Is It Not Passing Brave?
Two weeks ago I was at the Berlin Literary Festival on a platform with Patrick Bahners, the author of Die Panikmacher (“The Scaremongers”). While Bahners talked mostly about the German Islamophobes who were the target of his book, I sounded off about Islamophobes in the English-speaking world, including Robert Kilroy-Silk, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Robert Spencer and the English Defence League. Then a week ago I was at the Wigtown Book Festival, this time on a platform with Martin Bell, the former television BBC journalist, MP and UNICEF emissary to Yemen and Rosemary Hollis, formerly of Chatham House and currently lecturer on the politics of the Middle East at City University. This time the topic was the “Arab Spring”. Was regime change really happening? If so what were the causes? Was it part of the background to the impending vote at the United Nations on Palestinian nationhood? What role did the television broadcasts of Jazeera play in stirring up the Arab masses? And so on. Whither the Arab Spring? Whither Islamophobia? At both festivals I was at pains to point out that I pronounced on these issues with the full authority of someone who was an expert on medieval manuscripts of The Thousand and One Nights.
Iris Murdoch and John Bayley used to go from conference to conference pontificating on such nebulous subjects as “Whither the Novel?” and they became specialists in what they termed “whithering”. Now it is evident to me that I too have reached the foothills of whithering and of punditry. (A pundit, a man learned in Sanskrit lore, then a Hindu law officer whose job it was to advise English judges, later yet Indians trained in use of instruments and their concealment who were employed to survey territories beyond the frontiers of the Raj. All this comes from Hobson-Jobson: The Anglo-English Dictionary.)
As far as the general public is concerned, there are relatively few experts on the modern Middle East and the same names come round again and again: Robert Fisk, Amir Taheri, Patrick Seale, Brian Whitaker, Ali Ansari and a handful of others. Coverage of the Middle East seems stretched and yet the region never seems to be out of the headlines. Has it always been thus since the time of the Crusades? Saladin and Richard the Lionheart in renewed peace talks; no end in sight for the Zengid succession crisis; new atrocities committed by suicidal devotees of the Assassin sect . . . But is it not passing brave to be a pundit? Yes, though there is a danger that, if I do more of this stuff, I shall become one of those absurd people who have an emphatic opinion on everything under the sun – like the panellists on Any Questions. “I do think . . .” Oh no.