The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Edmund Spenser as English muhajja'


Edmund Spenser put in some anti-Arab and/or anti-Muslim comments in Faerie Queene; and now the pro-Muslim writer Saladin Ahmed has found them and done a satire. Amal El-Mohtar calls the Spenser verses in question long-standing racism. I assume this is on instinct; I notice she didn't level that accusation in her formal review. It is instinct - motive - with which we have to deal.

I am not about to defend Spenser here - beyond that Spenser is in the canon and should be read. Once I got to read Spenser myself, last year, I found out that he was a hater; and that the hatred did, yes, extend to the racial, at least against the Irish. And if one didn't like Irish as people, he probably didn't like Arabs either.

But in the context here, Ahmed has no real interest in Spenser's racial views. I know from Throne of the Crescent Moon that it's the culture of Arabia that interests him, so an anti-Arab cultural critique is what will spark his passions. And this is what we get in Ahmed's parody: this deals with Spenser's views on Arabs' lawes, customes, and religion (to cite that other text). So I gather if I'm to trust El-Mohtar's formal review.

Spenser made a (probably) bigoted and false set of comments against Arab and Muslim culture; El-Mohtar has now made a false description of Spenser's work. With Spenser, such comments may well stem from a racist motive. But what does that say about El-Mohtar? Can a white non-Semitic man [I qualify on at least two counts] make a criticism of a foreign culture without taking abuse? And to what extent - the analogy to Spenser is surely the Arab mathalib and hija' genres - can he make such a critique?

Ahmed took Spenser's literary insults for what they were, and turned them around on Spenser. El-Mohtar might object to Arab mathalib texts against (say) smelly Slavic barbarians; she might cheer along, but more likely she finds these works tiresome. (Arabs spent more effort sneering at blacks anyway.) I do note El-Mohtar doesn't spend a lot of time denouncing Arab asabiya. That's because she cares about her goat being gotten. She's pro-Arab. Which is fine; but crying "racist" is lame, as well as narrowly inaccurate, and could well be turned against her. I must prefer what Ahmed did.

posted by Zimri on 14:53 | link | 0 comments

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