Published: Dec. 7, 2020 By

Contribution by Karim Mattar, University of Colorado at Boulder

Among the three rich and fascinating essays on the literatures and cultures of migration by Nasia Anam, Marissia Fragkou, and Dominic Thomas under consideration here, the “nativist” perspective on these issues is most sharply represented in Anam’s, specifically in her reading of the French provocateur and minor literary talent Michel Houellebecq.  (I consider him a slightly more sophisticated version of Milo Yiannopoulos; Anam, probably correctly, takes him more seriously.)  For Anam, Houellebecq’s controversial 2015 novel Submission (Soumission) – which is about an Islamic political party acquiring power in France and thereafter imposing Sharia law on the supposedly secular country – is but the latest manifestation of European anxieties about the Christian continent’s millennial antagonist, Islam.  Featuring on the cover of Charlie Hebdo on the day of the terrorist attack at the magazine’s Parisian headquarters, the novel, she explains, taps into and exploits what the French right has in recent years increasingly vocalized as the irreconcilability of Islamic social and cultural practices – those mainly of immigrants from l’Hexagone’s former North African colonies – with the very idea of the secular République.  In its dystopian, apocalyptic vision, Islam is thus inscribed much as it had been for centuries, as “a singular and threatening presence in the collective French imagination.”

As Fragkou does with the Golden Dawn movement vis-à-vis recent Greek theatre and Thomas does with problematic discourses of “philanthropic empathy” vis-à-vis global migration narratives, Anam counters Houellebecq’s white European nativism via readings of novels written from and about “the perspective of the migrants themselves.”  Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers (2005) and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (2017), both of which are focalized around the migratory experiences of characters fleeing war-ravaged, apocalyptic Muslim countries to the West, provide us with “a new vocabulary,” “a means to undo the perception of the migrant as an invader or colonizer.”  In these rehumanizing texts, “the figure of the global migrant” becomes “an exemplary world citizen in our era of widespread political, environmental, and social upheaval.”  They therefore invert the apocalyptic logic of Orientalism and colonialism by which the Muslim immigrant is posited as a threat to Europe’s sanctified borders, the logic on which a reactionary narrative such as Houellebecq’s is premised.

Like those of Fragkou and Thomas, Anam’s is a brilliant reading.  The critical gesture of tracing the longer-standing Orientalist tropes that structure and define Houellebecq’s account of Islam in contemporary France is an important and well-taken one.  The one question I have for Anam (which, modified a touch, might be directed towards the other authors as well) is this: do you think that your critique will have any impact at all on the likes of Houellebecq and the many millions in France and indeed elsewhere in Europe to whom his work speaks?  Is a staunch Islamophobe whose imagination is riddled with television images of terrorist attacks, suicide bombings, extremist Mullahs and madrasas (madāris), hijab- and burka-clad immigrant communities, and the global rise of political Islam likely to be convinced by – or even understand – a sophisticated literary critical deconstruction of the histories of colonial violence and religio-ideological antagonism on which his assumptions are based?  Is a nationalist and a nativist likely to be moved by a countervailing account of the Muslim immigrant’s essential humanity and trauma, when in the nationalist’s mind both Muslims and immigrants are considered to be sources of his own national trauma?  In my view, derived admittedly from my own encounter with resurgent Islamophobia and (white) nationalist / nativist mystifications here in the US, the answer to these questions is probably “no.”

Exemplified by these articles, the new literary scholarship on migration in its contemporary global contexts is urgent, penetrating, and illuminating.  I – an immigrant twice over myself – appreciate and admire it in many, many respects, and indeed participate in it in my own work on especially Palestinian exilic literatures (which, following Ghassan Kanafani, we call “al-adab al-manfā”, literally “the literature of exile”).  In the last few years, though, I have become increasingly worried that what we are saying in this work is simply not legible to those whom we need most urgently to convince, in national cultures where the sorts of far-right, alt-right, or otherwise extremist viewpoints epitomized by Houellebecq’s novel are increasingly given credence by populists and opportunists on the political stage on the one hand, and by alternative and self-contained media ecosystems on the other.  As we continue to observe here in the US, the reach of these viewpoints is long and insidious; they tap into something primal among those who proudly stand by the figures who perpetuate them; and they are endlessly recirculated in working-class communities which, devasted by the neoliberal policies of the last 40 years and offered no solutions by the market, have become susceptible to scapegoating distortions about immigrants, Muslims, and others.  It is these communities that we need to reach, and my worry, ultimately, is that our discourse of migration alienates them rather than brings them in.

What does migration and the discussion we are having about it look like from the perspective of “the native?”  I think that this is a much more complicated question than has hitherto been assumed.  Untangling the complex web of hatred that has been spun around “the immigrant,” let alone “the Muslim,” requires delving into new questions of the collapse of working-class politics, of labour, in the West; of the rise of new populisms there; of the new media, the information revolution, and the velocity of technological advancement; and of the figure of “the native” himself, how he – in the void of any materially substantiated sense of belonging, inclusion, and citizenship – has been reinscribed in the language of race and identity, of “whiteness.”  It requires that we develop a new language for communicating with those who feel or who are alienated from our discourse.  For me, this project begins by taking with the utmost seriousness the social, political, cultural, and most fundamentally economic plight of those who have become susceptible to dehumanizing ideologies about their “non-white” others.  After all, they themselves have also been deprived of their humanity, at the hands of the very same individuals who continue to degrade, oppress, and murder us.