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9/11 Reconsidered: Terrorism, Religion and Martin Amis

By September 11, 2008

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Earlier this year, the English writer Martin Amis published The Second Plane: September 11: Terror and Boredom, a collection of essays and short stories that sought to remind us that, compliments of al-Qaeda, "the age of ideology, clearly, was a mere hiatus in the age of religion, which shows little sign of expiry." He's always had a loathe-hate relationship with religion: "Today in the West," he writes, there are no good excuses for religious belief--unless we think that ignorance, reaction, and sentimentality are good excuses."

The religion that bothered him most, between those T&B hardcovers anyway, is Islam, which happens to be the incubator of "the battle cries of molten mullahs," and of a submissive "totalism" he can't accept: Islam follows you everywhere, into the kitchen, into the bedroom, into the bathroom, and beyond death into eternity. Islam means 'submission'--the surrender of independence of mind. That surrender now bears the weight of well over fifty generations, and fourteen centuries."

Amis tries to make the distinction between "Islam" and "Islamism," meaning that Islam is good but Islamism is bad: "Naturally, we respect Muhammad," the prophet, he writes. "But we do not respect Muhammad Atta," the ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers. The distinction isn't always clear. What is clearer is that Amis doesn't make much distinction between terrorism and religion. The connection between the two is the nervous system that binds The Second Plane.

Reviewers attacked Amis' generalities, his tendency to put wordy pyrotechnics ahead of fully thought out ideas, like this largely inaccurate and oddly narrow indictment: "There is no momentum, in Islam, for a reformation. And there is no time, now, for a leisurly, slow-lob enlightenment. The necessary upheaval is a revolution--the liberation of women." The book is indebted to Islamist-indicting tracts like Bernard Lewis' What Went Wrong and Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism.

So it was a little odd to read over the weekend that Amis no longer thinks religion necessarily inspiring al-Qaeda.

In a long and more colorful than coherent essay in The Wall Street Journal Amis discovers that terrorism "is not about religion; it is about human opportunism and the will to power." He also discovers that "It may well emerge that the use of religion is, or is becoming, merely a means of mobilization." And then this: "Probably no one under 30 can fully grasp it, but fame has become a kind of religion--the opium, and now the angel dust, of the mass individual." Amis also makes the not-so original connection between al-Qaeda and globalism, which can only mean that he'd been reading his Economist. ("Some describe it as a venture capital firm," The Economist wrote in a July 19 special report on al-Qaeda, "that invests in promising terrorist projects. Others speak of it as a global 'brand' maintained by its leaders through their propaganda, with its growing number of 'franchises' carrying out attacks.")

The more Amis piles on reasons why terrorism may no longer be about "religion," the more you have to ask: what difference does it make if the result is the same (the pictures that accompany Amis' piece are the usual rectangles of bombed out buses and trains), especially when it's been established long ago that al-Qaeda isn't necessarily the only hydra-headed monster. "Religion" is, too: it's a subjective idea that can lend itself to however its projectors--or projectiles--want to define it. Terrorism in that context, terrorism as we mostly know it today, doesn't have a "new structure," as Amis would have you believe, though it keeps mutating to accommodate new fanatics whose aim may not be as ideologically fanatical as al-Qaeda's death-cult founders.

The trigger that got Amis thinking away from religion was Bruce E. Ivins, the American germ scientist who committed suicide earlier this month, and whom the FBI accuses of having been at the origin of the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people. To Amis that's an example of how someone who has nothing to do with religion (do we know that? do we know much of anything about Ivins, including his real guilt or innocence?) can be the bringer of mass death. But the anthrax attacks didn't bring mass death so much as mass fear (Amis sees the two as almost synonymous in terrorism's purpose). And if the Ivins case teaches us anything, it's that bio-terrorism, even of the anthrax kind, is extremely difficult to pull off, especially on a mass scale.

The problem with Amis' essay isn't that he sees diverging lines between religion and terrorism, but that he thinks the divergence is somehow new.

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