Martin Amis on Islamicist ‘horrorism’ and faith

Martin Amis's 12,000-word essay on what he calls 'horrorism' — the phenomenon of Islamicist terrorism — in the Observer Review of 10 September 2006 should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in one of the most challenging features of all our life-times, following the collapse of Leninist communism in Europe (and, for us older fellas, of Nazi and Japanese fascism before that).  Happily, the full text is available on the Web, split like Gaul into three parts, here, here and here.

This is very much a literary and cultural essay rather than a political treatise, as one might expect from a prominent novelist.  It is clearly based on both prolific reading and personalMartin Amis experience.  Its analysis of the deep religious roots of Islamicist terrorism, especially suicide bombings, is unpleasantly persuasive.  By implication it exposes the shallowness of the proposition that terrorism, especially in Britain, is in any meaningful sense 'caused' or even prompted by anger over the US-UK attack on and occupation of Iraq, although that assertion is given some limited endorsement in one particular passage.  (But don't let's reopen that debate here, OK?)

One feature of Amis's essay that struck me with special force was the implied, but not explicit, difficulty of distinguishing between his account of 'Islamicism' — Muslim fundamentalism or extremism of the kind that spawns terrorism — on the one hand, and mainstream (or 'moderate') Islam, generally reputed to reject terrorism, on the other.  This is a sobering and controversial thought which in real life may well do an implicit injustice to many thousands or millions of Muslims; but it may also convey a warning about the attraction that one brand of that faith must exert on the other.

Martin Amis also uses his essay to launch a powerful attack on religious faith, all religious faith, as the enemy of reason and ultimately the purveyor of death as against life.  Many will be angered by some of his generalisations on this topic.  It's interesting, and worrying, that some courage is obviously required to write and publish them, even in this predominantly secular society.  He puts them in the context of an assault on the western cult of moral relativism which refuses to condemn almost any practice or belief, however repulsive to the western mind, if it's based on a religious faith or an alien culture, with the underlying implication that all cultures and religions are morally equal (and thus equally deserving of 'respect'), and that it represents a kind of objectionable cultural imperialism to claim superiority for any feature of western secular and reason-based culture that conflicts with that of any other.  Personally I'm with Amis all the way in these linked campaigns against unreason and relativism, but others may well find them objectionable.

As a postscript, it's worth noting a recent report that —

There have been growing signs the Pope is considering aligning his church more closely with the theory of "intelligent design" taught in some US states. Advocates of the theory argue that some features of the universe and nature are so complex that they must have been designed by a higher intelligence. Critics say it is a disguise for creationism… The Pope also raised the issue in the inaugural sermon of his pontificate, saying: "We are not the accidental product, without meaning, of evolution."   A few months later, Cardinal Schönborn [an Austrian Cardinal], who is regarded as being close to Benedict, wrote an article for the New York Times backing moves to teach ID. He was attacked by Father George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory. On August 19, Fr Coyne was replaced without explanation.  Vatican sources said the Pope's former astronomer, who has cancer, had asked to be replaced.

These are not purely academic debates.  Leaving aside for a moment the role of religious faith in the practice of terrorism, murder and suicide, eloquently dissected by Martin Amis, there are practical, and almost wholly negative, consequences for the superimposition of religious faith on such issues as development aid and the battle against the scourge of AIDS:

[Pope] Benedict, on the second day of a visit to his native Bavaria [10 Sept 06], said that spreading the word of Jesus Christ was more important than all the emergency and development aid that rich churches like those in Germany gave to poor countries.  He also stressed the role of faith in fighting AIDS "by realistically facing its deeper causes," indirectly confirming the Church view that pre-marital abstinence and fidelity in marriage are the way to combat sexually transmitted diseases.

It's a tribute to Amis's essay that he opens up such a treasure-chest — or Pandora's Box? — of vital but controversial and often neuralgic issues.  Go read!

Afterthought:  why does the Vatican have an observatory, and what is the Pope's astronomer looking for? 


6 Responses

  1. Carl Lundquist says:

    Regarding the afterthought:   One might [ask] why the Jesuits of St. Louis University have a world class seismological Observatory.  What are THEY looking for, eh?

    Carl L/LA

    Brian agrees:  This fascinating speculation should clearly be referred to the Pope with his famous interest in the relationship between faith and reason (aka science), and his own astronomer and observatory, as remarked on earlier. Could it have anything to do with astrology, also much valued by the credulous?   

  2. Carl Lundquist says:

    Just notice your reply, Brian.  Belatedly, here is my rebuttal.

    Last time I heard, the Roman Church condemns astrology as heretical.   With in its axiomatic foundations, the Latin Church tends to be famously rational.  

    Brian writes:  I am replying privately to this since my reaction is liable to give gratuitous offence — but not, I trust, to Carl.

  3. Ian Thal says:

    why does the Vatican have an observatory, and what is the Pope’s astronomer looking for?

    Any religious community is made of a diverse number of people. Some will tend to express their religiousity through obedience to doctine, others through mystic experience, others through service to the community, and others through an attempt to understand some aspect of the universe through reason. It happens that there are a great many Catholic clergy who happen to be scientists or scholars.

    I would guess that the Pope’s astronomer probably believes that by exploring the universe, he learns something more about the creator.

  4. Peter Harvey says:

    I have just noticed this. Carl makes a very valid point, and one that is often overlooked. It is perfectly possible to build a complex, subtle and coherent argument on a premiss that is itself flawed. This is precisely how the Catholic Church has got itself into such a frightful mess over women and human reproduction. However, that brainpower can also be applied to other perfectly rational ends, astronomy for example. Barcelona has a business school, ESADE, which regularly features in the top five in worldwide lists of such institutions (Economist, WSJ, etc.) It is run by Opus Dei.

  5. Susanna says:

     I just saw Peter Harvey’s comment. ESADE was my University and, after five great years there as a student and then some ten more as a teacher, personnally acquainted with the  Director General and the Dean, I am in the position to assure you that ESADE is NOT run by the Opus Dei. The Compañía de Jesus founded it, in 1958; theirs is not a prominent role, hasn’t been for at least ten years. And, believe me, Jesuits and the Opus Dei are not interchangeable … agents.

  6. Peter Harvey says:

    Apologies for getting the wrong bit of the Catholic Church. I think that my point still stands, though.

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