Tuesday, June 07, 2016
The ponytailed Muslim
Boualem Sansal is an Algerian Muslim novelist who lives a literary life fashionably deux-riviste (that's French for "bi-coastal" -- the two coasts being France and Algeria "bridged" by the Mediterranean). As I wrote back in January in my essay "Mo' Better Blues" --
"Boualem Sansal, a Muslim novelist of apparently dual French and Algerian citizenship (choosing to live in his wealthy home in Algeria paid for by his artistic celebrity), of a lithe and wiry frame, sporting a fashionably chic ponytail and dressed perpetually down (you know, a white t-shirt, black suit jacket, guaraches) as befits a French artiste (he must be quite the Brown arm candy to have on hand at cocktail parties and salon soirées for the Parisian counter-intelligentsia...). His most recent novel, 2084: Fin du Monde ("End of the World" -- he sees and ups the ante on Orwell's classic) -- incidentally reflecting a wave of dystopian tomorrows imagined by various Frenchmen, all centrally involving an indigestible Islam causing troubled dreams -- refers to a globally totalitarian and imperialistic Islam [or, rather, "Islamism"] in the not-distant-enough future."
Today's essay isn't really a review of Sansal's novel; it's a recognition of him as a Better Cop. For, his forebodings of a future where Islam comes to dominate sounded enough of the right notes (or sounded like it sounded them) to fool even the great Hugh Fitzgerald into thinking that Sansal is... in effect a non-Muslim Muslim. (The non-Muslim Muslim, as preposterous or paradoxical as it may sound, is actually one of the many various permutations of the "Moderate Muslim by another name" generated by a Counter-Jihad Mainstream in its incoherent grappling with the problem of Muslims revealed by the light of our learning curve on the problem of Islam.)
Here is Hugh, in an essay he penned recently devoted to extolling Sansal as a voice of wisdom:
"Sansal, Muslim by birth but clearly not now – if ever — by belief, looks with alarm at the Muslim invasion of Europe."
Indeed, the title of Hugh's piece itself evokes grandeur -- Vox Clamantis in Deserto ("A voice crying out in the wilderness") -- which the reader will recognize as the Latin Vulgate form of the description of John the Baptist in the Gospels, harking back to the Biblical prophet Isaiah, and harking forward to the 14th century English poet, friend and contemporary of Chaucer, John Gower, whose ascription of that is a more apposite application for Hugh's purpose; since Gower's Vox was foreboding of a gathering storm, rather than auguring the salvation of Mankind. But then again, we pause, and wonder if Hugh didn't perhaps have a Wilsonian wardrobe malfunction here, affording us a glimpse up his sleeve of the type, in Boualem Sansal, of the Muslim Savior who will save us from the dark future his own Islam is going to cause us? How will he save us? Why, by embodying the Hopeful Sign of Reform in the Muslim world which, if only as a spark it could catch on, and if only we could fan it, might spread into a critical mass to turn the massive Problem around in our favor. For this Muslim in a ponytail, Sansal, is Hugh's Vox, crying out in the wilderness of our worsening problem with Islam. And perhaps this Non-Muslim Muslim gives Hugh hope for the salvation of the West (why else pen an encomium to his perspicacious sagacity...?).
As I noted in my previous essay -- What does it take to seduce a Counter-Jihadist? -- the smoother, cleverer Muslim apologist, the "Better Cop" who has upped the game of the standard-issue "Good Cop" in order to fool & infiltrate the Counter-Jihad, has to make (or seem to make) concessions in order to win over the Counter-Jihadist who isn't easily fooled. And Hugh Fitzgerald is most definitely not one to be easily fooled by a garden-variety Muslim claiming "I come in peace" -- even if he is amenable to the mollifying wiles of a Muslim who, like Sansal, ups the game.
In the first paragraph of Hugh's essay, we see Sansal doing precisely that; for Sansal, Hugh assures us,
"...looks with alarm at the Muslim invasion of Europe. He claims that the “welcoming” culture of Germany is “completely naïve,” that the condition of women will inevitably worsen with the continuing islamisation of Europe, that “more young people” in Europe are “turning to religion” (and by “religion” he means Islam), that “Islam is gaining traction” among the young, and he blames Europe’s refusal to stand up for itself on an “overly tolerant” society."
This is enough, apparently, for Hugh to stamp Sansal's papers with a Nihil Obstat and allow him entry into the Counter-Jihad as an Honorary Brown Guest of Honor.
Of course, I was immediately suspicious of Sansal the moment I learned he's a Muslim. From that point forward, I read an interview with him not in order to determine and verify my distrust of him (since as long as he remains a Muslim, and as long as I am mindful of the principle of prejudice against all Muslims, that would be redundant); but only to confirm the bias of my prejudice against him as a Muslim. Even the hope of educating some in the Counter-Jihad Mainstream on this particular matter seems far-fetched to me these days, as I lapse into the Absurdity of another French Algerian -- a real philosopher (for one thing, because he was not a Muslim), Albert Camus -- and simply go through the motions of my blog's masthead.
So let us go through the Sansal interview, published in the mainstream French online paper Le Monde back in October of 2015, and carefully bracket out what Sansal wants us to see (what has so impressed Hugh), as we look instead for the ulterior nuggets between the lines.
Perhaps my favorite nugget is this answer late in the interview to the question posed to him by Le Monde:
Le Monde: If a French writer had tried his hand at the theme of your book, it would be said that he's an Islamophobe. Does this apply to you?
Sansal: I would rather say that I am an "Islamistophobe".
This cute coinage by Sansal could not make clearer (though apparently not clear enough for Hugh) the distinction Sansal is drawing between Islam and the artificial construct "Islamism" -- with only the latter being the problem, not the former, apparently (or if he somehow involves Islam in the problem, it is only elliptically & incoherently, to make the gullible Counter-Jihadist think he's indicting Islam when he's actually not doing so).
Earlier in the interview, he discusses the dystopic future of his novel, 2084. In a nutshell, it's about the all-too-near future (a mere 68 years from now) when the world will be ruled by a totalitarian "Islamist" regime.
Interestingly, Sansal says at one point that this latest novel, 2084, is softer on "Islamism" than his previous novels, Poste restante : Alger, and Le Village de l’Allemand. Then he says something that surprised even me:
"Above all, during the entire writing period of this novel, I avoided blasphemy."
Unfortunately, the PC MC idiot who was interviewing him at Le Monde not only failed to probe this odd remark, he instead suddenly changed the subject to ask a stupid question:
"Aren't you afraid that your novel will be used in France by those who manipulate a fear of Islam for ideological and political reasons?"
Sansal's answer is a nicely boring and unremarkable response that simply caresses that softball the interviewer handed him on a silver plate, not worth bothering with for our purposes.
About his novel, 2084, Sansal poses the rhetorical question, then answers it:
Sansal: What religion will be in power after 2084? Not the Islam which I knew in my childhood; and not even the Islam of today. There is already a colossal difference between contemporary Islam and the Islam of thirty years ago. From a minor custom that didn't cause any trouble, it has passed into a thunderous reality. Up to the beginning of the 1990s, Algeria was a socialist country, where Islam occupied pretty much the same place, a marginal place, as Christianity in France... And then suddenly out of the blue, this farfetched thing has been imposed all around us, in public discourse, in the building of mosques. The landscape itself has changed, the customs of clothing have been modified, beards began to grow, you would think you were in Afghanistan.
Sansal is surprised -- or rather feigns surprise -- by a new Islam in our time that he claims was "not the Islam of his childhood" when it was "a minor custom that didn't cause any trouble" (and he conjectures this aggressive Islam now will get worse and worse, until some dark day in the future Muslims will take over). Certainly, Sansal is superficially correct, in that ostensibly, Islam seemed less volatile and aggressive the further back in time you go in recent history. But only an ignorant & gullible Westerner would take this ostensible fact and draw the conclusion that Islam was actually more pacific in former decades. Knowing Islamic texts, history, current events, and culture (including Islamic apologetics and sermons), we in the Counter-Jihad reasonably conclude that there must have been other reasons that would explain why Muslims in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, etc. were behaving less outrageously than they are now. It's a complex issue, but the simple answer is Western Colonialism was sufficiently overwhelming -- coupled with the fact that the West was astronomically more sophisticated and powerful than the Muslim world, and with the fact that the West was far less PC MC in the mid-20th century, and even less so the farther back one goes -- that it had an effect of dampening and dislocating, to some degree, the Pan-Islamic networking that Muslims are always trying to do like busy army ants wherever they can in order to conquer the world. What changed in the late 20th century was, we reasonably conclude, simply a matter of a whole concatenation of factors -- some of which Muslims had nothing to do with (such as the sheer luck of having oil in their geology) -- that have finally enabled Muslims to begin to get their ducks in a row for what they had been dreaming, praying and working on for centuries ever since the time, approximately in the late 17th century, when their historical star began to decline and the West's star rose.
So Sansal's posture of surprise at this "new" Islam all around us we reasonably conclude (unless like Hugh we are smitten with him) is a disingenuous pose. As an intelligent, well-read Muslim who grew up in a Muslim family in a Muslim country, there's no way in Jahannam he doesn't know that the Islam now aggressively knocking over furniture around the world with its pumped-up steroids is no different from the Islam of yore.
And furthermore, Sansal makes clear in certain parts of his responses that it's not that Islam itself has "suddenly" spiralled out of control; it is that a certain development out of Islam has occurred -- "Islamism".
Sansal: I think that Islamism, this 'diarrhea' out of Islam, is in the process of becoming a religion, as some kind of a phenomenon of 'cell division'. We see this evolution from one season to the next in the Muslim world. Certain words disappear. The term 'charity', for example, which was invoked 50 times a day in traditional Islam, has given way along with the custom with which it was associated. More and more, there is a martial vocabulary that is imposed.
So Sansal is trying to tell us that Islam didn't use to be martial! The impression of traditional Islam from Sansal, if we may sum up is that it was not militaristic, but rather it was demure, it didn't intrude much upon society, and was more about warm & fuzzy values like "charity". If Hugh believes Sansal is not cleverly defending Islam, I have some swampland in the south of France to sell him...
The interview goes on during the long middle to enter on some interesting peripheral aspects, but I won't dwell on them here. Sansal's description of himself as sort of a lofty agnostic no doubt warmed Hugh's cockles (since Hugh has intimated before that he is diffidently irreligious himself). Even though Sansal defends the Islam of his boyhood as pacific and charitable, he notes that it seems to him to be "poor in spirit". He goes on to say: "Generally speaking, I think above all that a person is not obliged to love religions, and personally, I have no sympathy for any of them. I can put up with them to the extent that they do not invade the public space and indoctrinate children. If I had been in France at the beginning of the 20th century, you could say I would have been "anticlerical". Above all, I believe in human reason: There is in it more beauty and spirituality than in any religion. Man is capable of searching out the infinite, photographing the depths of the Universe, and to keep asking questions without giving up."
Sounds great, doesn't it? I mean, if a Muslim intellectual says things like this, he can't really be a Muslim, right? And he can't be part of the problem, right? In fact, he seems to be part of the solution, right? I don't see it this way, for two reasons: First, when we see he's otherwise defending Islam by painting its past in rosy colors and by splitting Islam into two things -- Islam and "Islamism" -- and locating all sociopolitical problems in the latter, not the former, at the very least we would be suspicious. Then when we consider what kind of an effect he's having on Westerners who have become more and more alarmed at Muslims but who still don't want to "tar all Muslims with the same brush" -- we see he provides us a way out of our dilemma and gives us hope that "not all Muslims are bad".
Secondly, more deeply than this, if we have educated ourselves in Islam, we know that it is not merely "a religion" in a cafeteria of "World Religions" (as Sansal slyly implies, when he equates early 20th century French anticlericalism with the position of a 21st century Muslim choosing to float like a hummingbird in a gauzy limbo of agnosticism and when with a casual wave of the hand he lumps all "religions" together, mentioning only parenthetically and in passing that the "islamists" consider him an "apostate" -- thus obscuring the horrifyingly unique problem of Islam).
We know, despite what Sansal implies, that Islam is through and through -- and always was, and is now -- an imperialistic, supremacist, military & espionage organization that also happens to have a religious framework, all housed in a global worldview resembling a civilization, a world of its own apart from the rest of the world -- but historically relating to the wider world with fanatical hostility, hatred, and violence (when it is not trying to infiltrate through taqiyya deception). In this regard, Islam is unique. There is a kind of omnivorous voracity to Islam, and as part of this, a remarkably diverse panoply of tactics by which to pursue its constant hunger for conquest and subjugation in the name of its mania to slavishly follow the dictates of Muhammad. This remarkable diversity of tactics is not merely military, it is cultural and psychological, and seems to be able to pervade even in the midst of a seeming chaos of diversity and modern dissolution. One way it can pervade is in the heart & mind of a Bouamel Sansal who, even if his agnostic ruminations are sincere (but we'll never know for sure unless we have a mind-reading machine), still deep down cannot avoid defending the Islam he claims to be sort of detached from. I.e., he is still a mujaheed; it is only that his style operates on a subtler level than charging the front lines with a sword, or attacking a marketplace or airplane with a bomb. He is doing something much more covert: sowing seeds of doubt in the Enemy, gently massaging their anxiety that is dawning on them about how massive the threat is from Muslims, reassuring them that the danger is "more complicated" and less concerted than it really is. And it is rather a feat of disingenuous ingenuity that Sansal couches this reassurance in the form of a fiction novel predicting an ominous, bleak future of "Islamist" domination.
For there are two things going on when Sansal presents himself: the novelists's fiction novel, and the novelist himself. The novel shows us that this sensitive, intellectual Muslim feels our pain and with us looks on at the increase of "Islamism" with growing alarm. Meanwhile, the novelist himself comes across as a hopeful sign of intellectual, artistically sensitive open-mindedness in a Muslim. The Muslim novelist exerts semi-conscious effects on us, seducing us away from the horror which the facts about Islam would lead us to. He is just one of innumerable Muslims who feign assimilation, thus reinforcing our need, deep down, to avoid going down the road of total suspicion of all Muslims.
Indeed, Sansal says a startling thing towards the end of the interview -- something that would likely breeze by the unvigilant radar of most in the Counter-Jihad Mainstream, dazzled as they have let themselves become by Sansal's Bohemian chic, secular panache, and agnostic vibe. In the context of a deeper. philosophical question the interviewer broached -- "Have you lost faith in human beings?" -- Sansal begins with a bland affirmation of a faith in human beings on the individual level, when man "liberates himself from general rules"; quickly segueing into a gloomy view of human nature:
"The ability for humans to give up ground is incredible. They will give their necks to the noose in an instant. See what the Nazis did with the Germans in a short span of time. Humanity makes me despair: Whenever there are more than three humans, they become sheep."
While these thoughts sound refreshingly critical and intelligently jaded, what they are doing between the lines is sweeping up the problem which his novel and the interview are discussing into a generalized problem of human nature, thus obscuring the singular problems which only Muslims are causing by putting their Islam into practice. And these wistfully pessimistic pronouncements tend to be appealing to the modern Westerner who in the past 200 years at least has made such self-critical forebodings fashionable (where human nature is, of course, modeled after the Homo Occidentalis)
It is at this closing juncture of the interview, as he is elevating (read: obscuring) the theme into an amorphously universal reflection on how fucked up humanity is in general (with "Islamism" being just one relatively small, albeit noisy for now, aspect), and how that jaundiced Weltschmerz bodes darkly ill for our future, that Sansal utters his rather startling statement.
Interviewer: Do you consider yourself to be a 'canary in the coalmine'?
Sansal: In one sense, yes. I have a tragic vision of the future. I have seen my country [Algeria] allow itself to be surprised by a devolution that would destroy the state... We like to believe that societies are solid, but that's not at all the case: At the least shock, it all falls apart. I have seen it. In the face of Islamism, the values of reason collapse like a house of cards. People ask themselves: "Progress, where has that gotten us? To pollute the Earth? To substitute human relations with rules?" People are unhappy with the System. The light of philosophers has gone dark. The West needs to undergo a new Revolution. But who would make the supra-national laws? Meanwhile, Islam in its essence is globalized. It has the advantage.
Notice Sansal in those last two sentences didn't say "Islamism" -- but just Islam. Sansal here is subtly telegraphing that the best antidote for the ominous danger coming from the "Islamists" may come not from a West increasingly bankrupt in ideas & ability, but from Islam, which is inherently "globalized" and thus "it has the advantage". I.e., enfolded within his message, tucked away under its cotton layers, is the meme that the solution to the problem of "Islamism" may be... Islam! Of course, he doesn't couch it as a recommendation he is advocating; he knows his audience is too sophisticated for that, and he knows they would recoil if he had put it that way. Rather, he introduces the idea sideways, laying the groundwork by degrees, manipulating the modern Western reader, already predisposed to be deeply disenchanted with Western Progress and already disturbed by the storm clouds of "Islamism" on the horizon, then at the climax merely suggesting as a matter of fact that an inherently globalized Islam "has the advantage". And when we factor in the subliminal memes he has been insinuating throughout the interview -- that Islam is not "Islamism" and that there may be many more Muslims like him so that the prospect of a global Islam supplanting an already tired, bewildered, confused modern West may not be such a bad thing (as long as it's not "Islamist").
And above all, to couch all this in the ostensible framework of a bleak outlook on the future sprungboard from a fiction novel imagining a dystopia where "Islamism" takes over the West and imposes an "Islamist" theocracy on us all, is a masterful stroke: The overt pessimism masks and coaxes the always flickering flame of hope deep within his Western audience, no matter how depressed they may have become about the future; gently, furtively suggesting a way out: global Islam.