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Guardian Unlimited Books | By genre | The politics of paranoia

The politics of paranoia

In an essay last week to mark the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Martin Amis hit out at the virulence of Islamism. Here, writer Pankaj Mishra lambasts Amis's 'moral superiority' and takes issue with the intellectual arrogance of political elites in the West who fail to understand the Muslim world. He argues that an out-of-touch US administration is repeating the fatal errors of the Vietnam War, resulting in a war on terror that is a political, military and intellectual fiasco.

What I found most interesting is Mishra's insight that such arrogance resonates deeply with an imperial attitude, which, decades after the collapse of empire has yet to die. Many thinkers in the West, unfortunately do not understand it is 'no longer the sole engine of global history.' 'Nothing,' Paul Valery wrote, 'can ever happen again without the whole world's taking a hand and for this reason no one will ever be able to predict or circumscribe the almost immediate consequences of any undertaking whatever.' 'The system of causes,' he wrote, 'controlling the fate of every one of us, and now extending over the whole globe, makes it reverberate throughout at every shock; there are no more questions that can be settled by being settled at one point.'

Another leftover of imperial thinking is the crude binarism which classified the West, whatever that may be, as rational and controlled and non-Westerners as irrational, perverse and obsessed with sex.
'The impulse towards rational inquiry,' Amis asserts, 'is by now very weak in the rank and file of the Muslim male.' Apparently 'they are all very irrational out there' because radical Islam is constipated and sexually frustrated. Such imaginings allowed colonisers to feel superior while simultaneously enjoying voyeuristic descriptions and images (see Dominique Ingres painting of The Turkish Bath below) of supposedly morally lax, bestial Indians/Persians/ Egyptians/ Africans. Unfortunately as Mishra notes, such strident belief in 'Western' rationality and restraint are now commonplace in elite liberal-left as well as conservative circles in the government and media.

Guardian Unlimited Books | By genre | The politics of paranoia

Martin Amis's Essay:

Dominique Ingres - The Turkish Bath (1859). This along with the 'typical' harem scene were obsessions of many European artists, many of whom visited the East and subjected the colonised to their voyeuristic imperial gaze, representing them in largely imagined scenes.