Neverending story

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie in Bookforum:

Article04In the months that have passed since three young men, two of them ex-convicts, gunned down the staff of a satirical magazine and patrons of a kosher grocery in Paris, killing seventeen people, including several artists—during which time another young man, also an ex-con, shot up a café and a synagogue in Copenhagen, killing two more, including a filmmaker—much has been written to put these events in context. With each new text, the narrative has thickened with nuance, anger, digression, and distraction, as writers, in accordance with their nature, have tied themselves in knots to make sense of the killings in terms of terrorism, religious intolerance, ideological indoctrination, postcolonial injustice, racial prejudice, economic depravation, government neglect, bad schools, terrible prisons, dangerous clerics, and the potential for radicalization among disaffected young men prone to messianic delusion.

In one way or another, all of these texts belong to what Adam Phillips, describing Freud, has termed “a long spiritual, religious tradition of crisis writing.” Perhaps that ever-expanding mass of storytelling, messy and oversensitive and argumentative as it may be, is truer to the experience of these events around the world, where reactions have been everywhere mixed, and nowhere the same, not even in the mind of a single person, to say nothing of the popular imagination of a single place.

In Europe and the United States, a story of the attacks has settled into a moment of much-needed but still dubious repose, as responsibility is passed to “moderate Muslims” around the globe to deal with religious extremism, reform their faith, and thicken their skin. “What is entirely out of the government’s control—out of anyone’s control,” argues Mark Lilla, writing about France in the New York Review of Books, “is what happens next in the larger Muslim world.”

This is true enough. But there are a great many cities out there in the not-so-distant, not-so-frightful Muslim world. In those cities, one might listen for the subtleties of a self-reflexive criticism and hear a brash and lively satire in return. One might discover a rich history of progressive ideas that have developed in close proximity to Islam over hundreds of years. Beirut, Cairo, and Istanbul are three such cities. Others are just as relevant, but in these three, artists have established a particularly strong tradition of pushing public discourse. And in these three, regular people are dealing all the time with the kinds of dangers and ideological distortions that ripped through France and Denmark this winter.

Read the rest here.