The age of horrorism - Page 2
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 14: The Trouble with Paradise
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Martin Amis
I FOUND IT REASSURINGLY DIFFICULT, DREAMING UP PARADIGM SHIFTS. And Ayed and his friends in sector three find it difficult too. Synergy, maximalisation – these are the kinds of concept that are tossed from cushion to floormat in Unknown Unknowns. Here, a comrade argues for the dynamiting of the San Andreas Fault; there, another envisages the large-scale introduction of rabies (admixed with smallpox, methamphetamine and steroids) to the fauna of Central Park. A pensive silence follows. And very often these silences last for days on end. All you can hear, in Unknown Unknowns, is the occasional swatting palm-clap, or the crackle of a beetle being ground underfoot. Ayed feels, or used to feel, superior to his colleagues, because he has already had his eureka moment. He had it in the spring of 2001, and his project – his "baby", if you will – was launched in the summer of that year, and is still in progress. It has a codename: UU: CRs/G,C.
Ayed's conceptual breakthrough did not go down at all well in Sector Three, as it was then called; in fact, it was widely mocked. But Ayed used a family connection, and gained an audience with Mullah Omar, the one-eyed Islamist cleric who briefly ruled Afghanistan – an imposing figure, in his dishdash and flipflops. Ayed submitted his presentation and, to his astonishment, Mullah Omar smiled on his plan. This was a necessary condition, because Ayed's paradigm shift could only be realised with the full resources of a nation state. UU: CRs/G,C went ahead. The idea was, as Ayed would say, deceptively simple. The idea was to scour all the prisons and madhouses for every compulsive rapist (CR) in the country, and then unleash them on Greeley, Colorado (G,C).
As the story opens, the CRs have been en route to G,C for almost five years, crossing central Africa in minibuses and on foot, and suffering many a sanguinary reverse (a host of some 30,000 Janjaweed in Sudan; a "child militia", armed with pangas, in Congo). On top of all this, as if he didn't have enough to worry about, Ayed is not getting on very well with his wives.
Those who know the field will be undismayed by the singling out of Greeley, Colorado. For it was in Greeley, Colorado in 1949 that Islamism as we now know it was decisively shaped. The story is grotesque and incredible – but then so are its consequences.
And let us keep on telling ourselves how grotesque and incredible it is, our current reality, so unforeseeable, so altogether unknowable, even from the vantage of the late '90s. At that time, if you recall, America had so much leisure on its hands, politically and culturally, that it could dedicate an entire year to Monica Lewinsky. Even Monica, it now seems – even Bill – were living in innocent times.
Since then the world has undergone a moral crash – the spiritual equivalent, in its global depth and reach, of the Great Depression of the '30s. On our side, extraordinary rendition, coercive psychological procedures, enhanced interrogation techniques, Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Mahmudiya, two wars, and tens of thousands of dead bodies.
All this should, of course, be soberly compared to the feats of the opposed ideology, an ideology which, in its most millennial form, conjures up the image of an abattoir within a madhouse. I will spell this out, because it has not been broadly assimilated. The most extreme Islamists want to kill everyone on earth except the most extreme Islamists, but every jihadi sees the need for eliminating all non-Muslims, either by conversion or by execution. And we now know what happens when Islamism gets its hands on an army (Algeria) or on something resembling a nation state (Sudan). In the first case, the result was fratricide, with 100,000 dead; in the second, following the Islamist coup in 1989, the result has been a kind of rolling genocide, and the figure is perhaps two million.
AND IT ALL GOES BACK TO GREELEY, COLORADO, AND TO SAYYID QUTB. Things started to go wrong for poor Sayyid during the Atlantic crossing from Alexandria when, allegedly, "a drunken, semi-naked woman" tried to storm his cabin. But before we come to that, some background. Sayyid Qutb, in 1949, had just turned forty-three. His childhood was provincial and devout. When, as a young man, he went to study in Cairo, his leanings became literary and Europhone and even mildly cosmopolitan. Despite an early – and routinely baffling – admiration for naturism, he was already finding Cairene women "dishonourable", and confessed to unhappiness about "their current level of freedom". A short story recorded his first disappointment in matters of the heart; its title, plangently, was Thorns. Well, we've all had that, and most of us then adhere to the arc described in Peter Porter's poem, Once Bitten, Twice Bitten. But Sayyid didn't need much discouragement. Promptly giving up all hope of coming across a woman of "sufficient" moral cleanliness, he resolved to stick to virginity.
Established in a modest way as a writer, Sayyid took a job at the Ministry of Education. This radicalised him. He felt oppressed by the vestiges of the British protectorate in Egypt, and was alarmist about the growing weight of the Jewish presence in Palestine – another British crime, in Sayyid's view. He became an activist, and ran some risk of imprisonment (at the hands of the saturnalian King Farouk) before the ministry packed him off to America to do a couple of years of educational research. Prison, by the way, would claim him soon after his return. He was one of the dozens of Muslim Brothers jailed (and tortured) after the failed attempt on the life of the moderniser and secularist, Nasser, in October 1954. There was a short reprieve in 1964, but Sayyid was soon rearrested – and retortured. Steelily dismissing a clemency deal brokered by none other than the young Anwar Sadat, he was hanged in August 1966; this was a strategic martyrdom that now lies deep in the Islamist soul. His most influential book, like the book with which it is often compared, was written behind bars. Milestones is known as the Mein Kampf of Islamism.
Sayyid was presumably still sorely shaken by the birth of Israel (after the defeat of Egypt and five other Arab armies), but at first, during the Atlantic crossing, he felt a spiritual expansion. His encyclopaedic commentary, In the Shade of the Koran, would fondly and ramblingly recall the renewal of his sense of purpose and destiny. Early on, he got into a minor sectarian battle with a proselytising Christian; Sayyid retaliated by doing a bit of proselytising himself, and made some progress with a contingent of Nubian sailors. Then came the traumatic incident with the drunken, semi-naked woman. Sayyid thought she was an American agent hired to seduce him, or so he later told his biographer, who wrote that "the encounter successfully tested his resolve to resist experiences damaging to his identity as an Egyptian and a Muslim". God knows what the episode actually amounted to. It seems probable that the liquored-up Mata Hari, the dipsomaniacal nudist, was simply a woman in a cocktail dress who, perhaps, had recently drunk a cocktail. Still, we can continue to imagine Sayyid barricading himself into his cabin while, beyond the door, the siren sings her song.
He didn't like New York: materialistic, mechanistic, trivial, idolatrous, wanton, depraved, and so on and so forth. Washington was a little better. But here, sickly Sayyid (lungs) was hospitalised, introducing him to another dire hazard that he wouldn't have faced at home: female nurses. One of them, tricked out with "thirsty lips, bulging breasts, smooth legs" and a coquettish manner ("the calling eye, the provocative laugh"), regaled him with her wish-list of endowments for the ideal lover. But "the father of Islamism", as he is often called, remained calm, later developing the incident into a diatribe against Arab men who succumb to the allure of American women. In an extraordinary burst of mendacity or delusion, Sayyid claimed that the medical staff heartlessly exulted at the news of the assassination, back in Egypt, of Hasan al-Banna. We may wonder how likely it is that any American would have heard of al-Banna, or indeed of the Muslim Brotherhood, which he founded. When Sayyid was discharged from George Washington University Hospital, he probably thought the worst was behind him. But now he proceeded to the cauldron – to the pullulating hellhouse – of Greeley, Colorado.
During his six months at the Colorado State College of Education (and thereafter in California), Sayyid's hungry disapproval found a variety of targets: American lawns (a distressing example of selfishness and atomism), American conversation ("money, movie stars and models of cars"), American jazz ("a type of music invented by blacks to please their primitive tendencies – their desire for noise and their appetite for sexual arousal") and, of course, American women – here another one pops up, telling Sayyid that sex is merely a physical function, untrammelled by morality. American places of worship he also detests (they are like cinemas or amusement arcades), but by now he is pining for Cairo, and for company, and he does something rash. Sayyid joins a club – where an epiphany awaits him. "The dance is inflamed by the notes of the gramophone," he wrote, "the dance-hall becomes a whirl of heels and thighs, arms enfold hips, lips and breasts meet, and the air is full of lust." You'd think that the father of Islamism had exposed himself to an early version of Studio 54 or even Plato's Retreat. But no: the club he joined was run by the church, and what he is describing here is a chapel hop in Greeley, Colorado. And Greeley, Colorado in 1949 was dry.
"And the air is full of lust." "Lust" is Bernard Lewis's translation, but several other writers prefer the word "love". And while lust has greater immediate impact, love may in the end be more resonant. Why should Sayyid Qutb mind if the air is full of love? We are forced to wonder whether love can be said to exist, as we understand it, in the ferocious patriarchy of Islamism. If death and hate are the twin opposites of love, then it may not be merely whimsical and mawkish to suggest that the terrorist, the bringer of death and hate, the death-hate cultist, is in essence the enemy of love. Qutb: "A girl looks at you, appearing as if she were an enchanting nymph or an escaped mermaid, but as she approaches, you sense only the screaming instinct inside her, and you can smell her burning body, not the scent of perfume but flesh, only flesh."
In his excellent book Terror and Liberalism (W.W. Norton, 2003) Paul Berman has many sharp things to say about the corpus of Sayyid Qutb, but he manages to goad himself into receptivity and ends up, in my view, sounding almost absurdly respectful – "rich, nuanced, deep, soulful, and heartfelt". Qutb, who would go on to write a thirty-volume gloss on it, spent his childhood memorising the Koran. He was ten by the time he was done. Given that, it seems idle to expect much sense from him, and so it proves. On the last of the forty-six pages he devotes to Qutb, Berman wraps things up with a long quotation. This is its repetitive first paragraph:
The Surah [the sayings of the Prophet] tells the Muslims that, in the fight to uphold God's universal Truth, lives will have to be sacrificed. Those who risk their lives and go out to fight, and who are prepared to lay down their lives for the cause of God, are honourable people, pure of heart and blessed of soul. But the great surprise is that those among them who are killed in the struggle must not be considered or described as dead. They continue to live, as God Himself clearly states.
Savouring that last phrase, we realise that any voyage taken with Sayyid Qutb is doomed to a leaden-witted circularity. The emptiness, the mere iteration, at the heart of his philosophy is steadily colonised by a vast entanglement of bitternesses – and here too we detect the presence of that peculiarly Islamist triumvirate (codified early on by Christopher Hitchens) of self-righteousness, self-pity and self-hatred – the self-righteousness dating from the seventh century, the self-pity from the thirteenth (when the "last" Caliph was kicked to death in Baghdad by the Mongol warlord Hulagu) and the self-hatred from the twentieth. Most astounding of all in Qutb is the level of self-awareness, which is less than zero. It is as if the very act of self-examination were something unmanly or profane: something unrighteous, in a word.
Still, one way or the other, Qutb is the father of Islamism. Here are the chief tenets he inspired: that America, and its clients, are jahiliyya (the word classically applied to pre-Muhammadan Arabia – barbarous and benighted); that America is controlled by Jews; that Americans are infidels, that they are animals and, worse, arrogant animals, and are unworthy of life; that America promotes pride and promiscuity in the service of human degradation; that America seeks to "exterminate" Islam – and that it will accomplish this not by conquest, not by colonial annexation, but by example. As Bernard Lewis puts it in The Crisis of Islam (Modern Library, 2003): "This is what is meant by the term the Great Satan, applied to the United States by the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Satan as depicted in the Qur'an is neither an imperialist nor an exploiter. He is a seducer, the insidious tempter who whispers in the hearts of men." (Qur'an, CXIV, 4, 5)
Lewis might have added that these are the closing words of the Qur'an. So they echo.
The West isn't being seductive, of course; all the West is being is attractive. But the Islamist's paranoia extends to a kind of thwarted narcissism. We think again of Qutb's buxom, smooth-legged nurse, supposedly smacking her thirsty lips at the news of the death of Hasan al-Banna. Far from wanting or trying to exterminate it, the West had no views whatever about Islam per se before September 11, 2001. Of course, views were then formulated, and very soon the bestseller list was a column of primers on Islam. Some things take longer to sink in than others, true, but now we know. In the West we had brought into being a society whose main purpose, whose raison d'etre, was the tantalisation of good Muslims.
The theme of the "tempter" can be taken a little further in the case of Qutb. When the tempter is a temptress, and really wants you to sin, she needs to be both available and willing. And it is almost inconceivable that poor Sayyid, the frail, humourless civil servant and turgid anti-Semite (salting his talk with quotes from that long-exploded fabrication, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion), ever encountered anything that resembled an offer. It is more pitiful than that. Seduction did not come his way, but it was coming the way of others, he sensed, and a part of him wanted it too. That desire made him very afraid, and also shamed him and dishonoured him, and turned his thoughts to murder. Then the thinkers of Islam took his books and did what they did to them, and Sayyid Qutb is now a part of our daily reality. We should understand that the Islamists' hatred of America is as much abstract as historical, and irrationally abstract, too; none of the usual things can be expected to appease it. The hatred contains much historical emotion, but it is their history, and not ours, that haunts them.
Qutb has perhaps a single parallel in world history. Another shambling invert, another sexual truant (not a virgin but a career cuckold), another marginal quack and dabbler (talentless but not philistine), he too wrote a book, in prison, that fell into the worst possible hands. His name was Nikolai Chernyshevsky, and his novel (What Is To Be Done?) was read five times by Vladimir Lenin in the course of a single summer. It was Chernyshevsky who determined not the content, but the emotional dynamic of the Soviet experiment. The centennial of his birth was celebrated with much pomp in the Soviet Union. That was in 1928. But Russia was too sad, and too busy, to do much about the centennial of his death, which passed quietly in 1989.