David Thompson's weekly dose of critical rationalism for Buzzwords goes lit crit with an examination of the reaction to Melanie Phillips' 'controversial' new book Londonistan:
Now this is strange. Melanie Phillips and I would no doubt disagree vehemently about any number of things, but I suddenly find myself inclined to defend her, or, more precisely, one of her arguments. In Friday's Guardian, Jackie Ashley interviewed Phillips about her new book. Londonistan, which addresses the rise of belligerent and literalist Islam in the UK, and the various reactions to it -- including the way in which aggressive claims of grievance are exploited to intimidate and censor.
Ashley devotes a great deal of space to Phillips' rather breathless and hyperbolic writing style, and one has some sympathy for Ashley's observation that this over-revved tone often "repels frank and thoughtful argument", leading instead to glib dismissal, at least in certain quarters. Indeed, Ashley herself promptly exploits this manoeuvre, teetering on the brink of ad hominem as she focuses on the method of delivery rather than the message.
The bulk of Ashley's critique seems to hinge on the assumption that because Phillips' commentary is often shrill and overly dramatic, one need not trouble oneself with addressing any points of substance expressed in such a manner: "At this point... I want to say, 'Blimey, Mel' and, 'Relax, old thing' and, 'You may, just possibly, be going a little over the top.' In fact, in a cheery way, I suggest that some of this may sound a bit 'bonkers'."
To which Phillips replies: "If the response to the kind of things I'm saying is to pretend that it's not happening, and worse, to characterise people like me as paranoid, hysterical, mad, this is first of all nasty stuff... but it is aimed at shutting down discussion of this completely." Curiously, this point passes without further exploration.
Instead, Ashley directs her own breathless indignation to this line from Phillips' book: "[Islamists] are fuelled by an ideology that itself is non-negotiable and forms a continuum that links peaceful, law-abiding but nevertheless intensely ideological Muslims at one end and murderous jihadists at the other." Ashley finds this shocking and, quite literally, unthinkable: "If you blinked at the word 'continuum', she means it: the British establishment is 'transfixed by the artificial division it has erected between those who actively espouse violence and those who do not.' Yes, artificial division." At no point does Ashley even try to refute Phillips' statement in any meaningful way; she simply gasps in disbelief and encourages her readers to do the same.
This refusal even to entertain some theological connection between coercive Islamism and 'mainstream' Islam is remarkably widespread, and appears to be based almost entirely on ignorance and wishful thinking. Despite her emphatic tone, Ashley doesn't explain why this reassuringly total distinction is to be assumed as a given. At no point are readers told why they should suppose some clear ideological discontinuity between those who believe that the world belongs to Islam, and would be made perfect by submission to it, and those who try to further that end exactly as Mohammed demanded.
Presumably, Ashley is unaware of recent polls by the Pew Research Centre, which found that 51% of Pakistan's Muslims claim to support al-Qaeda's aims and have "confidence" in bin Laden and his ideological peers. Similarly, she seems unaware of President Musharaff's interview with CBS News in September 2005, during which he was asked whether the US or bin Laden is more popular in Pakistan. Musharaff hesitated before conceding, "Maybe Osama bin Laden. In the man on the street, it may be Osama bin Laden." Faced with this, it isn't clear how one would neatly categorise those polled as 'radical' or 'mainstream'. Apparently, they are both.
Like so many of her Guardian colleagues, Ashley displays no knowledge of -- or interest in -- the actual content of Mohammed's exhortations or the theo-political imperatives built upon them, despite their centrality to the issue, and despite the fact such things are pointedly cited as justification by the two dozen or so jihadist movements currently known to exist. Nor does she appear to be aware that jihadist ideology is found in school textbooks in Egypt, Pakistan, Palestine, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and in every major school of Islamic jurisprudence, with only minor variations.
One therefore has to wonder if Ashley has ever paused to ask the logically obvious question: If a person believes Mohammed was the Prophet of Allah, and believes that Mohammed's teachings are divine imperatives, how does that person sustain this belief while simultaneously rejecting those who enact Mohammed's teachings, often verbatim? A serious writer might look for answers to such questions and pursue discussion to that end. Instead, Ashley prefers to avert her gaze with a gasp of impropriety.