By Hanif Kureishi (THE GUARDIAN, 30/09/06):
These days I don’t often think about Margaret Thatcher, but I am aware that the world we inhabit now was partly brought about by what she and her party considered in the 80s to be freedom. By this I mean deregulation, the liberal market and consumerism, notions much extended under Tony Blair and his government.Thatcher’s specific enemy was communism. Our avowed and necessary enemy – since the attacks on the World Trade Centre – is Islam in its radical version, which is increasing in strength, particularly since the failed invasion of Iraq.
After 9/11 there has been much talk about a “clash of civilisations”, as though Islam and liberalism are only ever opposed to one another, with one or other of them being defeated in the end, as communism was. The underlying idea here is that in the future we will all pursue the same ideals, and indeed become similar in character to one another: it could be called a globalisation of personality.
But these seemingly opposed philosophies – one of certainty, fixity and moral absolutes based on the unshakeable authority of one book, while the other is one of postmodern scepticism, doubt and flux – are not alien to one another in the way we might think. There is mutual fascination, and far more mixing or “multiculturalism” than we would like to admit.
All over the Muslim world people are compelled not only by consumerism and materialism but by the idea of a free and fulfilling education for their children. Most Muslims want a higher standard of living, job opportunities, good healthcare, housing and pensions.
But Muslims are far more aware than we are of our self-deceit, of the “spiritual” price we pay for our freedom. They can see that the beautiful ideas we are peddling – democracy, free speech, individualism – bring considerable negatives with them. If the west is trying to sell these excellent ideas they are also, like a sleazy salesman, failing to mention their obverse – what it is, as it were, that you see when you turn the pretty picture round.
If the body of the suicide bomber has become the symbol of the Islamist’s defiance, determination and an almost inexplicable commitment to religious ideals, the way we in the west characterise our bodies is equally telling.
Our media and our lives are full of stories of obesity and anorexia, of models, mingers and the dietary habits of children. We either consume too much or too little. We can never get it right; we feel out of control. There is self-harm and addiction everywhere. Clearly most Muslims are not fundamentalists and most people in the west are not obese cokeheads. Our notions of “east” and “west” are screens on to which we can project our fantasies. If we can say the east envies the west while wanting to distance itself from it – “they” refuse to integrate; why don’t they want to be like us if they want to live here? – we can say that the self-disgust of the west conveys a profound confusion about the way we view ourselves now.
From this point of view the Muslim is telling us what we already feel about ourselves but cannot yet own up to. The more alien this seems, the closer to home it is likely to be. Radical British Muslims wishing to attack and destroy something they belong to, crudely and violently represent something which comes from within rather than from without. If the east has too many values, which are over-constraining, the west, according to this view, has too few.
Our visual culture, Damian Hirst, Jake and Dinos Chapman; our playwrights, Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill; and our writers, including the excellent Michel Houllebecq, present a picture of a nihilistic west disappearing into a whirlpool of narcissism, sentimentality and moral emptiness. They are saying we have sold our souls for the freedom to shop and screw as and when we wish. Furthermore, don’t we claim to be enlightened, liberal and democratic while unleashing a whirlwind of disaster and death on the Muslim world, day after day?
If we find the idea of sacrifice difficult – why would anyone want to blow themselves up for a cause? – our self-disgust points to an absence, perhaps to a need for authority. The idea of the father has declined, and the family has splintered; our religious leaders, our royal family, our politicians have little credibility. We no longer follow or believe in them.
On the other side, Muslim life is organised around the mosque, the family, the book, obedience, and the idea of being good. Further along, a committed Muslim might well kill himself not only for his beliefs but to improve the lives of others. Which of us will do this now?
Freud considered religion to be infantile, which didn’t mean he thought it was childish; rather, that it satisfied childhood wishes, mainly for certainty. Almost all societies, throughout all of human history, have been religious in some sense. Religion was a holding framework which organised people, often in authoritarian ways, controlling their sexuality.
Compared to religion, consumerism, which is based on, and indeed inspires, only dissatisfaction and greed, is far more likely to drive people mad, because who we are is always beyond our grasp. Once God overlooked us all, but now the only thing which watches us is the camera. We live in a country of more or less total surveillance, but it is an indifferent or hostile gaze which indicates that our extreme individualism has isolated us from one another. The Islamicist, far from being only crazy, is pointing to a weakness that we know – and refuse to accept – is really there.
In the past few years there has been much religion-lite, the New Age as well as versions of Buddhism or kabala. These are attempts to fill what Salman Rushdie calls a “God-sized hole”. But these substitutes are the tofu of belief; they are not anything like the real thing. They do not terrify with their authority and they are not sufficiently irrational to inspire true faith. They do not punish enough. We are left to do that to ourselves.
Not long ago there was another idea, which involved neither God nor extreme competition, called socialism. It represented ideas of fraternity, social bonding and creativity which were fruitful and significant. But it was wiped out by Thatcherism in 1989 along with communism, which it in no way resembles.
Our notions of tolerance, equality and interest in others – as well as legitimate guilt about colonialism – gave rise to multiculturalism, now considered a foolish if not discredited and even dangerous idea. How could we have thought that our ideas, developed since the Enlightenment, of rational debate, scholarship, criticism, were not far better than theirs? But now we are not so certain. If the west is a stew of corruption and idiocy this is not only a projection, but a version of our own self-disgust.
The repressed is returning: there is a new and virulent racism, in the form of religious discrimination. This is at the very moment when real religion has come back to the west – with a vengeance. This is not only because it is being imposed on us by “medievals” who we should never have tolerated, but because we are seduced by it. If the home-grown British bomber is our headache, he is also our symptom.
If we have little idea of who we want to be or where are going, for some of us this is an agreeable state of entertaining disorientation. But this confusion fails to give us the conviction we require to assert ourselves, to really think about what it is the Thatcherite world failed to deliver, thus leaving a space which Islam can occupy.