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Feminism and Al-Qaeda: Martin Amis on mastering the male urge to dominate

Podcast & Video

Remembering Martin Amis (1949-2023)

Martin Amis, the novelist, screenwriter, and social commentator, died in May 2023. His passing represents the loss of an incisive and trenchant voice on culture, society and politics.

This is a speech that he gave in Toronto at the Grano Speaker Series on November 13, 2009. It was a program started by Rudyard Griffiths and Patrick Luciani in 2003 with proprietor Roberto Martella at his iconic restaurant. 

Amis’s speech starts with his thoughts on Islam, a burning topic after 9/11. As a writer, he held nothing back and always spoke his mind against those who made excuses for the violence of Islamists. The second part of his talk turned to feminism and the sexual revolution, a movement that never became the liberation many had hoped for. He tells a touching story of losing his younger sister to the excesses of the 60s. He ends with a wish that we can all agree that some cultural traditions must be condemned. 

Never far from his mind are the subjects of death and time. In 2009 he had just become a grandfather. When asked how that made him feel. He answered, “It’s like getting a note from your undertaker.”

Rather than lose the talk to the mists of time, we thought to share it with Hub readers in memory of a great writer and thinker. Included is an edited transcription, along with the complete audio.

A talk, entitled “Feminism and Al-Qaeda”, given by Martin Amis at the Grano Series, Toronto, Ontario, November 13, 2009.

MARTIN AMIS: The title I chose for this talk, “Feminism and Al-Qaeda,” sounds slightly confrontational, but the title is itself a reflection of our uncertainty in response to what became manifest on September the 11th, 2001. We know what we mean by feminism, but what do we mean by Al-Qaeda? I chose this shorthand as the best of an unsatisfactory set of epithets.

Islamism is not only hopelessly vague because it fails to distinguish between various wings of Islamism, some of which are merely medieval, patriarchal, and reactionary without being expansionist. What are the alternatives? Islamism is phonetically too close to Islam to be of any use. A year or two ago, I was accused in the British press of being a racist. If you ever want to mess someone up, call them a racist in the press. It’s like a golden hand grenade. You throw it, then you hunker down. It follows the accused around the world for life. It costs nothing to make the accusation, and it’s like being tarred and feathered, and it is inescapable, and permanent.

When my friend Ian McEwan came to my support at a press conference in Italy, he said, inter alia, “I despise Islamism.” It may intrigue you to know that when he said there was serious speculation in the British press about whether he’d be accused of a hate crime. The trouble is that Islamism has an I, an S, an L, an A, and an M in it, and to certain minds, that immediately conflates with Islam. It’s culturally insensitive to attack a religion. So Islamism is no good as a word. It’s amazing that eight years on we haven’t got a word for what we are talking about..

Islamofascism is quite accurate but hopeless for the same reason. Francis Fukuyama with this in mind suggested Jihadism which seemed more precise. Again, it has the wrong associations because to call someone a jihadi is the most glorious thing you can say about them. It also ignores the distinction between the big jihad in the outer world and the inner, personal, jihad. That’s no good either.

There are other possibilities. Takfirism. Takfir, it was a medieval heresy in Islam that said you could co-opt the divine judgment by killing people without deciding whether they were saved. In other words, you preempted God’s judgment, which could be justified in extreme circumstances. Within Islam, the Al-Qaeda branch is often called Takfiris because they have no qualms about killing Shia Muslims. Their rule when they, for instance, blew up those embassies in Africa was that they were told they would kill many Sunni Muslims, but they said that’s all right because if they’re bad Muslims, they deserve to die anyway, and if they’re good Muslims, then they’ll go to heaven. Unanswerable brilliance in that argument.

I thought Kafirism wouldn’t be bad. This is what Islamists call infidels, non-believers, Kaffirs or “kuffs.” This word, when you consider that it’s South African slang for blacks, is a good reflection of the racism of this movement, but Philip Bobbitt, in his marvelous book, Terror and Consent, came up with the shorthand Al-Qaeda. This will have to do. We can be sure I think that no one’s going to get arrested for hate crimes if they say that they despise Osama bin Laden. Osama, I sometimes think it’s all to do with birth order in his case. We know that’s a very important thing. Coming 17th out of 56 is a notoriously difficult spot. Well-known to be a right bastard. If that sounds culturally insensitive, then I mean it to be because polygamy is of course patriarchy at its most aggressive and brazen. We didn’t put up with it on this continent, on this land mass in Utah. Its social results in the Islamic world are, as V.S. Naipaul said, “A nation of half-orphans,” because the father has one wife and then moves on to another, and the children from the first marriage or the second marriage or the third marriage are ignored.

Also, it is hard to justify on commonsensical grounds in that there aren’t four times as many women as men in these countries. I have never seen a woman who had four husbands. It’s a strange debate, time, and moment within it. I take my hat off to the Left, in that they found something to defend in a movement that is racist, misogynist, homophobic, totalitarian, inquisitorial, imperialist, and genocidal. Perhaps it’s their view on usury that is attractive to the Left. Low-interest rates or non-existent interest rates. But our slogan in this debate, to clear ourselves with the Left, is quite simple. We respect Mohammed, which we do, and we do not respect Mohamed Atta. 

Through feminism, I’m trying to find a common ground, something that only a maniac could deny. At the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) in London, a couple of years ago, I addressed an audience of about 130 people and said, “How many of you feel morally superior to the Taliban?”

After a lot of hesitation, 30 trembling hands move skyward. The Taliban who black out the windows of the houses in which women are condemned to spend their lives so that no sunlight will reach them and have their two-day massacres of tribal minorities, et cetera, then throw acid in the faces of young girls who go to school. If you don’t feel morally superior to them, I shudder to think about your home life.

I want to do this not with arguments and paragraphs arranged like battalions, but through anecdotes and personal experience. This is a story about Christopher Hitchens, who was in Pakistan in October 2001. As night was falling on the border city of Peshawar. Hitchens got out of his car, approached a market stall, and haggled over a bunch of t-shirts bearing the likeness of Osama bin Laden.

It is forbidden in Sunni Islam to depict the human form lest it lead to idolatry. But Osama’s lordly and deeply unintelligent visage was on sale right outside the mosque. That mosque emptied after evening prayers, and my friend was suddenly and thoroughly surrounded by a shoving, jabbing, jeering brotherhood. These are the young men of Peshawar.

The equivalents of these young men in the great conurbations of Europe and North America could expect to ease their not-very-sharp frustrations by downing a lot of alcohol, eating large meals with no dietary restrictions, racing around to one another’s apartments in powerful and expensive machines, downing yet more alcohol as well as additional stimulants and relaxants, jumping up and down for several hours on strobe lashed dance floors, and in a fair number of cases, by having sex with near-perfect strangers. None of these diversions are available to the young men of Peshawar.

To intensify the situation, just over the frontier, the West was in the early stages of invading Afghanistan, slaughtering Pakistan’s pious clients and brain children and brother patrons, the Taliban, and flattening the Hindu Kush with its power and wrath. The ears of these young men were still fizzing with the battle cries of hot mullahs, and their eyes were smarting anew to the chalk-thick smoke from the hundreds of thousands of wood fires. Fires that were kindled by the multitudes of exiles and refugees from Afghanistan camped out all around the city. Perhaps these young men were also aware that Pakistan had changed its policy towards the Taliban in exchange for American cash.

When the crowd scowled out its question, the answer needed to be a good one. They said to him, “Why do you want those?” Meaning the T-shirts. “You like Osama?” Now some facts about Christopher Hitchens. He is completely fearless, a most amazing trait. Did you hear that he recently got decked on the streets of Beirut when he came across a poster on the main street of Beirut advertising one of the most poisonous local parties, an Arabic Nazi party?

He took a felt tip pen and wrote “Fuck Off” all over it. Suddenly within seconds, cars were pulling up full of guys. Hitchens was knocked over. Then suddenly a crowd came out from a café onto the pavement, separating them forrtuitously. That night he went to Beirut University and addressed a large crowd, sections of which consisted of scowling young men and their writhing mustaches. He went through with that.

So they said, “You like Osama?”

I can almost hear the tone of the reply I would’ve given. Reedy, wavering, wholly defeatist. I would have said, “Well, I quite like Osama, but I think he overdid it in New York.”

No, that would not have served. What was needed was boldness and brilliance. The exchange continued, “You like Osama?” Hitchens said, “Of course, he is my brother.” “He’s your brother?” “All men are my brothers.” I would’ve liked to have said it then, and I would like to say it now. All men are my brothers, but all men are not my brothers. Why? Because all women are my sisters, and the brother who denies the rights of his sister is not my brother.

I just finished a longish novel about the sexual revolution, which has an Islamic theme, but before we get to that, let’s ask, what was the sexual revolution? The Philip Larkin poem goes, “Sexual intercourse began in 1963, which was a little late for me between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP.” I think he got the date wrong. I think it was 1966. Anyway, I was 17 in 1966.

There wasn’t any sexual intercourse before then, but then it suddenly began in that year, and as far as I was concerned, it was right on time. But this novel is called The Pregnant Widow, which is a quote from Alexander Herzen, the Russian thinker, and he’s talking about revolutions, political and social. He says, “The death of the contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. Yet what is frightening is that the thing the departing world leaves behind it is not an heir, an inheritor, but a pregnant widow. Between the death of the one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by. A long night of chaos and desolation will pass.”

It was a velvet revolution, literally so. Eric Hobsbawm, the Marxist historian, says the fact that fashion designers can have a particular slant on the future is one of the most urgent—why this is so, is one of the most urgent questions in social history, and no one has come up with an answer to it. In other words, the costumes we wear during these social changes are full of commentary.

If we look at the costumes worn in 1970, which I take to be the fulcrum year, the men were all dressed as clowns with velvet jackets, grimy scarfs around the neck, and long hair, while the women were nearly naked. That was the “costuming” of that revolution. What men were doing was giving away a large percentage of their power, and what women were doing was showing female magnitude. You could say it was a sexual bribe in a way that men had agreed not to resist the rise of women. The understanding was that there would be—

Well, there were four pillars of the sexual revolution, as I see it. The first one was that there will be sex before marriage. Of course, there always had been, but there would be sex for everyone before marriage, which was excellent news except for everyone who hadn’t had sex before marriage. I didn’t have this row with my father because he’d had it with his father, and he was the absolute opposite. He was very encouraging and liked the idea of my brother and me being sexually active. On the date this was established in the U.S. he took us out for a celebratory lunch in Soho and bought us 144 condoms each. Yes, gross indeed! For the next year or two, I watched with horror and envy as my brother’s supply emptied at about five times the rate of mine. He is a year older. But everyone else, all my male friends, including Hitchens and McEwan, were having a terrible time with their father. Sex before marriage was never mentioned by the fathers, but clearly, they were thinking, “So there’s going to be sex before marriage, is there? On what basis was I told there wouldn’t be sex before marriage?”

I have a lot of sympathy for them in that they always knew that their generation would follow the pattern of the previous generation in that when they were young men, they would go to war. Everyone knew the First World War—the beginning of everything terrible in modern history—ended in 1918. Then, everyone knew fascism meant war. German fascism meant war. Then 21 years later, the Second World War. Twenty-one years after that, 1966, which is why it’s a key year, we weren’t going to war. We were going to have sex before marriage. Quite understandable that they had something to resent there. Instead of going to die in Europe, we were going to have sex before marriage.

The second pillar of the sexual revolution was that women have sexual appetites, which has always been true but quite startling at that time. Some men found that very difficult and alarming. 

The third pillar was one of these clauses in the revolutionary manifesto written in invisible ink or mirror writing. Not clear at the time. But we thought for a year or two that looks would cease to matter, that women would be brainy and have careers and the idea of being good-looking, which used to be your prerequisite for getting a good husband, was all going to disappear because you would be a person in your own right, and you would have an equal choice. For a year or two, this was in the egalitarian phase of feminism. There were hairy legs, and women didn’t wear bras and didn’t use makeup or brush their hair. That lasted not very long at all.

Then suddenly, everyone realized that looks were going to be much more important now because how you looked was going to be a question that mattered every day, and to new people. Intense self-absorption, narcissism, and concern with your appearance appeared then.

The fourth pillar is the most important and caused the most trouble. It said that in the 17th century, the subject of English poetry, there was a dissociation of sensibility, and thought separated from feeling. The Elizabethan poets and the metaphysicals, preeminently Shakespeare and Donne, could write brainily about love and sex without standing back from it. Then that unity dissolved, and people could no longer feel and think at the same time. Two centuries later, the romantic poets made enormous efforts to regain that unity. They tied themselves up in knots, trying to get that back, but they couldn’t.

Thought and feeling separated in the 17th century. In the sexual revolution, feelings and sex got separated. If you want proof of this, look to the industrialization of that rift, pornography. Pornography celebrates the separation of sex and feeling. Sex is depicted there and was present for everyone in this form, cleansed or purged of all its ancient colorations, primarily concerning pregnancy and possible death in parturition. All those heavy associations were taken away from it with results that I think remain unknowable.

You can’t see what the next generation’s sexuality is going to be. Your children won’t give you a candid glimpse of it, of course, but I got my sex education partly from my father and partly from dissecting worms in biology. I remember I was about 13 or 14. We were on holiday, and my brother came up to me and said, “Quick, Mart, Dad’s telling us the lot.” We already knew “the lot,” but that dad was telling us, and as he said, later, “I knew you knew, but it was a way of saying that it’s all right. I tell you and it legitimizes you, and then you can move ahead.”

All the difficult choices and adaptations fell to women. They had to decide how to play in this new world. The boys just went on being boys, only more so. But the women had to decide where they stood. The cleverest girls felt their way very cautiously and tried certain things. Some went too far, corrected themselves, and got something they were happy with. The basic ideology for girls was that they act like a boy because that was the only model for sexual promiscuity. Then the clever ones realized it wasn’t in a woman’s interest to do that, and it went against their nature.

Those were the clever ones, and there were two ways of going wrong. The first way was being more like a boy than even a boy, with several casualties. The more understandable and forgivable and touching response was those girls who tried to do it and found that the weight of the past, notably religion and the doctrine that you save yourself for your husband—which seems antique now, but were very present then—the weight of that was too much for them to shrug off, so they tiptoed in and then tiptoed back and got married young and had children.

I said it was a velvet revolution but not without casualties. My sister was one of them. It’s now become clear to the family that she was what they used to call a natural. She had the mental age of someone, perhaps 13 or 14, who never moved beyond that as she grew up. She was pathologically promiscuous. I think she was trying to find protection from men because she was like a child in this grown-up world. It was a terrifying prospect to get through. 

Now what I would like to do in conclusion is try and simplify this debate we seem to be having among ourselves, just as Islam seems to be having it among its own confessionists. Can’t we agree that it was a disaster when Germaine Greer said that to object to female circumcision is cultural imperialism? Don’t women trump all religions by sheer weight of numbers? I’m not saying, “Shouldn’t we make it purely a feminist issue? Then who can dissent from that?”

Now it’s not at all exclusive to Islam. Look at England, for instance. The most common form of death for women between 16 and 45 is murder by a male partner. It’s as if the history of civilization is the mastering of the male urge to dominate, to protect partly, but to assert masculinity by sheer bulk, physical bulk. This can take many different forms. Judaism, Sikhhism. Footbinding in China. There are people alive now whose mothers were footbound. It doesn’t mean binding the feet. It means crushing all the bones in the feet, usually with a rock. The foot in this damaged state is bound, and it’s agony for the rest of the woman’s life.

Suttee, in India, is a Hinduist practice where widows are burnt to death on a funeral pyre during the funeral of their husbands. Now, I don’t know how many of you here have lost a father, but did you ever think it was a good idea when your father died to burn your mother to death? 

Can we not agree? Will any trembling hands of dissent go up when I say there are certain things that we not only will not permit in our country, but we should join together in a siren of condemnation? These are the most obvious: female circumcision, the marrying of nine-year-old girls not to nine-year-old boys, but to old men. Nothing could be more concentratedly and richly violent than the idea of a nine-year-old being delivered into the arms of a full-grown man. And of course honour killing as a punishment for rape.

Can we not elevate the cause of women who are not a minority anywhere above these local and barbaric practices, which also reflect a completely alien idea of what a woman is? Could you marry your nine-year-old daughter off? Could you have her circumcised at the local barber when she’s three years old? Could you kill her with your uncles and brothers for something to do with her love life? Can we not all find common ground with this very obvious principle?

Thank you very much.