I must confess: About a third of the way through Douglas Murray’s Islamophilia, I tossed it onto the discard pile. (OK, not really, since I was reading it on my Nook.) But before I abandoned this book, my conscience got the better of me. I re-launched the file and read to the end.
I am very glad I did.
If I were to blurb Islamophilia, I would say, “Douglas Murray has provided us with a document that is challenging, bitter, distasteful, and difficult to digest. And it may well be one of the most important books of the past few years.” (Hey Mr. Murray, don’t forget me when the print edition goes to press.)
In this short book (more of an extended essay), Murray vents over post-9/11 media treatment of Islam, which he considers to be inconsistent with treatment of other religions. For Murray, Islam is like an update on the Seinfeld episode when a reporter thought Jerry and George were a couple, prompting qualified denials (“not that there’s anything wrong with that”).
Unfortunately, this is not a book with a strong sense of humor, and it reads more like a polemic than an essay. In the early pages, Murray’s anger overshadows his argument. For example, Murray expends much energy going after the 1001 Inventions multimedia education project, which spotlights Muslim contributions to science and technology. He argues that the exhibit crosses over into historical revisionism, and perhaps he’s right. I’ve never seen the exhibit myself, but he’s not the first person to make this critique. But regardless of the factual accuracy, his mocking tone is more befitting a late-night drunk dialogue.
Here is where I shut it down.
I intentionally avoid politics in this column, particularly because I believe—excepting the extremely polarized rants on the nonfiction bestseller list—that literature is one of the few uniting or at least neutral spaces remaining. (I would say animals and football are the others. Folks love their dogs no matter where they stand on universal health care.)
But due to the subject of this book, I feel some disclosure is appropriate. I am a liberal, yet what drew me to this book is that I agree with Murray, a neoconservative. It’s an area of contention with my liberal friends, who apply inconsistent standards toward Islam. Were the Catholic church to require women to wear hijabs and be accompanied by men in public, it would be denounced as part of the church’s war on women. But when mandated by Islam, it’s dismissed as a cultural difference.
I’m not asking my liberal counterparts to feel one way or another about these religions, but as a matter of intellectual integrity, I do expect them to be consistent.
So, I was drawn to the thesis of this book, but turned off by the tone. What made me pick it back up?
When it comes to Islam and art, there are three events that are indefensible: the fatwa against Salman Rushdie (for writing a novel); the brutal assassination and near-decapitation of Theo Van Gough (because of an 11-minute film); and the more than 200 people who have been killed in response to Danish cartoons.
And then there was the censorship of the animated show South Park and the death threats aimed at the show’s creators. Murray writes:
“This, however, is the new normal. Cartoons are censored. Any possible offence to Muslims is averted by series and broadcast networks that routinely and enjoyably satirise everything else under the sun, including all other religions.”
Here, Murray hits his stride. He addresses the violent backlash against artists and how it has led to pre-emptive self-censorship. For example, The Jewel of Medina, a book Random House dropped for fear of attack—a merited fear as weeks later a book publisher in Britain was fire-bombed for agreeing to release the book (which Murray says has still not been released in Britain).
What’s happening now, he argues, is self-censorship for fear of reprisal. Something absent following critiques of other faiths:
“Artists and writers have been caught off-guard. Having poked at empty hornets’ nests for so many years they have forgotten the courage required to do the necessary poking at full ones.”
Murray then sounds the call for bravery and the courage to support artistic freedom. He closes with some of the book’s most thoughtful passages and proposes solutions to overcoming both phobias and philias.
It is this last part that really elevates Murray’s argument, and makes me glad I stuck with the book.
Like I said, this is a difficult read, but an important one. I often disagree with Murray, and at times he made me cringe, but in the end, his argument is thorough and thoughtful and worthy of consideration.