Orwell on Islam

By Max Fawcett | August 7, 2008


George Orwell is, in the estimation of many, the greatest writer of the last century, as well as the one most likely to be associated with it. As Christopher Hitchens wrote in Why Orwell Matters, Orwell correctly understood the "three great subjects of the twentieth century – imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism." But the twenty-first century has not seen the same demand for Orwell's wisdom, and the only time his name is invoked outside the confines of a high-school English class and beyond the subject matter of 1984 and Animal Farm is in association with the ironically misused and abused term "Orwellian."

On the matter of Islam's relationship with the West and vice-versa Orwell is assumed to have no specific insights to offer. Yet Orwell does matter when it comes to the intersection of the West and Islam, and while he may never have written a word about it, terrorism, multiculturalism, or the complicated relationship they all share, he did write extensively around those issues, about the ideas that inform each and the outcomes to which they inevitably lead. We can, with a little bit of work, piece together his views on the subject, one that has alternately vexed, inflamed, and confounded those who have put their minds to it. Considering his influence on the twentieth century, trying to determine what his views on the most important issue of the twenty-first seems like a worthwhile exercise.

First and foremost, Orwell would demand the introduction of a set of intellectual tools on the job site that have been conspicuously absent since September 11. Orwell believed that political rhetoric was a smokescreen intended to conceal the truth on the ground, and in the West that haze hasn't broken in some time. He wrote that "political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind," and he would likely apply that observation to the unbroken stream of propaganda about Iraq, Afghanistan, and Islam that has flowed from the White House and the Pentagon since September 12, 2001. He would draw immediate attention to politically and morally loaded terms like terrorism and the "War on Terror" as the problems that they are, and seek to eliminate their use or at least to clarify their meaning.

More importantly, Orwell would reject the Patriot Act, the Department of Homeland Security, and other supposedly necessary security measures as unnecessary and illiberal restrictions of personal freedom, appendages of Big Brother that could easily have been inspired by his own work. While 1984 may have been about the Soviet Union, it was also about the importance of truth and honesty and the barbarous influence of any regime that treats them as malleable and manipulable properties. It's likely that Orwell would have drawn connections between those observations and the condition in which Americans have lived for the past seven years. The scale of the bureaucratic infrastructure supporting the American government's so-called "War on Terror," from the domestic spying and surveillance to the restriction of basic freedoms and liberties, all defended as essential instruments of national security, matches anything Orwell wrote about in 1984.

Orwell would want those making supposedly informed judgments about an entire culture to have at least spent some time in contact with it, as he did during the Spanish Civil War. The outcome of his experiences, Homage to Catalonia, demonstrates the distortive effect of propaganda and physical distance, and there's no evidence that the influence of those factors has faded any in the last sixty years. He would therefore naturally distrust those writing about Islam and the myriad conflicts with and within it who did so from the comforts of North America or Western Europe. Orwell would be far more likely to trust a writer like Robert Fisk, who has spent the last thirty years, often at significant personal risk, reporting on the lives of the people of the region, than one like Martin Amis, who writes from a safe distance in the service of an idea or an ideology.

On more substantive matters, the most natural question on which one would seek Orwell's hypothetical advice is the relationship, if there is one, between Islam and totalitarianism. It was Orwell, after all, who wrote that "the Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it." There are more than a few writers, from Mark Steyn to Sam Harris to the late Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, who have made the case that Islam represents a totalitarian threat that is not so different from the ones Orwell himself fought so hard against.

Their argument rests principally on the supposedly illiberal and anti-democratic values of Islam, values that are aided and abetted by the West's self-destructive obsession with multiculturalist relativism and stifling political correctness. These writers reference sections of the Koran that compel its followers to seek out and kill infidels, and highlight inflammatory statements made by the Osama Bin Ladens and Mahmoud Ahmedinejads of the Islamic world in order to demonstrate that these values are not just implicitly but also overtly hostile to those of their western counterparts. They then buttress this dark vision with a demographic scare-campaign that portrays Islamic peoples not as vulnerable immigrants or even, at times, as human beings, but instead as a cultural Wehrmacht in waiting armed not with swords, guns, or even suicide bombs but with a Blitzkrieg of pregnant bellies.

American journalist Paul Berman's 2003 book Terror and Liberalism makes an even more explicit case for identifying Islam as a contemporary expression of twentieth century totalitarianism. He argues that both radical Islam and its twentieth century predecessors come from a tradition of irrationality, nihilism, and ethnocentric hatreds and insecurities. Judging from his work, one could just as easily imagine Tony Blair or George W. Bush using the same language as Winston Churchill did sixty years ago when he described Nazism as leading the world into "a new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of a perverted science." Perhaps Berman's best trick is casting those opposed to his message in the role of those Europeans during the interwar period that condoned the Nazi regime. To criticize the shape of American influence in Iraq or listen to the grievances of the Islamic world is, for Berman, to inhabit the spirit of Neville Chamberlain.

Yet in spite of the evidence presented by Berman and his like-minded colleagues, it seems unlikely that Orwell would agree with their interpretation. The fact that he spent most of his adult life fighting totalitarian regimes and ideologies of one sort or another would make him loath to associate Islam with totalitarianism as casually as Berman does. Orwell would not be so blind to the differences between pre-war Nazi Germany, which was an ethnically and culturally homogenous state with huge militarily and financial resources, and present day Islam, which is hopelessly fractured along cultural, religious, and geographic lines and little better off in terms of its finances or the state of its standing armies. He would probably regard Islam the same way as Joshua Marshall, a contributing editor with the Washington Monthly, who writes that "the weakness of the world of Islam is the kernel of the threat it poses, the heart of violent Islamism's toxicity."

Orwell, like many young English men of his generation, spent time in India as a rite of passage, and in so doing became an ardent, if sometimes reluctant, anti-colonialist. As he wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier, "in order to hate imperialism you have got to be part of it," and Orwell hated it more than most, and certainly more than most in the West are capable of today. It is unlikely in the extreme, therefore, that Orwell would fail to notice the post-colonial undertones of today's simmering conflict between the West and Islam. If he didn't sympathize with the anger that Islamic societies often directed towards the West, what historians used to call "colonial rage," he would at least understand it. That the United States' recent "liberation" of Iraq has included the creation of illegal prison camps, the practice of torture, the suspension of human rights for enemy combatants, and the illegal transportation of political prisoners across national borders, would only confirm his suspicion of imperial regimes and the human suffering they can cause, to say nothing of their ultimately self-destructive behavior. After all, it was he who wrote that "when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys." While the endgame in the Middle East is years if not decades away, Orwell's words seem as likely an outcome as any right now.

In the Orwellian spirit of self-effacing honesty it is important to note that while these are educated guesses, they are still just guesses. Thankfully, there's Christopher Hitchens to add a needed dose of authority and credibility to them. Interestingly, they don't come from his hagiography of Orwell, titled Why Orwell Matters. But Hitchens's book is all about Orwell's influence on the 20th century rather than the 21st and more importantly is an effort to protect his legacy and reputation from being appropriated by social and moral conservatives who had pictures of Ronald Reagan hanging on their dorm room walls in college. As such, it's more of an exercise in intellectual fence building than forward thinking and, more importantly, offers no insight on Orwell's prospective thoughts on Islam. This quality is underscored by the fact that, despite the fact that the book was published in 2002, in does not devote a single word to it.

No, the authority and credibility that Hitchens brings to these efforts to predict Orwell's opinion on Islam come instead from his behavior towards it himself. Hitchens is very much an heir to Orwell's intellectual throne, more so at least than any of the other people who have chronicled his life or studied his writing. His core values, from an unbending commitment to liberty, freedom and democracy and an understanding of the necessary role that military force plays in underwriting each, to his lifelong political affiliation with socialism closely mirror Orwell's. So too does Hitchens's commitment to oppressed peoples abroad and his willingness to both document and participate in their struggles, actions that reflect Orwell's observation that "there's no such thing as ‘staying out of politics.'

But the most important among Hitchens's many similiarities to Orwell is the irrepressible spirit of contrarianism one finds in his writing, a spirit that has found its fullest expression in his quixotic support for the war in Iraq. It is easy to forget just how subversive Orwell's novels were, particularly Animal Farm and 1984. It's equally easy to forget that many people under the age of 40 who lived in the West were loyal to an iteration or variant of communism, and many more were still sympathetic to communism's core values, before Nikita Khrushchev's speech in 1956 denouncing Stalin's "cult of personality" and enumerating the crimes he committed in support of it. Understood in that context, Orwell's books were devastating critiques of this prevailing consensus and perhaps the greatest pieces of contrarian writing of the 20th century. That he wrote them in a climate of noxious nationalism and patriotic anxiety makes them all the more incredible, a fact that is easily forgotten in a cultural landscape that regards communism's evils as having always been self-evident and widely understood.

Having established Christopher Hitchens's credentials as Orwell's contemporary representative, we can now turn to his thoughts on Islam. Reassuringly, he rejects the demographic argument made by Steyn, Fallaci, and others, writing that "Islam is as fissile as any other religion (as Iraq reminds us). Little binds a Somali to a Turk or an Iranian or an Algerian, and considerable friction exists among immigrant Muslim groups in many European countries." Likewise, he is careful to avoid associating the behavior of the extremes of the Islamic world with the attitudes of the millions of other people who live there. As he writes, "there are many millions of Muslims who do worry about this, and another reason for condemning the idiots at Foggy Bottom is their assumption, dangerous in many ways, that the first lynch mob on the scene is actually the genuine voice of the people. There's an insult to Islam, if you like."

But Hitchens's disdain for misleading or oversimplifying arguments is not limited to those who fear or dislike Islam, and he's just as critical of those who would casually apply the label of so-called "Islamophobia" to any and all criticisms of it. In a February 2007 article for Slate discussing the controversy over the Danish cartoons that depicted the prophet Muhammad, Hitchens argues that the West — he provocatively describes it as the "civilized world" — needs to abandon this "idiotic masochism." For Hitchens, death threats, fatwas, and other forms of organized violence must not be regarded as acceptable responses to insult or offense, and the West has a duty to remind the Islamic world of that fact. More importantly, the West has a duty to protect the right of free speech and the public spaces in which it takes place, as well as ensuring that discussions about Islam are not informed by a kind of unspoken cultural censorship. To that end, writing about his friend Martin Amis's controversial book "The Second Plane" Hitchens writes that "it is much worse than pointless, in the face of genuine worry about the spread of real bigotry and awful violence, to try to pin the accusation of prejudice on those who are honestly attempting to ventilate the question, and to clarify it." It is safe to assume that Orwell would share this concern.

Unsurprisingly, Hitchens's attitude towards Islam has irritated people on both extremes of the conflict. Either he is blind to the threat posed by Islam or among those who misrepresent the existence of one, too sympathetic to the concerns of Islamic people for some while not nearly enough so for others. Yet Hitchens likely interprets these criticisms as affirmation because on the matter of Islam he is making the Orwellian case for nuance, complexity, and an appreciation of the finest details, a position that is guaranteed to offend those on the extremes. As he writes, "the Islamist threat itself may be crude, but this is an intricate cultural and political challenge that will absorb all of our energies for the rest of our lives: we are all responsible for doing our utmost as citizens as well as for demanding more imagination from our leaders."

It is, of course, entirely possible that George Orwell would suffer the same kind of intellectual meltdown that many prominent writers have suffered when trying to understand and interpret Islam. Martin Amis, for example, argued in 2006 — while he was writing a book about the same subject — that "there's a definite urge — don't you have it? — to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.' What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation — further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they're from the Middle East or from Pakistan … discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children.'"

It is conceivable that Orwell too could have allowed these kinds of dark thoughts to define his view of the subject. But it's far more likely that Orwell would have followed the path that Christopher Hitchens has cleared, one that invites complexity, that demands linguistic and terminological simplicity, and that prioritizes observational information over ideological tendencies. After all, Orwell saw through the dense fogs of war, nationalism, and a propaganda campaign more intense and intrusive than anything taking place today and identified with breathtaking clarity and accuracy the real dangers of communism and totalitarian government. It's safe to assume that he'd be able to do the same today, and safer still to believe that those insights would be just as valuable.

Toronto, August 7th – 2,720 words.



  • Max Fawcett

    Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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