Londonistan Recalled

In his current incarnation as culture warrior, Christopher Hitchens opens the recent Vanity Fair article "Londonistan Calling" with the assertion: "They say that the past is another country, but let me tell you that it's much more unsettling to find that the present has become another country, too." Hitchens' consternation derives from what he sees happening in the neighborhood of his youth, Finsbury Park in North London—and by extension the country of England, not to mention all of Europe and North America—which has been transformed for the worse by the menace of radical Muslim immigrants preaching jihad and terrorism. Hitchens depicts a frightening local scene as he surveys a rogue's gallery of religious fanatics including the notorious Abu Hamza al-Masri and Anjem Chaudhary. Beyond generating revulsion for this ominous scene, however, Hitchens fails to provide much insight into the social and historical forces underlying current troubles. Instead, Hitchens resorts to simplistic clash-of-civilizations-type cant, wherein extremist religious ideology seems to emerge out of a de-historicized Islamic culture. The actual, manifold causes of extremism (a complex array of forces, though not incomprehensibly so) are consequently wiped away, leaving the pernicious element of warped religious ideology alone to blame. Of course, as with virtually all major religious traditions, Islamic teachings are capable of being bent to justify oppression and violence. However, if we ignore the role of European colonialism in constructing communalism and fundamentalism, we will certainly misapprehend the nature and causes of contemporary extremism.

Hitchens' account of Islamist extremism in Britain is remarkable in its failure to reckon with the way in which Europe's colonial past and racist present has shaped British society, and the role of immigrants in it. For if Britain today "has become another country" due to recent changes, how much more so could this description apply to Britain's former colonies, due to the long and deleterious era of imperial rule? Hitchens writes as though changes in contemporary British society have nothing much to do with the radical transformation and underdevelopment inflicted upon its former colonies. It is also indicative of a self-serving and highly selective view of history that conservatives today deploy the term "Londonistan" to signify dark changes effecting modern Britain, while the official renaming of countless cities and public places in the British empire as part of the centuries-long colonization process does not even merit mention. Unwilling to consider the profound relevance of Britain's colonial past to contemporary global politics, it is little wonder that Hitchens has ended up supporting the neo-imperial and neo-conservative prescription of endless war. For, in this neo-imperial view, the religious variant of extremism is sui generis, existing in a realm transcendent of mundane social and political forces, including those of imperialism itself. Such an alien creature, then, must be obliterated through a ruthless will to superior violence alone, no further thought required.

By conveniently refusing to burden his head with the baggage of Britian's colonial past, Hitchens is free to rail against contemporary developments in British society as an abrupt, and at first glance mysterious, decline into frightening chaos. According to Hitchens, numerous news reporters and others, aware of this state of affairs, are impelled to ask: "How can this be? Britain is the country of warm beer and cricket and rain-lashed seaside resorts, not a place of arms for exotic and morbid cults." Gone, we now see, are the carefree days when one could enjoy the pleasures of the benign pub, and delight in a bit of genteel recreation; a violent, irrational extremism has cast a pall over such civilized pleasures, or so the story goes. Hitchens, though, believes he knows what accounts for these catastrophic changes. In order to help us understand contemporary Britain, he points the concerned and the curious to Hanif Kureishi's film My Son the Fanatic, and encourages them to "reread Monica Ali's 2003 novel, Brick Lane."

Although Hitchens exhorts people to re-read Ali's novel, he might have hoped that they'd never read it in the first place, at least if he expects readers to find their support for his worldview. In fact, the power of this novel derives in no small part from Ali's examination of religious fanaticism through a complex and nuanced account of precisely those issues which Hitchens ignores: the significance of British colonial history and contemporary racism. The emergence of Islamist extremism, in the narrative of Brick Lane, is shown to be a response of young city-dwellers to the racist politics and propaganda spread by white fanatics, organized into a group called the "Lion Hearts". Perturbed by the activities of these racists, a number of Muslims counter-organize themselves as the "Bengal Tigers". The Bengal Tigers' meetings are comedically portrayed by Ali as filled with petty personal politics and ego-tripping, but they proceed to take on an air of seriousness when photographs of Iraqi children who are victims of British and U.S.-sponsored sanctions and bombings are passed around. Women who are present at the meeting begin to voice their desire to end the harassment from whites that they experience on the streets. Bengal Tigers' propaganda leaflets vent a rage against injustice in Chechnya and Palestine, while the group's leaders preach jihad and lionize the AK-47.

But despite the geo-political concerns which constitute the substance of the Bengal Tigers' public posturing, Ali shows that in fact the Bengal Tigers lose both motivation and membership when the local goad of the Lion Hearts' agitation ebbs. At such times, Ali wryly observes, "the Bengal Tigers dwindled; they became an endangered species." It is not that Ali ignores politicized religion on its own account as a force driving extremism and violence; but in her book, Islamist ideology in London is firmly planted in the soil of British society and politics, past and present. Ali's contextualization of Islamist politics in contemporary Britian also includes a prominent place for the anterior conditions of these circumstances, namely, the history of colonialism. The author imparts to the novel's characters themselves a sharp awareness of colonial injustice, particularly in the person of Chanu, a Bangladeshi immigrant who is married to the book's main protagonist, Nazneen. Though conveyed with much bluster, Chanu is inclined to recount the facts of imperial Britain's conquest of Bengal and devastation of its economy. The character also reveals an awareness of the poverty which many Bengali migrants to modern Britain endure.

In contrast to the British-born fundamentalists in the novel, both Chanu and Nazneen are South Asian-born Muslims whose views on religion were developed when they grew up in the region of Bengal. These characters relate to their Islamic heritage and identity in a distinctly non-extremist, non-fundamentalist way. Nazneen reflects upon Islamic teachings in her daily struggles with moral questions concerning her efforts to be a good human being, friend, wife and mother, while Chanu has an outlook that is notable for its social inclusiveness, and has a keen, if pompously expressed, interest in everything from the poems of Tagore and Shakespeare to Buddhist, Islamic, Hindu, and British history.

Hitchens, in contrast, appears to believe colonial history is basically irrelevant to the topic, as when he proffers his explanation of the motive force behind immigration to Europe. He begins by noting in passing that there exists such a thing as "grievances of partitioned former British colonies," but only to make the point that Irish and Cypriot immigrants were better than Muslim ones. The idea that British partitions and French atrocities might have contributed to more than mere "grievances," including the direct consequences of mass death, displacement, and untold suffering, escapes Hitchens altogether. Failing to consider the human fallout of colonial policy and practice, Hitchens is therefore unable to consider the ways in which, for example, the events of 1947 in South Asia both gave vent to and further entrenched religious fanaticism.

Hitchens describes his impression of contemporary North London and its immigrant communities, noting "Many of these Algerians, Bangladeshis, and others are also refugees from conflict in their own country. Indeed, they have often been the losers in battles against Middle Eastern and Asian regimes which they regard as insufficiently Islamic." Note the absence of the role of Britain and France in creating the postcolonial political turmoil. Not incidentally, the current neo-imperial war in Iraq is likewise contributing to ethno-religious partitioning and the development of a whole new generation of religious extremists, though at a highly accelerated pace, befitting the temperament of globalization. And then there's the small matter of the economic devastation and enduring third world poverty which is the lasting legacy of colonial rapine, representing in fact the driving force behind most migration. To be sure, a small number of Islamist exiles have indeed set up shop in Britain. But Hitchens' portrayal ignores the complex dynamics behind immigration as a whole, wherein most Muslims have in fact left their native countries in pursuit of economic opportunity. Instead, Hitchens gives the impression that people's migration is largely to their attachment to hardcore Islamism!

Hitchens' understanding of Islamist extremism is, therefore, highly inadequate. Modern jihadism, we are led to believe, somehow simply springs forth from Islam. Muslim immigrants in Britain, he explains, "bring a religion which is not ashamed to speak of conquest and violence." Hence, one need not look too far to locate the sources of extremism, since "[t]he roots of violence, that is to say, are in the preaching of it, and the sanctification of it." In contrast, Hitchens, it would seem, stands on rather higher moral ground, as his celebration of the conquest and violence that constitute Bush-Blair's unholy war (such as his article in The Weekly Standard "A War to Be Proud Of") relies not a whit upon religious sanctification. Hitchens' discernment in understanding religious extremism is ultimately in line with his claims about the Iraq war, where he is able to divine, against both reason and documentable facts, such accomplishments as the defeat of Talibanism or the spread of democracy and civil society across the globe.

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