Soundbites, religion and identity

By Simon Barrow
October 21, 2007

The latest controversy over Martin Amis's comments about Islam illustrates how ignorant our debate on identity has become, writes Sunny Hundal.

I was reminded of this when reading the minor controversy that writer Martin Amis is currently involved in. In his almost grovelling letter to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, he put on his snake-oil charm and declared: "That night you revealed, inter alia, that you were Shia; and, as far as I understand it, the Shia minority speaks for the more dreamy and poetic face of Islam, the more lax and capacious ... the more spiritual ... as opposed to the Sunnis, whose approach is known to be stricter and more legalistic."

It's hilarious. Anyone with basic knowledge of the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, the illiberal nature of the current Iranian regime or death squads currently creating havoc in Iraq would realise that not all Shias embrace poetry so readily. Amis seems to be trying that classic line: "I know you're all right, it's those others we have to worry about."

It's rather like the BNP interviewing Sikhs as a model minority and conspiratorily declaring it's the Muslims we have to worry about. After all, Sikhs and Muslims are supposed to hate each other, right?

Martin Amis's crime was to declare in an interview: "The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order. What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation - further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they're from the Middle East or from Pakistan ... Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children ... "

He "felt the urge" to say that, he confesses, but it quickly dissipated. But was it simply a "thought experiment" to be hurriedly dismissed when [literary scholar] Terry Eagleton picked up on it, or indicative of feelings he is too politically correct to articulate?

This literary spat in fact reflects the poor level of debate about religion, terrorism, civil liberties and of course British Muslims.

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