Jihad Watch Board Vice President Hugh Fitzgerald scans the Bestseller List and discovers some trends:
While I am pleased to see Robert Spencer’s book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) on the New York Times Bestseller List, I couldn’t help but notice a few notches above it, and in its 91st week on the list, Aziz Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran.
This is illustrative.
It should be obvious that the entire Western world is avoiding the Big Question. The continuing use of the phrase “war on terror” — a stupid phrase, a maddening phrase, a dangerous phrase — indicates this. In France the hit of last year’s television season was a series about a schoolroom — all cartable and cahier and tablier — in France in the 1950s, when there was still a zero-de-conduite atmosphere, and that supreme contribution of France to world civilization, the dictee, was inflicted on submissive students. The nostalgia for that schoolroom and the significance of the schoolroom — consider the opening of Madame Bovary, or the various famous novels about odd schoolboys, or even the comic Petit Nicolas series — would require a Richard Cobb to limn them properly.
But what the popularity of that series shows is not nostalgia for the tablier but for a world in which it could be assumed that schoolroom discipline would not be a problem, for a certain atmosphere in which learning could take place, that is no longer possible. For now, the indiscipline brought by Muslim students — who have been known to threaten and beat up both Jewish and, when the spirit moves them, Christian classmates, who do not merely question authority (though never the authority of Islam) but exhibit behavior that forces non-Muslim parents to remove their children from the public and place them in private schools (so much for Jules Ferry), who inhibit or shout down teachers who attempt to discuss such subjects as World War II (and the persecution and murder of Jews), or anything to do with Israel or the United States. Try mentioning the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, or NATO to a roomful of children of Muslim immigrants, whose knowledge of the world comes from the mosque and Al-Jazeera, and the new Hezbollah station allowed to beam its brainwashing into France.
Similarly, the extraordinary success of Reading Lolita in Tehran (was it one of Oprah Winfrey’s picks?) is owed not to literary merit, but to the usual message-of-hope it provides. Those who will not take their Islam — or their anti-Islam — straight up, find it can be taken in small doses, and only if something oblique is treated. So the Islamic Republic of Iran is caught as a persecutor of women; Islam itself, its teachings and attitudes, is tangential. And the message is one of spiritual uplift: don’t worry, girls, you can read great books, or Great Books, and see that what they offer is a Lesson in Freedom.
Well, yes, but the main lesson that Lolita offers is a lesson in how to use words. And the same with Jane Austen. Freedom is a sine qua non, but it is, in a way, the moral homily that the book provides that is so much in a spirit that Nabokov, at least, would decry.
But its popularity has to do with an attempt to come to grips with, obliquely and in an unstated fashion, the problem of Islam. No one wants to really face up to the truth, just as few have taken it upon themselves, even among the Iranian exiles, to study the history of the treatment of non-Muslims in Shi’a Iran. It was the Pahlavis, and not Ayatollah Khomeini, who would have agreed with the forced conversions under Shah Abbas in the 1660s of Armenians and Jews (see Bat Ye’or, The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam).
Khomeini was not a sport. It was the Pahlavis who, with their reasonable treatment of non-Muslims, and their attept to direct Iranian attention to Iran’s pre-Islamic past, were the real sports. As late as the 1950s, in rural Iran, Jews were still being beaten to death for having dared to go out in the rain. The rain, you see, might drip from a Jew onto a Muslim, and infect him with the former’s “najis” or “unclean” status. Robert Spencer has noted that Iranian Jews have reported to him on the daily humiliations they suffered in Tehran just as soon as the Khomeini regime came to power. The noted historian of Zoroastrianism, Mary Boyce, who lived in Iran in the 1970s, described the treatment meted out to the remaining Zoroastrians, the fiendish ways in which, for example, Muslim children would torture the dogs (so important to Zoroastrians) as away of tormenting their owners. What she lived through in modern Iran was little different from what she had learned from her historical studies. Infidels naturally want to believe that Khomeini, and the Islamic Republic, can be overcome. They do not want, nor do the best Iranian Muslims, those who are “Muslims-for-identification-purposes-only” Muslims (but not yet that serenely and supremely brave group, the ex-Muslims) want to believe that perhaps it is Islam itself, not a perversion of Islam, not a subset (those “Wahhabis” or “Salafists”) of Islam, but orthodox Islam, that inculcates the hatred displayed toward those Zoroastrians, the “uncleanness” attributed to those Jews forbidden to go out in the rain, the enmity toward Christians which caused Abbas II to convert, overnight, and by force, the Armenians of Tabriz in 1660 (see the chronicles of Arakel of Tabriz). Filial piety keeps many Muslims, even the most advanced and sophisticated, from confronting head-on what Islam is all about. So they offer ways to avoid the subject, to pretend that the Islamic Republic of Iran does not represent or embody the real Islam, but simply another totalitarian state, a state that can be overcome, here and there, by establishing private preserves of mental freedom. But how small those preserves, how few people can have access to them, what a poor substitute they are for analyzing the real problem, and possibly working to de-Islamize, as much as possible, first the Iranian elite, and then others who may be willing, by painting Islam as an unwanted imposition on the superior Iranian civilization by primitive Arabs, to use whatever national pride can be fostered to work against Isalm.
Reading Lolita in Tehran is a substitute for analysis of Islam: Man, or rather Woman, Will Triumph. Literature, or a certain kind of literature, can be Uplift. Just get 7 students together, read a few books, and keep the home fires burning. No, what the author might have done that would really have gone beyond the Oprah-Book-Club stage of celebration of The Human Spirit or The Triumph of Art would have been to ask herself and her loyal readers: Could any one of these books ever have been produced, much less been made widely available, in any Islamic society, ever? The answer is No. In a country, such as this one, where the teaching of literature has been handed over to professional, too-professional, students of that literature who are not always paying attention to the words, it is pleasing to be reminded about Elizabeth Bennet, and we can recall how her father tells her to stop playing the piano because, he tells her, “you have delighted us long enough.” It is pleasing to be reminded of Humbert Humbert, with his aurochs and angels and secret of durable pigments. But there is a message in tow: the message that literature endures, and that offers an entirely specious, though crowd-consoling, message of hope. And that message is exactly the kind of “moral in tow” that Nabokov himself would have deplored, even in a good cause (he was perfectly ready to mock Pasternak for an expresson of poshlost’, and did not refrain simply because Pasternak was an enemy, and victim, of the Soviet state).
There is something that “Reading Lolita in Teheran” does not ask or answer. And that is what even “Muslims-for-identification-purposes-only” Muslims, born into Islam and yet not allowing themselves to see right through the whole thing, out of filial piety, civilizational pride, embarrassment, or another motive. And that something is this: : what accounts for a 1000 years of little science and little art (outside of mosques and some calligraphy, and miniatures of Layla and Majnoun and various heroes on horses whose depiction was permitted under the “mythological creature” exception to Islamic strictures on painting), save for the verses of a handful of poets who were writing not with Islam but against it? Firdowsi, Sa’adi, Hafiz, Khayyam — can these in any sense be claimed for Islam, as poets of Islam, as Islamic in spirit? How would they fare in the Islamic Republic of Iran, or in today’s Saudi Arabia? Or anywhere that Islam is taken completely to heart? No, the book’s popularity, for American readers, comes from a number of things. It comes from from the all-woman cast. It comes from the initial appearances of the attractive and charming author, a “good Muslim,” the best and most soothing kind (good god, she wrote her thesis on Mike Gold — what else does one want?). It comes from the seductive title that juxtaposes naughty “Lolita” the adorable suntanned girl who with Kenny at Camp Climax, or on Route 66 with her Humber Humbert, her tautonymous father-lover (“I am your father, and I am speaking to you in English, and I love you”) with the chadorable girls of the straitlaced Islamic Republic of Iran. But most of all, the reason for the book’s popularity is that it American readers think they are getting a book that will help them understand What’s Going On, and in a small way, they do. But there is, despite the outward and obvious grimness, a Hollywood ending to this book. The 5 or 6 or 7 girls were saved, rescued by books, and the lesson of human freedom they taught. That leaves only 50 or 60 million other people in Iran, and more than a billion elsewhere in the Muslim lands, to go. The book may not have been written as offering some way out, but there is a pollyannish message in this bottle: we can each of us Find Freedom In Art. But how few people are capable of this at any time or in any place. It won’t do as a guide to the Islamic Republic of Iran, or to Islam, or to the Big Problem of which that Islamic Republc is a single hideous instantiation.