The writer Hanif Kureishi is a man uniquely-placed to observe today’s world. English-born, with roots in what is now Pakistan, he is a successful novelist, playwright and film-maker. Kureishi spoke to euronews about today’s society, multi-culturalism, Islam and the potential collapse of capitalism.
euronews: In most of your early work, there’s an attempt – which most of the time eventually fails – to make East meet West. Is this your dream as an artist, or is it your hope as a man?
Hanif Kureishi: It’s certain that when I began as a writer one of my ambitions was to explain my particular situation, which I came to believe was a representative situation. My father was an immigrant from India/Pakistan, who came to Britain, my mother a white Christian, and they had these kids who were victims of racist abuse. I saw that this situation was not only common in Britain but would become common in Europe. And that the issues that came out of it, which had to do with race, with immigration, with Islam, with the way society evolves, would be central. But the idea that somehow it would be my job to bring East and West together, you wouldn’t put me in charge of that! It’s not something that I would be competent to do.
EN: In “The Word and the Bomb” (2005) you wrote that “fundamentalism implies the failure of our most significant attribute, our imagination. In the fundamentalist scheme there is only one imaginer – God. The rest of us are his servants”. Do you still believe this?
HK: I was talking to a friend of mine about this last night, and he, like I, knew many so-called fundamentalists, quite early on, I’m talking about the middle 80s, after the fatwa [against Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses”], through the 90s – we knew the same people. And the arguments in the end would end in deadlock, because they would say “the Koran is the word of God, God is the truth, how could you not believe it, how could a human being write a book that is so beautiful?” So there’s no disagreement, all you can do is submit and follow, and in that way you’ll go to heaven, and you can’t argue with that. So there are points where liberals, I’ll say, good fundamentalists, all kinds of different ideologists, finally have to disagree; where, as it were, multiculturalism does break down because there is no compromise between these world views.
EN: As time goes by, do you understand more why so many young people turn to religion?
HK: I’m surprised that there are not more people that are fascinated by religion! After all, religious societies are extremely attractive to people, for all sorts of very complex reasons. A secular society is an oddity in human history. It’s much harder to live without God than it is to live with God. And religions are very comforting – they create all kinds of prohibitions, and barriers, and rules that resemble living at home with your mum and dad as a child. Living in a secular society is much more difficult, there’s much more choice, there’s much more moral vertigo – it’s a nightmare, but I’m a secularist and an atheist.
EN: What is your view of the present financial crisis? Do you think that it’s the umpteenth perverse effect of capitalism?
HK: One of the things that’s happened since Thatcherism is that everything became unregulated, and one of the things that Thatcher wanted was that certain men would become wealthy, and she liked wealth, she liked men, and she particularly liked wealthy men. She was the first post-War politician to fetishize wealth. The Britain that I grew up in was quite an austere Britain where most of the time you saved, you didn’t have enough. Thatcher was like someone who had won the lottery, she liked money, she liked the spending of money, and we’ve lived under the Thatcherite spell of deregulation, allowing certain people to become richer and richer, often at the expense of other people. And now, finally, the system has been so ripped off by certain people that the whole thing has more or less collapsed. Marx always said that capitalism would rise and then collapse, and this would be a continual process, it was built on that, and this is what’s happened. And what can you do but laugh? It was an inevitable tragedy.
EN: Do you then identify Thatcher as the degeneration of capitalism?
It was around 1989: there was the collapse of Marxism, of an ideology that was of equality and fraternity. There was also the fatwa against Rushdie, the rise of fundamentalism as an alternative ideology in the world – things suddenly began to change. And, also, the accumulation of wealth for its own sake stopped being morally unacceptable. The dream of most of my life through the 50s, the 60s and the 70s was this notion of equality: that the gap between the children of the rich and the children of the poor would not be so great, that the children of the poor wouldn’t have fewer life chances, and would not be humiliated. That dream really blew up with the collapse of Communism in ’89. So I think now we have to compose an alternative Left ideology. I don’t know how you do it, or who will do it, but it’s a necessity for the future of Europe, I think, because unbridled capitalism just leads to the most vulgar consumerism, and to the financial explosion we have today.
EN: Once you wrote that “multiculturalism is not a superficial exchange of festivals and food, but the robust and committed exchange of ideas, a conflict which is worth enduring rather than a war.” Could you develop on that?
HK: This complexity of the world now is sort of overwhelming; but there’s also something rather wonderful about it, which came out in the 80s, and is called hybridity, which means mixing things up – for some people there’s nothing more terrifying than mixing things up. Some versions of Islam are versions of purity, where things have become unmixed. But an unmixed world, as it were, a pure world, as we know, leads to fascism.