Saturday, July 29, 2006

Were Martin Amis and John Updike taken in by blowback from an anti-Muslim disinformation campaign?

You’re planning a major “war of civilizations” to remake the entire Middle East in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. It’s going to take some doing to convince people that Saddam Hussein is a ticking timebomb who needs to be overthrown in an invasion by something you’ll call “the coalition of the willing,” but you’ve got somebody forging some documents on stolen Niger embassy letterhead that might do the trick. However, you still need something more, something to sap the morale of enemy combatants by convincing them their religion is a joke and their sacred text is so screwed up it can’t even distinguish between virgins and raisins. Can you just make it up?

You can. Yeah, that’s the ticket! You can invent a fictional, pseudonymous scholar and publish his work as a book in German, and then you can quote the hell out of it on the internet, where few people will be able to check the primary sources. You’ll attribute the work to one “Christoph Luxenberg,” a brave German scholar forced to publish his controversial study anonymously for fear that angry, bloodthirsty Muslims will kill him. The New York Times, Newsweek, the Guardian and other normally skeptical publications will gleefully pick up the canard, because 9/11 was so recent and it's the kind of stuff people want to hear. Eventually public opinion will turn against the war and charges of document fraud will appear in the headlines. At that point it will seem prudent to “retire” special agent Luxenberg, and you will stop feeding the information pipeline. But tens of thousands of references to Luxenberg’s work will remain on the Web.

Could it have happened that way? Could both Martin Amis and John Updike have been sucked in by the blowback from an old disinformation campaign? There's some strange stuff out there that makes me wonder.

I first blogged about Luxenberg in passing a few months ago, when I wrote about “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta,” a Martin Amis short story in the The New Yorker. (Update: Published online by the Observer Sept. 3.) I didn’t much like the story, which is from his new book to be published in the UK in September as “The House of Meetings.” (3/16/08 Update: I was misinformed about "The House of Meetings." The story about Muhammad Atta is in his new collection of essays and fiction, "The Second Plane," recently published in the UK, and to be published in the U.S. this April.)

My post attracted quite a few Google hits over the months, but they really peaked last night, after Bill Moyers interviewed Amis on his “Faith & Reason” series and they mentioned the story. So I decided to take another look.

Martin Amis writes about the raisins of paradise
In the story, Atta is getting ready to commit one of the greatest crimes in history when he interrupts his preparations for this little epiphany about the raisins of paradise.
Ah, yes, the virgins: six dozen of them -- half a gross. He had read in a news magazine that “virgins,” in the holy book, was a mistranslation from the Aramaic. It should be “raisins.” He idly wondered whether the quibble might have something to do with “sultana,” which meant (a) a small seedless raisin, and (b) the wife or a concubine of a sultan. Abdul-aziz, Marwan, Ziad, and the others: they would not be best pleased, on their arrival in the Garden, to find a little red packet of Sun-Maid Sultanas (Average Contents 72).
What the hell is going on here? The passage intrudes by adding an incongruous note to the narrative. This sounds less like something a Muslim terrorist might think than something a British writer might think about a Muslim terrorist. And the whole idea of this absurd mistranslation at the heart of the sacred texts diminishes the religion of Islam, virtually reducing it to a bad joke. Even if Muhammad Atta were as secular as Amis makes him out to be and if he actually did think about this during his last days, wouldn't he have tended to see the substitution of raisins for virgins as one more Western slander of his culture?

John Updike writes about the raisins of paradise
I wondered about those raisins. Where did they come from? Back in May, I wasted the better part of an afternoon on the internet trying to track them down. Now, in updating the research I did back then, I was amazed to find out that the same raisin nonsense appears in John Updike’s new novel, “Terrorist.” From Mark Steyn’s review in Macleans:
The author certainly did his research, jamming it in at every opportunity. Ahmad's imam, for example, draws the lad's attention to a "rather amusing controversy over the scholarly dicta of a German specialist in ancient Middle Eastern tongues, one Christoph Luxenberg." A couple of years back, if you recall, professor Luxenberg suggested that the 72 black-eyed virgins business was a mistranslation and that it was actually 72 "white raisins" of "crystal clarity." "I fear," says Shaikh Rashid, "this particular revision would make Paradise significantly less attractive for many young men."

I'll wager there's not a mosque in North America where the imams rouse their young charges to destroy the enemies of Allah by engaging in wry disquisitions on metaphor, symbolism and literary interpretation.
Clearly, Martin Amis isn't the only novelist using a cursory examination of Google to compile his background research. Updike also seems to have been cutting-and-pasting the search engine findings rather liberally -- how else could he dream up an imam who would find the Luxenberg thing "a rather amusing controversy"?

Christoph Luxenberg writes about the raisins of paradise
“Die syro-aramäische Lesart des Koran: Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Koransprache” was published in Germany in 2000 by Christoph Luxenberg, a pseudonym for a scholar who -- as we noted -- supposedly did not dare reveal his name. The book still has not been published in English, though there were plenty of announcements on the web over the last few years saying English publication was imminent. Luxenberg’s theory of mistranslation, which went way beyond raisins and challenged the entire foundation of Islam’s sacred texts, hit the English-speaking mainstream media with a January, 2002 article in the UK’s Guardian, by one Ibn Warraq, also a pseudonym. In March of 2003, during the run-up to the Iraq war, the New York Times published an article about Luxenberg. And in July of 2003, the issue of International Newsweek carrying the story was banned and burned in Pakistan. That’s about it for mainstream media, but Google currently shows 20,400 hits for “Christoph Luxenberg.” Interestingly enough, there were 31,200 back in May, so the number seems to be shrinking rapidly.

It’s when I started to follow some of these links that I began to feel I was lost inside an echo chamber inside a hall of mirrors. The sources all echoed each other, and didn't seem to lead anywhere else. This post from the Daniel Pipes blog is typical. Most of this stuff was written during the triumphalist period leading up to and immediately after the invasion of Iraq, when the U.S. was going to remake the entire Middle East. After that, it all seemed to go away. Luxenberg’s book still hasn’t been published in English, and the only current references to it just cite the old sources.

Although they tend to get lost amid all the pro-Lundberg reference son the internet, there are some skeptics. For example, François de Blois in Islamic Awareness dismisses Christoph Luxenberg’s scholarship and questions his identity.
It is necessary, in conclusion to say a little about the authorship, or rather the non-authorship, the pseudonymity of this book. An article published in the New York Times on 2nd March 2002 (and subsequently broadly disseminated in the internet) referred to this book as the work of 'Christoph Luxenberg, a scholar of ancient Semitic languages in Germany'. It is, I think, sufficiently clear from this review that the person in question is not 'a scholar of ancient Semitic languages'. He is someone who evidently speaks some Arabic dialect, has a passable, but not flawless command of classical Arabic, knows enough Syriac so as to be able to consult a dictionary, but is innocent of any real understanding of the methodology of comparative Semitic linguistics. His book is not a work of scholarship but of dilettantism.

The NYT article goes on to state that 'Christoph Luxeuberg is a pseudonym', to compare him with Salman Rushdie, Naguib Mahfouz and Suliman Bashear and to talk about 'threatened violence as well as the widespread reluctance on United States college campuses to criticize other cultures'. I am not sure what precisely the author means with 'in Germany'. According to my information, 'Christoph Luxenberg' is not a German but a Lebanese Christian. It is thus not a question of some intrepid philologist, pouring over dusty books in obscure languages somewhere in the provinces of Germany and then having to publish his results under a pseudonym so as to avoid the death threats of rabid Muslim extremists, in short an ivory-tower Rushdie.
So, was all this part of one of those disinformation campaigns that swirled around the world, like news of the infamous Niger documents, before and during the Iraq invasion? With sufficient resources, you can turn the internet into an amplifier for almost anything. Did Christoph Luxenberg ever really exist? Who knows? But the contempt for Islam implicit in his work (though he always was careful to deny that he was attacking Islam) was echoed in the mockery of the prisoners’ religion at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Once they were no longer useful -- or because there were starting to be too many loose threads -- both Luxenberg and his book seem to have quietly faded away.

Why does it matter?
In the wake of -- and sometimes preceding -- every war -- you’ll find intelligence agency PsyOps campaigns. Not a lot of permanent harm, aside from the matter of planting crap in the historical record and permanently stinking up the whole place. Sometimes it’s necessary, and sometimes it’s just “boys being boys.” Thinking up weird new ways of humiliating your opponent is just one of the things these guys do.

But there’s a more serious side to this. In order to fight a protracted war against one of the world’s great religions, you need to dehumanize the enemy for your own troops and the folks at home. Making the enemy’s religion look ridiculous is a start. Making it seem like a corrupted version of your own, true religion stirs the pot. By the time you’ve finished cooking your stew, your enemy, who obviously adheres to a primitive, uniquely violent religion, is no longer fully human.

Dehumanize them enough, and some people start to think it’s OK to call them not soldiers, who would have rights under the Geneva Convention, but illegal enemy combatants, who don’t -- and imprison them in places where they can be tortured and their religion mocked, like Abu Ghraib.

And if I happen to be wrong…
… and Christoph Luxenberg really exists and turns out to actually be a respected scholar and student of Islamic sacred texts, he is more than welcome to step forward and tell his side of the story. We’d love to hear his rebuttal, either as a comment or a full-fledged interview for this blog. Perhaps he could explain how the American edition of his book is coming along. And what he’s been up to since he disappeared from view.

9/15/06 UPDATE: I don't know. Maybe it's not the blowback, but just his beverages. Martin Amis: Drinking too much neocon Kool-Aid?


James Riemermann said...

I mean no offense, but do you really think it takes this silly translation issue, to demonstrate the insanity of strapping oneself to a bomb and killing people in hopes of going to paradise and enjoying six dozen *anything*?

Our war in Iraq is savage and foolish, of course--you'll get no argument from me there--but the madness of Mohammed Atta and all those behind 9/11 is self-evident with or without this bit about raisins. Don't you think?

Demon Princess said...

Aside from "the Muslims are incomprehensibly crazy--virgins, raisins, what's the diff" argument that James makes, above, I have to wonder: (a) weren't Christianity's sacred texts translated from the Aramaic & (b) didn't it occur to anyone that maybe the Bible suffers from the same errors?

In that a large part of what Bushco has relied upon in promoting war in the Mid East is strongly suggestive of a latter-day Crusade, I just have to wonder whether ANY side can claim to be rational?

I personally think this war is a stupid stunt of a response to a stupid stunt in the 1st place.

Anonymous said...

Could it be that both Martin Amis and John Updike are free thinkers who came to the self evident fact?

luigi said...

Well, in any case the English version of Luxenberg's book is out.

The German book is in its third edition.