Disputes have a way of reverberating for a long time among London's insular but closely monitored literary set. The latest and surely not the last salvo in the most heated current contretemps of the chattering classes has now come from novelist Ian McEwan. He has found it necessary, once again, to declare that Martin Amis, his friend and a fellow giant of English letters, is "not a racist."
McEwan's comments keep alive a fracas that began two years ago when Amis, author of Money and Time's Arrow, started publishing a number of essays on Islamic terrorism, which were collected earlier this year in the book The Second Plane. In his writings, he described moderate Islam as "supine and inaudible" in the face of what he terms "Islamism" a radicalized, fundamental branch of the religion he feels has come to dominate the Muslim world. His observations were often made in the broadest of strokes. He wrote, for instance, that "the impulse towards rational inquiry is by now very weak in the rank and file of the Muslim male." In one now notorious newspaper interview, he said he felt an "urge" to favor "discriminatory stuff" against Muslims living in Britain "until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children."
The Second Plane was trashed by critics, but Amis had already taken his hits in the news pages of the national papers. His primary nemesis was literary theorist Terry Eagleton, who likened some of Amis' statements to "the ramblings of a British National Party thug." comments that made headlines in the Sunday Times. The Guardian ran a feature under the headline "Martin Amis and the New Racism."
Through all this, Amis had few allies save the very high-profile McEwan, who won the Booker Prize for the 1998 novel Amsterdam and whose book Atonement resulted in last year's Oscar-nominated film. In November 2007, he wrote a letter to the Guardian arguing that "vilification" was not the appropriate response from those who disagreed with Amis' writing.
He went further than that in a recent interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. "As soon as a writer expresses an opinion against Islamism," he said, "immediately someone on the left leaps to his feet and claims that because the majority of Muslims are dark-skinned, he who criticizes it is racist. This is logically absurd and morally unacceptable. Martin is not a racist. 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."
McEwan, 60, recognized that similar views were held by some Christian hardliners. "I find them equally absurd," he said. "But those American Christians don't want to kill anyone in my city, that's the difference."
Predictably, McEwan himself has come now under fire, with the Muslim Council of Britain scolding him for defending Amis. Amis himself has remained silent, having already weighed in last autumn with a less-than-collegial missive to Eagleton: "He has submitted to an unworthy combination of venom and sloth," Amis wrote. "Can I ask him, in a collegial spirit, to shut up about it?" Maybe he'll end up wishing he'd made the same request, perhaps more politely, to his friend McEwan.