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Review: "The Second Plane: September 11: Terror and Boredom," by Martin Amis

The Liberal Case Against Islamism

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Martin Amis

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The Book:The Second Plane: September 11: Terror and Boredom
Author: Martin Amis
Specs: Knopf (2008), 204 pp.
Synopsis: A mostly fascinating collection of essays, columns, reviews and short stories written in reaction to the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq war by one of Britain's most astute and provocative stylists.

The Problem with Islamism's "De-Enlightenment"

The Second Plane: September 11: Terror and Boredom, by Martin Amis, is a book of rubble — a collection of essays, columns, reviews and two short stories, written between the seventh days after the attacks on the Twin Towers in Manhattan and the sixth anniversary of that day, whose memory smolders in almost every piece.

And what bracing rubble these pieces can be. They roil from anger (at Islamists) to resentment (toward God) to contempt (for “haters of reason”) to reprisals (“that other great nothingness, Osama bin Laden”) to stupidity (a whole column whining about the abbreviations of “September 11”) to provocation in the face of smug convention: “Today, in the West, there are no good excuses for religious belief — unless we think that ignorance, reaction, and sentimentality are good excuses.”

It’s what you’d expect from Amis: high-voltage prose designed to shock or at least shove the conscience over what outrages him most. Since Sept. 11, it’s been the “de-Enlightenment” of Islamists who seem to have nothing better to do than to launch their cult of “apocalyptic hurt,” victimhood and death at the West in the form of suicide bombers.

Religion as the Enemy of Reason

The Second Plane intends a direct hit. Religion generally, fundamentalist religion primarily (what Amis sums up as “the dependent mind”), is the blight that keeps giving long after its fireballs dispense with deluded foot soldiers like Mohammed Atta and the 18 other hijackers of September 11.

Islam, in Arabic, means “submission.” From submission to dependence on (and reverence for) “the battle-cries of molten mullahs” is no distance at all in the closed, repressive, uninteresting, “medieval agonism of Islam.” It’s what the Islamists are imposing on those they can control, or at least bully. It’s what Islamists want to impose on anyone they can get their Sharia on.

Amis has been accused of being an Islamophobe. His critics are wrong. He’s not against Islam. He’s against Islamism, a distinction he elucidates throughout the book: “Let us make the position clear. We can begin by saying, not only that we respect Muhammad, but that no serious person could fail to respect Muhammad — a unique and luminous historical being.

He remains a titanic figure, and, for Muslims, all-answering: a revolutionary, a warrior, and a sovereign, a Christ and Caesar, ‘with Koran in one hand,’ as Bagehot imagined him, ‘and a sword in the other.’ Judged by the continuities he was able to set in motion, Muhammad has strong claims to being the most extraordinary man who ever lived. And always a man, as he always maintained, and not a god. Naturally we respect Muhammad. But we do not respect Muhammad Atta.”

Islamism as 21st Century Nazism

We do not do so, Amis writes, because unlike Islam, Islamism is “the rhetoric of delusion and self-hypnosis,” it is “an ideology superimposed upon a religion—illusion upon illusion. It is not merely violent in tendency. Violence is all that there is.”

And because it is, in the end, 21st century Nazism in its “exaltation of a godlike leader” and its “demand, not just for submission to the cause, but for utter transformation in its name; a self-pitying romanticism; a hatred of liberal society, individualism, and affluent inertia… an obsession with sacrifice and martyrdom; an adolescent rebelliousness combined with a childish love of destruction,” and so on.

Amis in these pages is perhaps a little too indebted to Paul Berman, whose Terror and Liberalism (Norton, 2003) made a direct link between the Nazism of the 20th century and the totalitarian Islamism of the 21st. Berman was too ready, often dogmatically so, to give too much credit to the Islamists' power: unlike fascists and communists, they've never really controlled a single state for very long, and when they have (the Taliban in most of Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001) they've made a hash of it. There's a difference between the spectacular (such as 9/11) and the totalitarian in full control of an empire (such as the Soviet Union). Berman doesn't make the distinction.

To his credit, Amis is not as comfortable conflating the two. His outrage, less scholarly than Berman's, is more visceral, more immediate, and as such, more believable. Especially when he gives it fictional breathing room.

"The Last Days of Mohammed Atta"

The two most absorbing pieces in the book are short stories--one about the would-be "double" of the son of a dictator fashioned after Saddam Hussein, the other, "The Last Days of Mohammed Atta," about the leader of the 9/11 hijackers and his fanatic drive for "purity" at the West's expense: "A peer group piously competitive about suicide, he had concluded, was a very powerful thing, and the West had no equivalent to it." True to his own nature as a literary insurgent, Amis dares you to sympathize with Atta.

The book then resumes, at times unsuccessfully, its non-fictional slog through variations of reactions to the attacks, mostly through book and film reviews that have more stinging entertainment value than lasting insights into the books under review.

Amis doesn’t restrict his outrage to Islamism, at points turning the book into an anti-manifesto with all religions, all ideologies, all creeds as his target. He risks at times sounding as reactionary as the reactionaries he’s dismembering, more Robespierre than reason: “All religions are violent; and all ideologies are violent. Even Westernism, so implacably bland, has violence glinting within it. This is because any belief system involves a degree of illusion, and therefore cannot be defended by mind alone.”

The pious and ponderous will argue with him. But Amis’ argument has, for evidence, the rubble of 9/11 to go on, and the centuries of like-mindless rubble it sits on, the West’s included. Voltaire would’ve been proud to give the give the book a blurb.

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