Monday, December 24, 2007

The "unbridgeable trench around our minds and hearts"

I wanted to call attention to this passionately (as ever) argued piece by Pankaj Mishra in The Guardian where he takes issue with Ayaan Hirsi Ali's and Martin Amis' recent fulminations against Islam/Muslims. Hirsi Ali has said that the west is "actually at war, not just with Islamism, but with Islam itself". Amis has maintained that "moderate Muslims, if they ever existed, have lost out to radicals in Islam's civil war," and that Islam is "totalist".

Mishra says that all this noise against Islam is largely bumkum, arising out more of ignorance than of clairvoyance:

Never perhaps in history has so much nonsense been so confidently peddled about a population as large and diverse as this planet's billion-plus Muslims. Within the past decade an Islamic movement has led Indonesia towards democracy, while market reforms in Turkey have created a new and religious middle class that now challenges the power of a secular elite.

Mishra goes into the past and briefly in one paragraph shows how the world has to come to be what it is today:

The most recent paranoid obsession with Muslims, which has a long history in Europe, dates back to 2001, when the violence once unleashed on places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan on behalf of the "free world" began to penetrate even the highly protected societies of the west. Almost every day newspaper columnists berate Islam, often couching their prejudice in the highly moral language of women's rights: it is not due to oversight that Indian women murdered for failing to bring sufficient dowry - a staggering 6,787 in 2005 - occupy a fraction of the print acreage devoted to the tiny minority of veiled Muslim women. Rather than engage deeply with the imperial and postimperial histories of societies hardly ever discussed in the mainstream western media, many respectable writers and intellectuals seem to have decided that selectively reading the Qur'an, along with the conveniently pithy exegeses of Hirsi Ali and other neocon pugilists, is the easiest and quickest way to figure it all out.

Then he argues why should we take anything said by the likes of Amis seriously:

The question "Why take Martin Amis seriously?" has kept many dissenters uneasily passive. But Amis's generalisations are amplified from one of the tallest soap boxes erected in the wake of 9/11, and he has a bigger audience than some of the other commentators in the British press who claim melodramatically to be apostate liberals. Whether Amis or any other individual is racist is barely relevant. We should be more concerned about this fact: that ideas regarded as intellectually null and morally abhorrent in any other context are not only accepted and condoned but also celebrated as bold truth-telling.

The italics used above are mine. There, Mishra makes a major point and he rightly cautions the readers to be careful when such generalisations about a community are made by people whose voices are recognised.

Finally, Mishra rounds up his essay with a sigh--not of relief but of disappoinment:

It is a depressing spectacle - talented writers nibbling on cliches picked to the bone by tabloid hacks. But, as Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out, the "men of culture", with their developed faculty of reasoning, tend to "give the hysterias of war and the imbecilities of national politics more plausible excuses than the average man is capable of inventing". The "public conversation" about Islam proposed by Amis should not be avoided. Its terms have already been set low, and the bigger danger is that it will be dominated by an isolated and vain chattering class that, rattled by a changing world, seeks to reassure us by digging an unbridgeable trench around our minds and hearts.

Anyone who has read Mishra earlier, especially his latest collection of essays, Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond, would vouch for his sincerity and serious scholarship. I have just finished reading that book and the rare insights that he brings to the reader through those essays cannot but make you feel humble in your knowledge about the problematic socities of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir, among others. For example, though I have read hundreds of articles on the Kashmir problem, I never fully understood the issue. Perhaps the truth was never bought out in full naked view in the media with the right right kind of information, insights and interviews. But after reading Mishra's essay, I had the feeling that I had finally understood the Kashmir problem. Somebody had finaly got to the heart of the matter. You can write to him at

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