“The Limits of Contradiction”

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The essay excerpted below originally appeared in MQR’s Fall 2019 Issue “What Does Europe Want Now?” For more from this issue, and special online features check out our Europe Folio


Not to erase the contradiction, not to deny the contradiction, but to see where, within the contradiction, lies the tormented human being. To allow for the chaos, to let it in.
Philip Roth

1. INTRODUCTION 

The neighborhood where I live in Amsterdam does not fit most people’s image of the city. No quaint bridges and narrow brick houses rising above the water. The inhabitants are largely from elsewhere originally. In the markets and shops, Arabic, French, and Spanish, along with a number of languages I can’t identify, compete with Dutch and English. The main point is that, for the most part, it is peaceful. People go about their lives as best they can, showing, for the most part, courtesy and consideration to others.

There are those who see things differently. At a dinner party recently, one guest surprised everybody there when she announced that she had just voted for the new right-wing party in the Netherlands, the Forum for Democracy (FVD). The speaker was an educated, informed academic. She saw her choice as a defiant cry against the common narrative—the fake news, if you like, of the globalists. The FVD is one of a growing number of nationalist parties across Europe urging a halt to immigration. To them, the neighborhood where I live epitomizes the problem. They see a hotbed of Islamist radicalism and a rejection of “Dutch values.” Every country in Europe has such a party and they thrive, largely, on their anti-immigrant rhetoric. The dinner party ended badly. Growing increasingly agitated, the woman became physically aggressive, eventually throwing us out of her house.

Witnessing such anger always comes as a shock, but it tells us a lot about the current political mood. That same anger is visible on the streets of England, Italy, and Denmark, just to name three. To many, the presence of difference poses an existential threat. Their frustration is couched in a muddle of half-truths, distorted facts, rumor, and paranoia. Claims that cannot be disproven, statements that contradict one another, maintaining mutually contradictory views, such as denouncing anti-Semitism while at the same time supporting Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, an unapologetic anti-Semite. 

Seventy years after the fall of Nazi Germany, it is startling to witness a resurgence of the fear of an enemy within. Europe’s future hinges on how this issue is resolved. Muslims make up an estimated 4.9 percent of the population of the Netherlands, but popular belief puts that number at closer to 30 percent. A survey by The Economist magazine in 2016 revealed that across Europe public perception of Muslim populations was multiplied up to five times the actual number. 

This confusion touches the heart of the current political crisis. Beneath the awareness of the deep contradictions in their arguments lie older, unresolved discomforts connected to Europe’s past. The wealth of the continent is built on the colonial exploitation of the natural resources and inhabitants of far away places. Our wealth, in other words, is founded on the long-term impoverishment of others. People would like to believe that Europe’s colonial past has been put to rest, despite all evidence to the contrary. 

What seems to be lacking is a common language, a dialogue or conversation that is capable of addressing current problems. Anger is the rabid fury of an intellect that has come unhinged. But why has communication broken down? Both in the United States with the election of Donald Trump and in England with the Brexit vote we have seen a hardening of lines. “A country split down the middle” is how post-referendum Britain is often described. Both sides refuse to accept anyone who contradicts them. The breakdown seems to be related to changes in the media. Information has become sectarian in nature, and the rise of social media has disqualified expert or intellectual opinion. 

We like to think of intellectual endeavor as being synonymous with progressive ideas. History has shown, however, that thinkers can just as easily turn towards darkness. The range of those who embraced Nazi ideology include Martin Heidegger, Ezra Pound, Knut Hamsun, and Céline, who wrote that fascism was the friend of the people. 

The assumption was that European ideas of progressive development would spread, and the world would become like Europe. Today, it seems almost the other way around, as if Europe is becoming more like other places. There is a disturbing concordance between increasing authoritarianism in places like the Middle East and current developments in the United States and Europe. The suppression of the popular uprisings, the so-called Arab Spring, led to the re-emergence of hard men taking control, frustrating the popular demand for democracy. Today we are witnessing a similar struggle in Sudan, where a military junta with the backing of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates threatens calls for civilian rule. Democracy has come to resemble a shell game, where the needs of the people are overruled by a ruthless elite set on increasing its power. The word elite now represents a disembodied global threat while the interests of the masses have been co-opted by corporate finance and the super rich. 

Common to both theaters is a fear of diversity and the lack of a counternarrative. Social development has been curtailed by an inability to embrace real social liberation that would cut across class, ethnicity, race, and religion. The mainstream media has been co-opted by economic and political interests. Social media, ostensibly a tool for democratization, is now used to manipulate the democratic vote. Insularity, oppression and predatory capitalism are seen by many as preferable to progressive democracy. 

2. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH 

When I began writing in the 1980s, Britain was a very insular place. In 1982, the Falklands War unleashed a tide of nationalist sentiment. I found little in contemporary literature to engage me. Most British writers seemed to be describing life on an alien planet; a comfortable middle-class world of parlor games and infidelities. It lacked the rigor and wit of American writers descended from immigrants, such as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, the lyricism and wide open spaces of Sam Shepard, or the paranoia of Don DeLillo. Non-English voices were few and far between: Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Milan Kundera, in translations that were generally a decade out of date. 

Hope emerged, however, in what was dubbed the “Empire Writes Back” generation. This included Peter Carey, Anita Desai, Timothy Mo, and, of course, Salman Rushdie. They were looking at history from the other side of the colonial looking glass. Hardly a year went by when one or the other did not appear on the Booker Prize shortlist. They were not only producing high-quality work to critical acclaim, they were also selling books.

That all came to a screaming halt in February 1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini announced a fatwa, effectively condemning Rushdie to death for his novel The Satanic Verses. Within days a number of book chains refused to stock the novel. There followed book burnings, the firebombing of bookshops and publishers, as well as attacks on translators and editors. Twelve people died in protests in what was then Bombay. V. S. Naipaul described the fatwa as an extreme form of literary criticism, but many writers offered their support. A collection by writers from the Muslim world defended Rushdie’s right to express himself. 

The Satanic Verses puts its finger on a vital nerve trapped between East and West—religious faith. After centuries of demonizing Islam, was it possible to find a way in which Muslims and the West could be compatible? To Muslims the world over the novel was another example of the West mocking their beliefs; a joke played by the wealthy White, secular elite on the poor and disenfranchised believer. 

Edward Said argued that assumptions of Western superiority were founded on the framework of Britain’s overseas conquests. The fatwa put that train of thought into reverse. To be reminded of colonial misdeeds made people, as one reviewer put it in the TLS, “depressed and defensive.” Rushdie’s novel marked the end of the postcolonial project. It felt like a warning to publishers not to venture into areas they did not understand. In the post-fatwa world it was no longer possible to fit in passively. One had to surrender one’s cultural roots to be accepted. 

An important opportunity had been lost. Colonialism left us all with an enormous legacy. Yet most British writers saw the empire as a closed chapter in history that had nothing to do with them. There was an urge for colonial writers to stop harking on about the past. It was the end of a period of introspection, and so postcolonialism never achieved its full potential: bringing colonizer and colonized together to try to better understand their past and prepare for a common future. 

3. THE ROARING NINETIES 

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War left the triumphant West free to pursue its fortune. Francis Fukuyama declared it the end of history. An era of reckless hedonism ensued. While deregulation allowed Wall Street to find new ways of swindling people out of their hard-earned money, designer drugs such as ecstasy offered the masses a ticket to endless, mind-numbing, uninhibited oblivion. 

While the West was busy partying, the world was in fact burning. In Afghanistan, the withdrawal of the Soviets spiralled into civil war out of which the Taliban would emerge. China had the Tiananmen Square massacre. Sudan’s 1989 coup ushered in three decades of harsh repression. And in August 1990, Saddam Hussein, America’s strongman in the region, decided to invade Kuwait. 

The First Gulf War is often dismissed as a brief footnote in history, yet it signaled what was to come. This was the war that introduced “smart bombs” that could find their target after crossing thousands of miles of featureless terrain. My parents lived in Cairo at the time, exiled from Sudan, and I can still recall the palpable fear of sitting there, watching the nightly news. It felt as if Baghdad was only next door. Images of missiles flashing across the night sky were, to many living in the Middle East, a terrifying reminder of American might. Tomahawk cruise missiles, we were told, could literally follow the grid pattern of city streets, turning left and right until they found their target. It meant we were all within reach. 

Technology, whether on the battle field or in the media, was the highlight of this brief encounter. Aside from the weaponry, it gave birth to the twenty-four hour news cycle, pioneered by CNN, which became the inspiration for Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. It was more of an elaborate piece of stagecraft than an actual war. The enemy’s capabilities were hugely exaggerated, only to be demolished in a series of spectacular strikes. The absurdity began with the very premise of the war: Kuwait, like most of the Gulf states, was a creation of Western interests in the early part of the twentieth century. e war seemed to encapsulate the whole mad spiral of history, culminating in this theatrical sideshow. 

In Egypt, poverty and the failure of the state allowed the Salafists and Muslim Brothers to increase their influence. Saudi-funded mosques providing food, clothes, and much needed medical services. Political Islam offered an alternative to the corrupt capitalism that was the hallmark of a dictator who ran the country as if it was his own private estate. 

With the Cold War over, Samuel P. Huntington, a former strategist during the Vietnam War, countered Fukuyama by arguing that future conflicts would be between cultures rather than ideologies. The two that worried Huntington the most were Confucianism and Islam—the worst case scenario being an alliance between the two.“ The fault lines between civilisations,” wrote Huntington,“will be the battle lines of the future.” 

It is possible to read the last two decades as the forced implementation of Huntington’s thesis. It didn’t come about by accident. The war on terror demonized all Muslims, just as, on the other side, the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan reinforced ideas of a Western crusade against Islam. Far from the monolithic bloc of common belief, Islam is complex and diverse. Even political Islam exists in myriad forms. In his early rejection of Huntington’s thesis, Edward Said noted that it was Joseph Conrad who had first highlighted “terrorism’s affinity for abstractions.” By reducing the meaning of what Islam can be, we were engendering and empowering the very people who wished to use it as a weapon. 

 The nineties closed with a series of scandals that rocked the financial world, marking a further slide into moral decline that contributed to the perception of the West as a spent force. Then came 9/11, when the West suddenly became the aggrieved party. From then on, to criticize American policy, the invasion of Iraq, the war on terror, the infringements of the constitution that were encompassed by the Patriot Act, was to besmirch the memory of the thousands who died that day. 

For the rest of this essay, and more work on the reverberations of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, purchase our Fall 2019 Issue “What Does Europe Want Now?”

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