Last night I took part in a discussion, on the BBC World Service, about the Nigerian poet and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka’s outrageous comments on Britain and Islam.
In an interview with Tina Brown’s Daily Beast, Soyinka joined a long line of leading literary and cultural figures (Martin Amis, V S Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Michel Houellebecq, etc) who push ill-informed, ignorant and often idiotic theories about Islam, Muslims and “radicalism”.
Riazat Butt has an excellent response over at the Guardian’s Comment is Free, but I wanted to pick up on some of the 75-year-old Nigerian writer’s key howlers:
1) “England is a cesspit. England is the breeding ground of fundamentalist Muslims.”
Sweeping statement, anyone? There are, according to the Home Office, 111 terrorist prisoners in Britain who describe themselves as Muslim, and 75 who describe themselves as British. MI5 says it is monitoring the activities of about 2,000 individuals, who we can assume are Muslims. But there are two million Muslims in the UK. Three-quarters of them identify with the UK (compared to only half the general population). So, some context perhaps, Wole?
2) “The man did not get radicalised in Nigeria. It happened in England, where he went to university.”
Really? Where’s the evidence, Wole? Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab spent three years in university in London but, according to his Wikipedia biography, he was defending the Taliban’s activities in Afghanistan back in his high school days in Africa. According to Hillary Clinton, “The information we have on the Christmas Day bomber so far seems to suggest that he was disturbed by his father’s wealth and the kind of living conditions that he viewed as being not Islamic enough.”
The Nigerians who rang in to the World Service last night were none too pleased when I mentioned Clinton’s damning verdict on Nigeria’s “radicalising” poverty, inequality and corruption. Then there is the Yemen factor — Abdulmuttallab has told interrogators that his al-Qaeda handlers were Yemenis, and they provided him — in Yemen! — with the explosive device he stored in his underwear.
3) “Its [Britain’s] social logic is to allow all religions to preach openly. But this is illogic, because none of the other religions preach apocalyptic violence.”
This, for me, is the damning quote. How depressing it is that so many of our best Islamist-baiters turn out to be run-of-the-mill Islamophobes. Martin Amis, for example, claimed to be worried only by Islamists and not by Muslims — until he warned that “the Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order”. Whoops!
Soyinka starts off the interview moaning about “fundamentalist Muslims”, in the context of the attempted terror attack on Christmas Day, before claiming that “none of the other religions preach apocalyptic violence”, implying that Islam DOES preach “apocalyptic violence”. Yet another sweeping, ill-informed and bigoted view about the world’s second-largest, and fastest-growing, faith.
Oh, and has he noticed what fundamentalist Christians in his beloved Nigeria have been up to recently? Perhaps Soyinka’s intemperate outburst is a result of his experience of Nigeria, where militant Muslims in the north and militant Christians in the south are killing each other in their hundreds and thousands. Still, why blame “England” or Islam and Muslims as a whole?
Later in the Daily Beast interview, in a telling Eurabian moment, he refers to “open Muslims [in the United States], whereas in Europe they tend to go into ghetto schools.” What, all of us? Who is this “they”?
4) “It all began when he [Ayatollah Khomeini] assumed the power of life and death over the life of a writer . . . Al-Qaeda is the descendant of this phenomenon.”
Bin Laden is the descendant of Khomeini? The Sunni extremists of al-Qaeda are an offshoot of the Shia hardliners of the Iranian Revolution? Really? Has Soyinka gone mad? Has he ever read any history? Does he understand ANY of the differences between Sunni and Shia Islam?
This is wilful ignorance, based on sweeping generalisations. Al-Qaeda is a “descendant” of Sunni Salafist Islam, of the takfiri ideology of Sayyid Qutb and co, of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, etc, etc.
5) “I doubt you can have the kind of indoctrination schools in America as you do in the UK. Besides, there’s a large body of American Muslims in the US — the Nation of Islam — which has created a kind of mainstream Muslim institution.”
This is madness. The Nation of Islam is not a “mainstream Muslim” group. Its members are not considered orthodox or mainstream Muslims, because they refuse to sign up to basic Islamic beliefs (about the nature of God, the finality of the prophethood of Muhammad, and so on). It is a crackpot, anti-Semitic cult, based on bizarre black-supremacist theories on the origins of man, which forbids interracial marriage. And these are the “Muslims” that wise Wole thinks are “mainstream”, and examples to the rest of us? He must be having a laugh . . .
Reading Soyinka’s remarks about “England” and “Muslims, I’m not sure whether I’m more offended and outraged as an Englishman or as a Muslim. He used to have a great mind and was one of the foremost campaigners against apartheid and bigotry, a real political and cultural icon. What on earth happened to him?