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Speaking of Islam: An Orwellian Story

A few metres from my office at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the heart of London’s Bloomsbury area is the Senate House of the University of London, a remarkable neo-classical colossus of a building which functioned as the headquarters of Britain’s ministry of information, where George Orwell worked occasionally during the second world war.

The building’s influence on Orwell is apparent in his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) which powerfully evokes a lobotomised society controlled by Big Brother, whose Thought Police dominate a brainwashed populace while torturing anyone guilty of “thoughtcrime” into submission.  Winston Smith, the tragic hero, is charged with the daily task of altering the historical record to conform with whatever the current position of the regime (Oceania) happens to be in relation to its counterparts (Eurasia and Eastasia); he works at the Ministry of Truth, which Orwell drew on his wartime experiences of Senate House to depict.

The novel is most often viewed as a political satire of the totalitarianism of the era (especially Soviet, as the Fascist regimes had fallen by the time the book was written) and an indictment of ultra-controlled illiberal societies.  Among the most memorable themes is its emphasis on the state’s use of mass media to establish complete power over language and thought.  Orwell elaborates this theme via the concept of “Newspeak”, the language of the ruling Party, used to smooth over any complexity in favour of easy and clear dichotomies: “goodthink” versus “thoughtcrime”.

Orwell writes elsewhere, in a famous essay, that “(political) language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.  In this non-fictional context, Orwell seems to be acknowledging that “thoughtcrime” is not limited to Soviet and Fascist regimes, that the distortion of reality is a feature of politics in general, and (as other parts of this essay illustrate) that the media is complicit in the assault on independent thinking.

The Formula

The word “Orwellian” has itself become instantly recognisable in modern media and political discourse as its description of a world of lies, propaganda and indoctrination.  Its connotations seem to become even more sinister when it is used to identify, not direct and overt deceit, but the kind of “thought control” that operates in advanced capitalist societies: more ciphered, clandestine, opaque, flatly networked, horizontal, penetrative, global and politically transcendent than that in the intensely vertical and vulgar top-down form indicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

This current form of “thought control” can be seen operating in relation to many politicised topics.  In this short article I consider its relevance to media coverage of “Islam”, and argue that most consumers of the “Islam” story are socialised into accepting the dominant narrative of their societies in a much more subtle and clandestine way than even George Orwell imagined.

A single example of what has been written and said recently about “Islam” (the quote-marks are used to emphasise that this is a media construction) illustrates the point.  Thilo Sarrazin, a former board member of Germany’s Bundesbank and a former minister of finance serving in the Berlin government, published a book entitled Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany does away with itself) which argues that high birthrates among Turkish and Arab communities in the country mean that Germany will soon be ruled by “Muslims”, and that “Turkish genes” are responsible for lowering the “level of intelligence” in the country.

The great success of Sarrazin’s book, helped by huge press exposure, prompted the leading political magazine Der Spiegel to ask why Sarrazin has become a national hero.  Sarrazin’s phobia corresponds to what is happening elsewhere in Europe, such as the electoral success of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the minaret ban in Switzerland, and the emergence of ultra-nationalist parties in several European Union member-states (such as Hungary and Sweden).

Thilo Sarrazin’s words contain residues of a persistent racist myth that was central to the cod-science of the Nazis (among others): that intelligence is ethnically codified.  The obscure American pastor called Terry Jones who raised a furore when he threatened to burn a Qur’an in protest at the proposed establishment of an Islamic community centre in Manhattan (two blocks away from “ground zero“, the site of the 9/11 attacks) reflects a variant of “thought control” regarding Muslims: that “Islam” functions as a formula to aggregate “Muslims” even more tightly under the label of terrorism.  The social and geographical distance between these two men suggests that, while there is no all-encompassing anti-Muslim consensus, such attitudes are capable of reaching widely across the political cultures of the contemporary world.

It was, for example, another prominent English novelist, Martin Amis, who in 2006 gave expression to the “urge” to say that Muslims should “suffer until they get their house in order”, in a sequence of measures: “deportation — further down the road.  Curtailing of freedoms.  Strip-searching people who look like they are from the middle east, Pakistan, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children”.

Amis’s friend, the journalist Christopher Hitchens — who has written wdiely on George Orwell — in 2007 linked what he called “the fascistic subculture” in Britain to “shady exiles from the middle east and Asia who are exploiting London’s traditional hospitality” and to the projection of an immigrant group that has its origins in a particularly backward and reactionary part of Pakistan.”

All the individuals mentioned have (or, in the case of Terry Jones, been given) privileged access to the media, and their tendentious and in some cases inflammatory views are readily disseminated across the world-wide-web.  In the cacophony that invariably ensues the voices of reason and empathy tend to be quelled.

The Echo

These narratives also sketch the contours of a new strategic enemy, which exists as a projection from the mind of its makers rather than a reality.  An insidiously divisive discourse promotes the idea that “Muslimness” is equivalent to an all-encompassing and reductive signifier.  The toddler is the Muslim.  The neighbour is the Muslim.  The prostitute is the Muslim.  The gay-rights activist is the Muslim.  The prisoner is the Muslim.  The worker is the Muslim.  The feminist is the Muslim.  The disabled person is the Muslim.  The lover is the Muslim.  Muslim — and nothing more.

The waste of opportunities for understanding and dialogue here is obvious.  But even on their own terms, if writers such as Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens are seeking to distinguish forms of “Islamic radicalism” from a notional “good Islam”, then to talk of “Muslims” and “Islam” as if they are integrated entities is self-defeating — all the more so as their discourse pronounces the unity and singularity of Islam, and renders coherent what is diversified, differentiated and molecular.

The resemblance here is to the views of Osama bin Laden, who fervently believes that Islam is an all-encompassing totality which determines everything, all the way down to a person’s individual character traits.  In their shared flattening of complex realities these imagined adversaries collude in a dangerous myth of truly Orwellian proportions.

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam‘s newest book, A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilisations: Us and Them beyond Orientalism, will be published by Columbia and Hurst in November 2010.  This article was first published in openDemocracy on 28 October 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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