Peter Popham in Rome and Thais Portilho-Shrimpton, Independent (London), June 22, 2008
The novelist Ian McEwan has launched an astonishingly strong attack on Islamism, saying that he “despises” it and accusing it of “wanting to create a society that I detest”. His words, in an interview with an Italian newspaper, could, in today’s febrile legalistic climate, lay him open to being investigated for a “hate crime”.
In an interview with Guido Santevecchi, a London correspondent for Corriere della Sera, the Booker-winning novelist said he rarely grants interviews on controversial issues “because I have to be careful to protect my privacy”. But he said that he was glad to leap to the defence of his old friend Martin Amis when the latter’s attacks on Muslims brought down charges of racism on his head. He made an exception of the Islamic issue out of friendship to Amis, and because he shares the latter’s strong opinions.
“A dear friend had been called a racist,” he said. “As soon as a writer expresses an opinion against Islamism, immediately someone on the left leaps to his feet and claims that because the majority of Muslims are dark-skinned, he who criticises it is racist.
“This is logically absurd and morally unacceptable. Martin is not a racist. And I myself despise Islamism, because it wants to create a society that I detest, based on religious belief, on a text, on lack of freedom for women, intolerance towards homosexuality and so on—we know it well.”
McEwan—author of On Chesil Beach and the acclaimed Atonement and Enduring Love—has spoken on the issue of Islamism before, telling The New York Times last December: “All religions make very big claims about the world, and it should be possible in an open society to dispute them. It should be possible to say, ‘I find some ideas in Islam questionable’ without being called a racist.”
But his words in the Corriere interview are far stronger, although they do fall short of the invective deployed by Martin Amis. He has said “the Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order”, and told The Independent’s columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a Muslim, in an open letter: “Islamism, in most of its manifestations, not only wants to kill me—it wants to kill you.”
McEwan’s interviewer pointed out that there exist equally hard-line schools of thought within Christianity, for example in the United States. “I find them equally absurd,” McEwan replied. “I don’t like these medieval visions of the world according to which God is coming to save the faithful and to damn the others. But those American Christians don’t want to kill anyone in my city, that’s the difference.”
But McEwan’s specific irritation is reserved for those who find ideological grounds to condemn his and Amis’s views. “When you ask a novelist or a poet about his vision regarding an aspect of the world, you don’t get the response of a politician or a sociologist, but even if you don’t like what he says you have to accept it, you can’t react with defamation. Martin is not a racist, and neither am I.”
Elsewhere in the interview McEwan serenely predicted the Balkanisation of the United Kingdom. “Great Britain is an artificial construction of three or four nations. I’m waiting for the Northern Irish to unite with the Irish Republic sooner or later, and also Scotland could go its own way and become independent.”
Does the prospect disturb him? “No,” he replied, “I think that at this point we should start to reflect on Englishness: this is the country of Shakespeare, of Milton, Newton, Darwin . . .”