Why I think Martin Amis is racist

5:46 pm - November 23rd 2007

by Sunny Hundal    

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Since the debate over how brilliant Martin Amis is at current affairs commentary continues, via articles and letters, I’m going to return to this issue again. It’s worthwhile re-visting this controversy to clarify issues around it.

Should Amis be regarded as racist? How should the liberal-left approach such issues? This is what I want to explore.

For the uninitiated, Martin Amis was caught in this controversy when newspapers pointed out that a fellow professor at Manchester University, Terry Eagleton, had been quite scathing of comments he had made last year. Here is a quick summary. That was over a month ago. Last week Ronan Bennett waded in again, prompting a retaliation by Christopher Hitchens and a flurry of letters, mostly supporting Bennett. Kamila Shamsie weighed in at the Guardian blog.

Let me start by doing away with a straw-man; I don’t believe that criticism of religious texts from a human rights perspective is racist. In other words, if you think certain scriptures are homophobic, misogynist or racist – I don’t have a problem with people pointing that out. The law, in my view, should always favour human / civil rights above “religious sensitivity”. So, I’m not convinced by Hitchens or Ian McEwan’s letter because both only raise this straw-man. Neither am I opposed to criticism of Muslim organisations; I do it all the time.

But that isn’t the crux of this issue in my view. The point here is about deliberately demonising an entire group of people, de-humanising and cursing them, because they happen to share a religion or background. That is xenophobia.

Amis’s most offensive utterings were:

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 let 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.

Search non-white people until they feel the pain, he says, and sort themselves out. Once Eagleton criticised this, Amis tried to excuse himself by saying: “I hereby declare that ‘harassing the Muslim community in Britain’ would be neither moral nor efficacious.” Thanks for clearing that up for us now Amis.

But that isn’t all that Amis has said, and neither is he just talking about terrorists. As Bennett pointed out:

We can dispense with Amis’s polite fiction that he is talking about “Islamism”; there are just too many generalisations (”The impulse towards rational inquiry,” Amis wrote elsewhere, “is by now very weak in the rank and file of the Muslim male”), too many references to “them” and “us”. When he says, for example, “they” are gaining on “us” demographically, he is demonstrably not talking about “Islamists”. The danger of being overrun, outnumbered, outbred is a repugnant trope beloved of supremacists everywhere (it was used by the Evening Standard about “aliens” 100 years ago).

It’s obvious Amis isn’t really engaging in a theological exercise here. Even when he does, he does so very badly. He declared then:

“All religions have their terrorists, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, even Buddhist.” But, he claims, “We are not hearing from those religions. We are hearing from Islam.”

That is either because Amis is uninformed of affairs from around the world, or because he only wants to hear things within a narrow prism of thought. I wonder which it is.

There are parallels here, when I previously pointed out why Jews and Sikhs are not a race:

Judaism is a religion like Islam. It was people like Hitler who saw them as a “race” and wanted them wiped out. Of course, he wasn’t alone in seeing them as a race, as did many anti-semites in the UK and Europe.

The government designation of Jews as a race is predicated on that anti-semitism and is a technical measure more than anything. Otherwise the 1976 Race Relations Act made it illegal to disciminate against Blacks and Asians but not Jewish people. That doesn’t mean you can’t make fun of Judaism or Jews by the way – you still can. Similarly Sikhs are designated as an ethnic group. This is not because they are, but to get around the legislative difficulties of allowing them concessions (like wearing a Turban at work). But you can still make fun of Sikhs and of Sikhism. As the case should be.

So even though Jews are not a race, we fight anti-semitism because it is about demonising a group of people sharing a religion (and some cultural traits, that all religious adherents do anyway).

This is why I put Amis in the ‘racist’ category. He isn’t having a theological debate here; even his grovelling letter to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown was cringeworthy, presumably mistaking Sufis for Shias because the latter have no less a violent history than Sunnis or other religious groups (including Buddhists). Making derogatory about all “Muslim males” is certainly not theological inquiry and not a criticism of Islam. It is an attempt to de-humanise a huge group of people who happen to share a religion. Why should it any less xenophobic than cursing all Christian males on the basis of what is in the Bible?

Updated: I’ve put in the first part of Amis’s quote, though I don’t believe it changes anything.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Reader comments

Sunny, I dislike appearing on a comments thread to play the role of apologist for a racist, but I really think that by omitting the “There is an urge …” lead-in to the Amis quote you are badly mis-representing him. You should put the full quote. I really think that changes the meaning. The way I read it was that he is describing an ugly and reprehensible urge but not that he is not endorsing this urge at all – he’ s just admitting to its presence.

That interpretation is just not available the way you have presented the quote. The way you present it, you have him explicitly recommending searching non-white people etc. If have have not already convicted him, then his declaration that he does not condone harassing Muslims is perfectly consistent with my reading. It’s not with yours.

Amis thinks the urge he describes is a shared one. In the comments thread to the recent Harry’s Place discussion on this subject, I say I think he’s right (to be clear; not that I think that urge is remotely ‘right’). Perhaps I am wrong, and most people do not have stupid instinctive responses like that, before they think more clearly. But I do not think that having such thoughts equates to being a racist.

However, the comments to that Harry’s Place thread also brings up some of the other things Amis has said, which do smack of if not racism then at best lazy and stereotyped thinking. So I don’t know what Amis is. All I’m saying is that I think you’ve really misinterpreted that particularly quote.

(Also from that comments thread, I’m with Shuggy; that Bennett article was contemptible.)

Sorry, I should say more accurately that not only comments in that Harry’s Place thread, but also the Benett article, your post and other articles that you link to also bring up other things Amis has said that I agree are pretty indefensible (other than the we all say dumb things from time to time defense). My point only relates to the treatment of that one quote.

The complication here is because it’s so common for concepts of race, ethnicity, religion and so on to get mixed up – and once that’s happened it becomes increasingly difficult to unpick them.

If Amis could be described as racist, I would argue that it’s because he says we should treat ‘people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan’ less favourably than others – he’s judging people on the basis of skin colour. Not because of the fact that he says they’re Muslims (patently they may well not be).

I agree that his dismissal of a whole group of people simply because they happen to share a religion (I would argue they don’t, however, necessarily share a background) is ignorant, unhelpful, crass and dangerous. On a related note, what is also unhelpful are the endless generalisations – whether positive or negative – about groups that aren’t homogeneous by way of references to the Muslim community, the Sikh community, the black community, the Jewish community and so on. Ali Eteraz’s article in the Guardian today on Muslim identity is interesting on this point:


I entirely disagree with what Amis said – I’m just not sure calling him a racist because he’s prejudiced about Muslims is quite accurate. Xenophobic, I’d agree with. I don’t like sounding nit-picky but words do matter.

You ask how the liberal-left should approach such issues: terms like racist and fascist are bandied about ever more freely and indiscriminately (pun intended!). Not only does that diminish their effect when they really do apply, but it often serves to close down debate, leaving those on the left particularly open to accusations of thought-policing etc.

Luis, I always find it amusing when people like to “put things in context”. A person who wants to put Amis into context may not necessarily want to put an imam “in context” when he declares that homosexuals should be pushed off a cliff… but then adds that British Muslims should obey the law of the land.

Then, we never hear the end of the outrage. I’m somewhat perplexed that same commenters can’t work up that outrage this time, rushing instead to provide context.

Anyway, Ami’s post puts up lots of straw-men too

In my view, the conundrum is academic as long as someone like Ibn Warraq has to write Why I am not a Muslim under a pseudonym, whereas Bertrand Russell could freely write Why I am not a Christian 80 years ago. Until this can be freely and fearlessly debated, the strands cannot be fully teased out.

Again, no one is defending Middle Eastern regimes. We do have “ex-Muslims” in this country, and they’re alive and kicking… so I don’t know what her point is… unless she actually wants to compare how great Britain is compared to a Middle Eastern country for free expression.

Conscious therefore of the pitfalls of the substitution game, I invite a thought experiment, where you substitute Mormons for Muslims, and FLDS for Islamism. Would your qualms about even discussing the content and consequences of the particular theology still prevail?

This for example at the end. We’re not discussing theology here, and anyway contexts should only be used to say that everyone should be treated equally. Ami’s implication is that because one can’t imagine talking about Mormons in the same way as Muslims, then they should be treated differently.

There is nothing examining the crap Martin Amis has actually come out with. So the piece is facile.

To address your point: But I do not think that having such thoughts equates to being a racist.

When does a person become a bigot? It’s a genuine question, since I forgot to include the bit where Amis is wondering why his daughter’s stuff is being searched instead of some Middle Eastern looking kid.

terms like racist and fascist are bandied about ever more freely and indiscriminately (pun intended!). Not only does that diminish their effect when they really do apply…

I agree, but I don’t like to use this too commonly as others do.. say the 1990 Trust for example. But in this case I’m genuinely bemused that so-called liberals are falling over themselves to put Amis “in context”. Xenophobic would perhaps be a better catch-all term.

but it often serves to close down debate, leaving those on the left particularly open to accusations of thought-policing etc.

I don’t think this ever happens… we have endless discussions all over these issues and the right still complain about thought-policing. One only has to read the 70 millionth article on immigration in the Daily Mail or Telegraph complaining that its an issue no one wants to talk about, to be bored of their whinging.

Unfortunately is it all too easy to fall into the trap of using the same confused lexicon to denounce a person you wish to criticise for using themselves.

By accepting and restating the statistical correlations between people of a similar background, their similar belief systems and their ethnicity or whatever else to create a general point is not necessarily evidence of bigotry, but it is (by necessity and efficacy) what governmental regulations require and is therefore a valid mode of expression to criticise the actions of government agencies.

There is so much confusion over the misapplication of correlated terminology, and it is highly sensitive because only rare exceptions are prepared to admit they are confused, fewer still willingly admit the potential to be wrong. Where issues of nationality and religion are concerned this problem becomes inflammatory as it strikes at the very core of a persons conception and understanding of the world around them.

That certain groups feed off the uncertainty (and many do) only contributes further uncertainty.

The correct response is to remove to a secular universalist position in order to neutralise any threat, not to promote any moral pluralism or relativism. Scarily, the evolution for the former to a ‘multi-culturalist’ latter has enabled the divide to be reopened, but then, how else do you integrate large numbers of immigrants from a non-secular society where the practical appearance of non-identification was a non-sequitur?

The less contentious comparison for both Martin Amis and this post to have proposed, would have been to draw the distinction between this multi-cultural society and the mono-cultural communities which are used as the reference points for the people under scrutiny.

It is only with amusement that I have by turn listened to descriptions of Britain as democratic and undemocratic, racist and liberal, Christian, catholic and irreligious (as well as everything else under the sun). Simply, there is always more to discover – thankfully we are greater than the sum of our parts!


I think I can guess who you have in mind for people who want to put things in context when it suits them but not at other times (and who get outraged about Muslims but not about Amisis), and I hope you do not presume to lump me in with them.

I’m not sure either that being ‘amused’ by people wanting to put things in context is a very creditable reaction – I would have thought it obvious that when the context changes the meaning (which, obviously again, it can) then you must not omit that context.

If the full context of the Iman talking about pushing homosexuals off cliffs changes the meaning of his words, then the context must not be omitted. From what I gather from your description of it, the full context shows that this Iman was not actually advocating pushing homosexuals off cliffs because that is illegal, which does change the meaning so ought not be omitted, but it doesn’t to my mind make this Iman’s view’s that much more palatable.

When it comes to this particular quote from Amis, you omit a context which (potentially) completely changes the meaning of his words. You ought not do that. Why not amend the quote in the post? If you think that doing so will somehow weaken your argument, then you are implicitly conceding the context changes the meaning. Otherwise, what’s your reason for not giving that quote it’s context?

You said you were going to address my point that having “such thoughts” does not make one a racist. I cannot see that you did address my point in the slightest. To be clear, the “such thoughts” I was referring to are fleeting ‘us’ and ‘them’ reactions, that are repudiated with the next thought. The sort of thoughts that come naturally, I would suggest, to many people – this point is discussed in the Harry’s Place thread.

As to the other things Amis has said which you mention, I agree with you, he does sound like a bigot. I’m not here to defend the man, just to take issue with your treatment of him on this particular quote.

How is discussing Mr Amis’ bigotry-or-not going to add to the “liberal-left” world?
One famous author says something, and I’m supposed to be bothered?
Freedom of speech is good, I’m glad he and I can say what we wish, but honestly, this debate about racist or not is silly.
Shouldn’t we be talking about the Lord Rothermere Academy and how wrong that is?
Or, more importantly, what policies the liberal-left want to see in the future… I thought that was the point of this site.
This piece is just adding to media-furore.

The debate about Martin Amis’ bigotry is important because it emphasises what racism actually is. I strongly disagree with Olivia above, racism is precisely what is highlighted in Amis’ behaviour, gross generalisation of an ethnic group. There does not have to be an overt and aggressive attack in order to label an action or speech with the term, it is quite simply discrimination based on race. It is clear that Martin Amis has been discriminating on the basis of race, even the temptation to say that we should treat people differently because they are from a specific country is racist and you would hope as a writer that he would recognise that.

Hi Luis, you say:
the full context shows that this Iman was not actually advocating pushing homosexuals off cliffs because that is illegal, which does change the meaning so ought not be omitted, but it doesn’t to my mind make this Iman’s view’s that much more palatable.

Which is also my point here. Amis says he doesn’t actually advocate locking up Muslims en-masse (later on, once the controversy blows up) but it doesn’t make his views any more palatable. And given his other views on the same subject, and his gross ignorance on the subject he writes about, it makes me think this goes further than simply a desire to write about current affairs. And the fact that people are saying he “is brave” for saying such things makes me want to challenge it even more. Brave for what? Having xenophobic thoughts?

I’ve added in the first part of the quote, but “having the urge” means he is happy to articulate xenophobia, and then later try and defend it by attacking Eagleton.

The sort of thoughts that come naturally, I would suggest, to many people – this point is discussed in the Harry’s Place thread.

I accept that Xenophobia and racism exist in lots of places. Doesn’t make it any better though, and the way to change that would be challenge it where we see it.

Jonathan: Or, more importantly, what policies the liberal-left want to see in the future… I thought that was the point of this site.

Understanding dynamics of race and religion (and terrorism) are also central to our state of affairs. The liberal-left cannot ignore issues around minorities and focus only on issues like education, crime, environment and trade unions. This is a broad church. I’ve only written about this again to clarify some of the issues around it…. specifically how racism can exist in different forms.


Do what?!

Laugh. Point out stupidity where stupidity rests, then move on.
Sunny is upset because this touches a nerve of his, there nothing I can do about that.

Chris Morris wrote a nice article about this today in the Guardian.
Amis is a plankton, and we should not give his frothing “I’m IMPORTANT” ravings so much credence.
Or coverage.
He a self-important, pompous git, representative of no-one but himself. Ignore him.

13. douglas clark

Well, I know Martin Amis is the target for the week. I’d just like to say that his two pieces in the Guardian:

Since then the world has undergone a moral crash – the spiritual equivalent, in its global depth and reach, of the Great Depression of the Thirties. On our side, extraordinary rendition, coercive psychological procedures, enhanced interrogation techniques, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Mahmudiya, two wars, and tens of thousands of dead bodies. All this should of course be soberly compared to the feats of the opposed ideology, an ideology which, in its most millennial form, conjures up the image of an abattoir within a madhouse. I will spell this out, because it has not been broadly assimilated. The most extreme Islamists want to kill everyone on earth except the most extreme Islamists; but every jihadi sees the need for eliminating all non-Muslims, either by conversion or by execution. And we now know what happens when Islamism gets its hands on an army (Algeria) or on something resembling a nation state (Sudan). In the first case, the result was fratricide, with 100,000 dead; in the second, following the Islamist coup in 1989, the result has been a kind of rolling genocide, and the figure is perhaps two million. And it all goes back to Greeley, Colorado, and to Sayyid Qutb.

do not support the idea that he is a racist. He is perhaps an iconoclast. If anyone out there can write better, then lets hear from them.

14. douglas clark


Do any of you remember being asked to stand silent for the dead of 9/11? We seem oddly unconcerned when we discuss the Iraqi dead, which is a factor larger, and not something we tend to grieve about. At least not with any public ceremony.

Strange weather, lately.

15. Luis Enrique


I could quibble that Amis’ admission of the presence of such ugly thoughts isn’t necessarily something that needs to be jumped on, but it’s always possible that the way I read his words was too generous, given some of the other things he has said. I dunno.

16. Padraig Reidy

Sunny, you’ve repeated Bennett’s notion that Amis must have confused Sufis and Shias. I really don’t understand why people continue to do this. Amis’s point in the letter to YAB was that her branch of the faith is more ‘poetic’ than the literalist, joyless brand of Islam promoted by Sunni Islamists. This is true. It doesn’t, as we’ve already discussed, make Shia-ism any more pleasant, as the likes of Hizb’Allah and the Islamic Republic of Iran make patently clear, but Shiaism is more given to ceremony, ornament and the like.

Is Amis a racist? I’m not really sure, to be honest. Part of this debate bores me, but I think it is important to discuss how we describe these phenomena.

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