As a novelist, Ian McEwan is talented to the point of self-caricature: he writes nothing that hasn't been dislocated on the rack of his talent. As the leader of today's "look-at-me-I'm-a-writer!" lolly-pop guild, he would never dream of a sentence to which he had failed to attach several reflective addenda. Even then the verbal ordeal might be worth it - in fact deeply satisfying - if it weren't cover for philosophically misinformed and incoherent attempts at having a deep idea. All this lacy prose and what we get at the end is a f orced juxtaposition of poetry, terror, and reductionist neuroscience. The reader is left to supply the profound connections, because it's a task not even the author is up to - there aren't any. This is what happens when you read too much Christopher Hitchens, Stephen Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel C. Dennet, but not any actual philosophy: A sophomoric crypto-celebration of scientism over religious fanaticism - of one superstition over another.
The political manifestation of all of this: McEwan's brave hatred of "Islamism":
'And I myself despise Islamism, because it wants to create a society that I detest, based on religious belief, on a text, on lack of freedom for women, intolerance towards homosexuality and so on – we know it well.
He went on: 'When you ask a novelist or a poet about his vision regarding an aspect of the world, you don't get the response of a politician or a sociologist, but even if you don't like what he says you have to accept it, you can't react with defamation.- Advertisement -
'Martin is not a racist, and neither am I.'
On the face of it, "Islamism" seems like a worthy object of hatred - if we ignore the easy slide into "Islam" or "Muslims" and the fact that most readers simply won't make the distinction. When you identify it with a lack of freedom, you have one of today's moral tautologies and all the indignation raised by any challenges to it - it's just like "I despise bad things!" How dare you call me a racist because I said "bad is bad."
All of the moral simplicity of what I'll call the "McEwan Delusion" falls away when you start to do a little thinking. Let's start with McEwan's definition of "Islamism": it takes some very generic societal ailments and treats one manifestation of them as a particularly threatening. Here's the list of qualities that McEwan takes to be definitive of Islamism: "wants to create a society that I detest, based on religious belief, on a text, on lack of freedom for women, intolerance towards homosexuality." If we were presented merely with this list of qualities, we might understand it to mean "religious fundamentalism," but we would never be able to arrive at "Islamism" per se. Of course, if we eliminated "religious belief, on a text," we would just understand it to mean "illiberal societies; that is, "most societies, historically."
So we have a species of a broader ideology that has been so widespread historically as to make any particular attribution misleadingly definitive. Illiberal societies are the norm, not the exception. So what is it about "Islamism" that singles it out for special attention?
The answer to this question, McEwan and his comrades will answer, is obvious: 9/11!
There are two premises at work in the special reservoir of emotion that McEwan and others reserve for Islamism: the first is that the fundamental cause of Islamic terrorism is actually Islamism - a certain kind of fundamentalist, politicized Islam. The second is that Islamic terrorism is a powerful and dangerous force in the modern world, and the preeminent national security concern of liberal Western societies. Both will seem like obvious truths to many Westerners. But both are false.
Let's take the second premise first. Are terrorism and Islamism existential threats to liberal societies? Is it that kind of national security problem?
No. In fact, terrorism is amateur and small-scale war-making, often made by incompetents, rarely accomplished on Western soil, and largely ineffective unless abetted by the overreaction of affected governments. Even highly successful and large scale attacks like 9/11 cannot happen on a scale that poses a significant danger to the United States - as in the danger represented by Japan in World War II or the USSR during the cold war. And frankly, even a single nuke going off in an American city is a national security problem on a much smaller scale than such wars and stand-offs: it is dwarfed, for instance, by the devastation suffered by Germany and Japan in WWII or by Europe in general. No Islamic threat will ever come close to matching the wars that Europeans inflicted on themselves only recently. The USSR was a serious national security problem to the United States and Europe; accidental nuclear conflagration still is. But terrorism, in the scheme of things, is simply a minor threat. Yes, it is a threat: but how should that influence where it is we direct our emotions, and what we "despise"? And does it justify, as "despise" seems to imply, sending troops to make war on Islamist societies?
Far from being powerful, terrorism is powerlessness par excellence. And this brings us back to addressing the first premise: is Islamism really the primary cause of Islamic terrorism? As a violent ideology, it seems obviously so. But here I think we reach the foundation of the McEwan Delusion, which is ironically leftist in its origins: it is a form of relativism that treats ideologies as if they arise in a vacuum - as if they are unmoved movers of the world, explanations that themselves have no explanation; we are forbidden, for instance, from seeing feminine behavior as even partially "natural" or a matter of "human nature" - rather it is entirely "encultured," and nothing explains enculturation beyond human whim (or, to take the neo-Marxist variation, economic interest).
But we ought to treat such ideology as a manifestation of something psychologically deeper than whim or economics. Nietzsche's concept of ideology is relevant here. Is "Islamism" really the most relevant cause of terrorism or is it ressentiment - including revenge fantasy brought on specifically by powerlessness? Nietzsche is of course no fan of religion, but he is even less a fan of those who are blind to the more fundamental principle of which it is a manifestation, and so blind to their unwitting complicity with it, even in their reaction against these manifestations. This principle is a source of a wide variety of phenomena, including not just religion but ... wait for it ... scientism and atheism. Like religion, scientism and atheism are essentially nihilistic and ascetic, and meant to exert power-as-ideology as compensation for lack of physical might. On this view, religion celebrates weakness and martyrdom in exchange for the fantasy of eternal hell for one's enemies; adherents of scientism and atheism pretend to have answers to un-answerable questions as a means to a sort of ultimate revenge-of-the-nerds over the ignorant masses: the obliteration of their folk-beliefs. They are on opposite sides of the surface battle - but in fact they are allies in the deeper war. (Incidentally, the fact that Islamism's impatience for the next world, and a concept of martyrdom involves taking enemies with you, does not change the analysis - Christian ressentiment had a similarly paradoxical spill-over into more worldly power struggles).
The Freudian extension of the Nietzschean position is that we should treat these ideologies as what they really are: rationalizations. Islamists are not motivated by a "form of Islam," they are motivated by a deeper political ressentiment which must be given voice in one cultural manifestation or another. What's required here is some social form that provides a transcendental ground for the promise of vindication of powerlessness - that is powerful enough to counteract the insecurity inevitably created by the fact that the concept of political inferiority always resolves into the concept of psychological inferiority. Really there is no need for Islam here - practically any ideology will do, including its opposite: atheism provided plenty of fuel for the USSR and China, as it does now for some of those (such as McEwan's comrade Christopher Hitchens) who would reform illiberal (but especially "Islamist") societies at the point of a gun - who have supported a war that has essentially destroyed an entire country and killed hundreds of thousands of its people and displaced many more. You see? Any religion will do, including anti-religion.
Shall we compare which of these religions is more dangerous - the McEwan Delusion or the God Delusion? Shall we ask which is a greater threat to the world in terms of the numbers of the dead? She we calculate the "Islamist" carnage as a fraction of the enlightened carnage of we liberators of Muslim women from an oppressive "text"?