Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Who's an Oxymoron Now?

Andrew Sullivan had a strange post last week in which he asked rhetorically whether the term "Muslim writer" is "becoming an oxymoron".

At issue was a missive from a Muslim journalist writing about a beheading of a writer in Somalia and the very real phenomenon of self-censorship among Muslim writers who fear they may be one wrong word from a similar fate at the hands of extremists. But Sullivan's question speaks both to his tendency towards wild overstatement when it comes to writing about Islam, and to a certain one-dimensionality in his thinking about Muslims.

Orhan Pamuk—Not an oxymoron

After all, the term "Muslim writer" covers a huge swath of literary territory, from Fareed Zakaria to Khaled Hosseini, and from Shirin Ebadi to Ahdaf Soueif. It also includes Sullivan's friend, Salman Rushdie, who knows all too well the wrath of the fatwa, and who has felt safe enough to be out of hiding for some time now.

Critically, the penumbra of Muslim writers also covers the likes of Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak of Turkey, Muhammad Salih and Yusuf Jumayev of Uzbekistan, and Sonallah Ibrahim of Egypt—all of whom have been imperiled not by Islamic fundamentalists, but by the same secular, nationalistic governments that are tasked with keeping Islamic radicalism at bay.

Sullivan's flip question reveals a certain narrow-mindedness when it comes to Islam. To him, apparently, there is only one kind of Muslim writing, and that's writing about Islam. He essentializes the Muslim literary and journalistic mind, and in so doing, gives short shrift to the great variety of writing that comes from Muslims and from the Muslim world.

There's no question that there are some very serious problems in the world of Muslim letters. To simplify things to the point of absurdity, however, is no way to begin to address those problems. A god-awful event in Somalia is a warning sign to be taken seriously, but that doesn't make it typical of the Muslim world, and it's certainly not a proper jumping-off point for a statement about the state of Muslim writing in general.
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