The novelist Martin Amis is renowned for his dazzling wordplay and flair for misanthropic satire, but in the eyes of Muslims in Britain and elsewhere he may soon be better known as British literature's pre-eminent Islamophobe.
It was an unhappy circumstance that just as he was taking up his new position as Professor of Creative Writing at Manchester University, Amis became involved in a headline-grabbing spat with the same university's Professor of Cultural Theory, Terry Eagleton, which suggested that, so far from being out of sympathy with Islam, he actually wishes Muslims ill. Writing in the Guardian, the left-wing Eagleton denounced Amis as a racist bigot on the basis of a newspaper interview in which he confessed to an urge to see the Muslim community subjected to official harassment, including arbitrary detention, strip-searching and the curtailment of freedom of movement, until such time as it "gets its house in order". Amis's rejoinder - that Eagleton was quoting remarks made in the heat of the moment following the exposure last summer of the plot to blow up 10 trans-Atlantic commercial jets and that he does not favor any form of harassment - will have been welcomed by all who uphold the necessity of religious and racial tolerance. Nevertheless, his original, much publicized, outburst is bound to have left the impression that this icon of London's literary establishment has no liking for Muslims and believes that many nurse a special propensity to commit acts of terrorism.
Amis is an old friend of the inflammatory Washington-based, British journalist Christopher Hitchens, who is seen by many as a convert to neoconservatism and who this week was reported to have advocated some harsh measures against Muslims. Amis, too, seems to share the neoconservative sense of Islam as an alien and malevolent force. The fact is that in his published utterances about Islam (of which there have been many since Sept. 11, 2001), he has shown scant regard for Muslim sentiments and preoccupations. Seldom, if ever, has he indicated that he is much bothered by the oppression that Palestinian Arabs have endured, and continue to endure, at the hands of Israel, or that he is concerned to understand why the Palestine-Israel conflict bulks so large in Muslim minds as a symbol of the West's double standards and contempt for Arab and Muslim people. Indeed, the interminable saga of Israel's institutionalized cruelty toward the Palestinians seems barely to have impinged on the consciousness of a writer who has by contrast, in books about the Jewish Holocaust and the Soviet Gulag, been at great pains to proclaim his acute sense of horror at man's inhumanity to man.
In truth, Martin Amis is soaked in US-Zionist influence. It is inconceivable that he would have made vicious unguarded comments about Jews (and, as a letter-writer to the Guardian pointed out, he would hardly have been appointed to a university professorship if he had). Married to the Jewish writer, Isabel Fonseca, with children whose entitlement to adopt Israeli citizenship he cherishes, Amis was something of a protŽgŽ of the late American Jewish novelist and fervent Zionist, Saul Bellow. It was Bellow who contrived to write an account of the Jewish state, To Jerusalem and Back (1976), so tribally exclusive in its focus that the testimony of Israeli and Palestinian Arabs scarcely figured in it at all. Perhaps it is not surprising if Amis, who reveres Bellow as one of great humanists of modern times, should be similarly disposed to think of Arabs as somehow outside the pale of civilization and therefore beneath notice. During the 2006 Lebanon War, it is worth noting, it was not the indiscriminate bombing of civilians that disturbed him but Israel's perilous vulnerability, the putative threat to its survival posed by Hezbollah.
Now in his late 50s, Amis has plumed himself on his sensitivity to the Zeitgeist. Yet much about his perspective seems profoundly reactionary, the product of an unquestioning acceptance of a "liberal" orthodoxy among British and American writers and intellectuals that crystallized in the aftermath of World War II and the revelation of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews. That orthodoxy can now be seen to have been in many respects a blinkered phenomenon, for - as has grown increasingly clear - the Jewish Holocaust came to occupy a place in Western moral thinking so central and so sacrosanct that it deflected attention from the monstrous treatment of the Arabs by Jewish Zionists at the time of the establishment of Israel and since. Not that Amis is by any means alone in adhering to it. Many Westerners continue to believe that the Arabs were guilty of a collective lack of humanity in opposing the accelerated influx of Jews into Palestine after World War II. At best, they concede that it was unfortunate that the creation of Israel entailed the displacement of indigenous Palestinians but condemn Arab countries for their unwillingness to take responsibility for three quarters of a million refugees, while insisting that the Arab world ought to have shown more compassion for the plight of Europe's Jews.
More perhaps than anybody else, the late Edward Said succeeded in promulgating the case that such thinking lays bare the racist ethno-centrism at the core of the West's vaunted liberal humanism. It's thanks in no small measure to Said's polemicizing that broad swaths of liberal opinion have gradually recognized that the Western response to the Palestinian issue is a cause for shame and that it epitomizes a larger historic failure to engage with the Muslim world, to accept that Muslims and non-Muslims share a common humanity. It may be regarded as a mark of Martin Amis' regressiveness that he has been unable or unwilling to acknowledge the moral force of Edward Said's work. It is similarly indicative of his entrenched Zionist bias that he appears indifferent to the detailed disclosure of Jewish barbarities contained in the work of revisionist Israeli historians, such as Ilan Pappe. The latter's ground-breaking study, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006), has raised troubling questions about the way in which the West colluded in the Zionist cover-up of the brutal eviction of the Palestinians from their own land and so privileged Jewish suffering as to render the terrible injustice meted out to the Palestinians a matter of no consequence.
Some may feel that it is a question whether someone capable of the species of racist bile normally associated with demagogues of the far right should be invited to work in a university at all. Certainly, there is something odd about a figure of such narrow sympathies offering himself as a professor of literae humaniores, a teacher supposedly wedded to a belief in literature as a humanizing and civilizing force. As the author of a book, The War against Cliche (2001), enjoining intellectual vigilance and damning the routinization of mental reflexes, Amis may even be said to have betrayed his own prescriptive standards. In his reply to Terry Eagelton, he effectively admitted that he was not thinking when he unburdened himself on the subject of how to deal with Muslims but capitulating to visceral prejudice.
What is cause for serious concern is the possible malign impact of Amis' words on popular opinion. Endlessly profiled and interviewed, Martin Amis is part of Britain's feverish celebrity culture, a writer whose most casual comments have the potential to become newsworthy. It is impossible to gauge if his poisonous pronouncements about Muslims have done positive harm. What is certain is that they have done no good.