemy. In fact, I am writing as a friend who also took issue with what he said, in unscripted conversation with a Times reporter, a short while after the ghastly assault by Muslim fanatics on our public transport system. (By the way, yes, I do think that the word “fanatic” requires that prefix in this case.) I wrote my article last autumn and it was published in the Manhattan City Journal last January, so Mr Bennett need not congratulate himself so warmly on being the only one apart from Eagleton with the nerve to raise the issue.
I grouped what Amis had said with two other statements that had been made by people I know less well. Jack Straw, a humane old social democrat from way back and a stern foe of racism, had said that he preferred his female constituents to be unveiled when they came to see him. Sam Harris, a Jewish warrior against theocracy and bigotry of all stripes, had written that it was often fascists who made the most sense when talking about immigration to Europe. The last statement had truly shocked me in the way that the Amis and Straw remarks had not, and I was therefore writing about the way in which the battle over Islamism was making good people wonder aloud about saying or thinking unpleasant or ungenerous things.
This is exactly the bull that Amis was taking by the horns. You don’t have to know him, or for that matter to be an expert on Jonathan Swift, to see that the harshness Amis was canvassing was not in the least a recommendation, but rather an experiment in the limits of permissible thought. As he once wrote in another connection: “What am I to do with thoughts like these?” In that celebrated essay, he was rehearsing the idea of killing his wife and children to spare them the horror of a nuclear groundburst. Critics as literal-minded as Eagleton and Bennett would no doubt detect, in this, a buried and lurid fantasy of murder and infanticide. (By the way, when it comes to Eagletonian literal-mindedness, I have no bitterness because I am, of this infinite resource, an unintended beneficiary. In the same essay that initially attacked Amis, Eagleton also slammed me for disappointing him and not, after all, becoming the George Orwell of my generation. I have instead, he snorts, become the Evelyn Waugh! How is one to come to grips with a man so crude in his sneers that his idea of an insult is to compare me to one of the greatest novelists of the past century?)
Failing entirely to “discriminate”, Bennett places criticism of Islamism on all fours with anti-semitism, hostility to the Irish, and to other xenophobic moments in our past. And yes, of course, we remember those bombs that the Jewish refugees from Russian czarism placed in our streets. We remember how (before they became good old assimilated types) they ululated praise for suicide from their synagogues, demanded the segregation of the sexes, insisted on special prayer-rooms at work, exemptions from certain laws and on the censorship of newspapers that didn’t “respect” Judaism. One would have to have a capacity for fantasy of something like that order to believe in the Ronan Bennett universe of modern persecution where “those who point to the illegality of Israeli occupation are anti-semites. Those who protest against the war in Iraq are al-Qaida sympathisers and moral relativists.” In which known world is that happening?
On the other hand, the world where honour killings and forced marriages happen is real, and so is the world in which mosques are distributing cassettes and DVDs calling for the murder of Jews and Hindus. (So much for precious multiculturalism.) The world where one holy book is sovereign, and only to be understood as written in one exclusive tongue. The world where djinns and devils are real, and where women are unclean and homosexuals are unspeakable, where novelists can be sentenced to death and where bombs can be left to slaughter the sort of “slags” who might go clubbing in London. And the damage that those bombs were designed to inflict was … indiscriminate.
This is not the only manner in which Bennett gives himself away. He refers to the “Muslim dead from Iraq to Afghanistan” and conscripts them for what he imagines is his side. How dare he? Has he even begun to tot up the number of Muslims murdered by the Taliban? Or the total slaughtered in Iraq since al-Qaida began its campaign to level the Shi’a mosques? Does he think that the forces of the Northern Alliance, or the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, who fight on “our” side against barbarism, are somehow inauthentic Muslims because they prefer Bush and Blair to Mullah Omar or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi? Something in his tone makes me suspect that this may well be his problem, just as I might have preferred him to mention that it was also the Provisional IRA, and not just the 1974 Prevention of Terrorism Act, that left “the Irish community in Britain feeling like a suspect nation”.
Bennett may have the ghost of a point when he insists on a sharper distinction between Islam and “Islamism” but if he wants more discrimination here he must learn not to muddy the same waters himself. Does he think Muslims are a “race”, or not, and if not, how can he trade down from the already vague and dubious word “Islamophobia” to the toxic accusation of “racism” itself?
I have criticised both Mark Steyn and Oriana Fallaci for writing too obsessively about demography when it comes to Muslim immigration. But whenever I criticise any reactionary religious practice, I am at once accused myself of “insulting a billion Muslims”. And it’s not hard to find Islamist websites that boast of a demographic conquest to come, for the votaries of the prophet. So, which is it to be? Who is supposed to dissociate what, and from whom? This is going to take all our cultural and political intelligence and, indeed, our “sensitivity”. But I’m afraid the faithful will have to get used to the idea that I, too, can be “offended” and that I, too, have deep and unalterable convictions. And it is much worse than pointless, in the face of genuine worry about the spread of real bigotry and awful violence, to try to pin the accusation of prejudice on those who are honestly attempting to ventilate the question, and to clarify it.