10 February 2008

Brawling in the Ivory Towers

Having mentioned the other week Martin Amis's cushy number at the University of Manchester, it seems only fitting that I follow up that story with the big Mancunian news of this week, which is that Terry Eagleton's future at the university appears to be in doubt.

It seems that England's leading Marxist critic is hitting official retirement age in July, and while Eagleton apparently wants to stay on, the University's official comment on the matter has been a tight-lipped observation that 'July marks Prof Eagleton's normal contractual retirement date at 65 and discussions are continuing regarding his future role'.

That doesn't sound too optimistic, does it?

Eagleton and Amis have collectively been drawing some attention to the University over the last while, though possibly not the kind of attention such 'iconic scholars' might be hoped to draw, through their very public disagreements over Islam.

You know the story? Well, basically, in September 2006 Amis was interviewed by Ginny Dougary for The Times , and was far from complementary towards Islam.
You can’t put [the Israelis] anywhere else now. They can’t have another country, another Homeland. It’s a very chilling thought because the only thing the Islamists like about modernity is modern weapons. And they’re going to get better and better at that. They’re also gaining on us demographically at a huge rate. A quarter of humanity now and by 2025 they’ll be a third. Italy’s down to 1.1 child per woman. We’re just going to be outnumbered.

The one built-in element that works in our favour is that it’s so vile and poisonous, so preposterously disgusting that it must burn itself out. They have managed to fix on a real paradigm shift – earlier, people would die for causes and for tiny religious reasons, but to convert it into this luscious, sensual paradise that you go straight to, while the rest of the poor sods have to moulder in the earth for centuries until they’re kicked awake by furious angels and interrogated about their sins. The suicide bomber doesn’t do any of that shit. He goes straight to the ripe wine and women . . .

What can we do to raise the price of them doing this? 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. They hate us for letting our children have sex and take drugs – well, they’ve got to stop their children killing people. It’s a huge dereliction on their part. I suppose they justify it on the grounds that they have suffered from state terrorism in the past, but I don’t think that’s wholly irrational. It’s their own past they’re pissed off about; their great decline. It’s also masculinity, isn’t it?

I think they’re hugely hypocritical in their hearts. Their big beef against the West is that it’s tempting them. That’s just impossible. I mean, ‘Sorry. We didn’t know that what we were doing was creating a society for the tantalisation of good Muslims.’ When Khomeini called America the Great Tempter, that’s what he meant, the Great Satan. In the Koran, Satan is a tempter. So they want it, you know'
'The Age of Horrorism', an essay in the following day's Observer made related points, to which Eagleton responded in an introduction to a new edition of Ideology: An Introduction, picking out sentiments expressed by Amis and remarking that these were not 'the ramblings of a British National Party thug' but were in fact the reflections of his colleague Martin Amis, a 'leading luminary of the English metropolitan literary world'.

Amis responded, and Eagleton replied, and others waded in and it all got very messy, and probably didn't raise Manchester's profile in quite the way the current regime had hoped when they recruited Amis.

Interestingly, Eagleton hasn't just leapt into the fray in defence of Islam, or even sheer contrariness. Rather, it seems, he's fighting for Civilization in a broader sense, and especially for the place of religion in civilization.
The implication from Amis and McEwan - and from Hitchens and Richard Dawkins - is that civilisation and atheist rationalism go together, and I think that is a very dangerous argument to make. The debate over God - Muslim or Christian - is for them increasingly becoming code for a debate on civilisation versus barbarism. I think one needs to intervene and show the limitations of that . . .

They buy their atheism on the cheap, because they have never been presented with an interesting version of faith. One of the impulses of my writing - and the new book - has been to try to differentiate a version of Christianity worth having. With people like Dawkins there is a kind of inverted evangelism; I find it extraordinary that not once does he question the terms of his science.
Whatever you think of Eagleton's take on Jesus in particular and on Christianity in general, that point has serious weight, and its central to his scathing LRB review of The God Delusion, which begins with the following piece of advice: 'Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.'

That rather sets the tone for the rest of the review. I rather wonder what Dawkins' response was.

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