SPIEGEL Interview with British Author Ian McEwan 'We're Witnessing a Civil War in Islam'
Ian McEwan, 57, talks about the atmosphere in London after the attacks, the fight against religious fanatics, the legacy of Tony Blair, and his new book, "Saturday," which imagines a day lived in the shadow of terrorism.
Award-winning author Ian McEwan, has written nine novels as well as short story collections and screenplays. He currently lives in London and experienced the terrorist attacks first-hand.
Where were you when the bombs went off?
McEwan: I was here, I was working. I knew nothing. I'd been to the American Embassy to get my visa. I was crossing London when the bombs went off and I wasn't even aware of it. I mean, I was maybe two miles from Tavistock Square. My first sense of the fact that something was going wrong was just the sheer level of police sirens around me. We're used to a certain kind of background, but suddenly the helicopters and the sirens were just overwhelming.
SPIEGEL: Your new book, "Saturday," is written in expectation of an act of terrorism. Now it has happened. What was your first thought when you heard it was a terrorist attack?
McEwan: It confirmed my book. I mean, it's not that I take any satisfaction from it, nor did I share any great insight, everybody's been waiting. But at the same time as waiting they're also forgetting because, you know, it's been four years since 9/11. Even Madrid, was 18 months ago. And, yes, at the end of the novel when Henry Perowne (the protagonist) is standing in the window he talks of Londoners waiting for its bombs. Well, you know, here it was. It's a bit like the death of an old parent. You could be waiting for it but that doesn't stop you from being shocked by it. As for my emotions, I felt furious, I really felt sickened with anger.
SPIEGEL: What was the atmosphere in London like?
McEwan: I was struck, as everyone else was, by the relative lack of panic and terror on the streets. People were remarkably calm; they certainly weren't calm in the way of being indifferent. I mean, everyone was -- there was a real sense of a cataclysm in the centre city, but there was not much you could do except be obedient to this vast army of policemen and people in yellow jackets.
SPIEGEL: A lot of the themes of your book are being played out on the streets today, particularly the idea that there is no refuge from terror. Even the family refuge is not safe.
McEwan: Exactly. There is no refuge and if you want to be in a city like London, with its relatively successful racial mix, it's impossible to defend. That's the other thing I wrote at the end of my book, that these possibilities were lying just open, so easy to do.
SPIEGEL: How can cities protect themselves?
McEwan: Inevitably, we're going to start seeing around the preposterous political correctness that allows us to have radical clerics preaching in mosques and recruiting young people. We have been caught too much by a sense that we can just regard these clerics as being like English eccentrics at Hyde Park Corner. But the problem is that their audience has already been to training camps.
SPIEGEL: But isn't the West providing the best advertisement for terrorist recruiters by being in Iraq and killing Islamic civilians, torturing Muslim prisoners a la Abu Ghraib and spreading pictures of the deeds around the world?
MCEWAN: I don't think terror needs a breeding ground. I don't buy the arguments in the Iraq war. What keeps getting forgotten here is that the people committing massacres in Iraq right now belong to al-Qaida. We're witnessing a civil war that's taking place in Islam. The most breathtaking statement was the one of al-Qaida claiming responsibility for the London bombings saying it was in return for the massacre in Iraq. But the massacres in Iraq now are being conducted by al-Qaida against Muslims. I also think it's extraordinary the way in which we get morally selective in our outrages. When there was a rumor that someone at Guantanamo Bay had flushed a Koran down the lavatory, the pages in The Guardian almost caught fire with outrage, but only months before the Taliban had set fire to a mosque and destroyed 300 ancient Korans.
SPIEGEL: In your book, the Iraq war still hasn't happened yet. And the day in which the book takes place, Feb. 15, 2003, is the day in which massive peace demonstrations took place in London. Henry's daughter Daisy is among the protesters and he is full of ire and sarcasm about them. He doubts they can rightfully claim morality for themselves. Do these passages echo your own ambivalent views on the matter?
McEwan: Yes, it does. I never thought that in the run up to the war we were discussing simply the difference between war and peace. We were discussing the difference between war and continued torture and genocide and abuse of human rights by a fascist state. I missed any sense of that complexity in the peace camp. I certainly had the feeling that whatever the strong moral arguments were for deposing Saddam, the Americans would not be good nation-builders. But I had a moral problem with this view among the 2 million protesters that you should leave Saddam in power in a fascist state with 27 million Iraqis under him. The problem is that they felt good about it. I thought they should have opposed the war but also felt bad about it.
SPIEGEL: Do you think invading Iraq was a mistake?
McEwan: I think if Bush and Blair could press a button and we could all fast forward backwards, rewind the tape, they'd probably do this differently. But I don't think they fully grasped, and even the anti-war (movement) could have never fully grasped the fantastic viciousness of the insurgency against its own people.
Police in London observe a two-minute moment of silence for those killed in the terrorist suicide bombings.
McEwan: Exactly. But, we need every kind of warm gesture of solidarity and if people can feel some kind of collective facing down of this I think it's admirable.
SPIEGEL: Can it go too far? Yesterday a CNN business report said that going shopping now means fighting terrorism.
McEwan: Well, that's obviously absurd, but this city is resilient. At the same time, however horrific the events of July 7, it is not Grozny, it is not Sarajevo. And we do have a collective memory of the IRA bombing campaigns and, I guess, into the national narrative it's the Blitz. And I think it's when a city is partially, rather than totally, bombed you can have the spirit of resistance. In other words, 43,000 died in the Blitz so you can have the spirit of the Blitz. You could have no such spirit in Dresden.
SPIEGEL: Your book suggests we are currently living under a threat. And clearly, events show that we are. Yet, in Hyde Park people are sunbathing and shops are full. The city seems to be back to normal and having dealt with the terror in an amazingly cool way. So, have we grown used to terror?
McEwan: I think behind all this ease you see in the beautiful sunshine we're having, there is a lot of nervousness. I don't think Great Britain should go too far in promoting itself as a nation of emotionally stunted people who can't, you know, feel emotion. I see that the Spanish press said in Britain the term emotional is a word of abuse. But there has been a lot of emotion in the air, especially during the two minutes of silence at Tavistock Square last week. People also seem to be holding their breath. They don't know quite where this is leading.
SPIEGEL:Are you behaving different now? Has life changed for you?
McEwan: I was anxious about my grown-up son using the tube, especially straight afterwards. There's no logic to that, I know. We're not logical creatures in this matter of risk assessment. But sooner or later practical demands will dominate. I can't just keep paying for taxis.
SPIEGEL: Let's talk about politics for a few minutes. What do you make of the historic third term of Tony Blair, obviously having weathered all the accusations and standing bigger now than ever?
McEwan: Two months ago, he was the villain. The day after he won the election, the press erupted in a furious, spiteful rage. It was incredible. You would think he'd just been found guilty of child murder. He'd been returned with a reduced majority, which I think was actually a perfectly mature, democratic decision. It was about right. There was no other game in town, there was no other party that could actually reasonably take power. The Tories couldn't do it. So to have him back with his power diminished in parliament seemed to me to be a pretty good communal decision -- at least if you think of democracies as being like people at a séance, with a Ouija board spelling out letters that nobody can quite predict. I take a very unfashionable view of Tony Blair. I think he's the least bad prime minister we've had.
SPIEGEL: The least bad prime minister?
McEwan: There have been gross mistakes, but for those who have nostalgia for old Labour, they must reflect on 30 percent inflation, 3 million were unemployed, public service was a total chaos, the government was constantly on its knees to the International Monetary Fund and there was a sense of real decline. Old Labour was a disaster, an absolute disaster. And I've never forgiven the right for their 18 years in power here, either. The fact that we've now got money pouring into education and we're finally beginning to restore the public health service is a real achievement. If you had told someone on the left in 1975 that there would be a Labour-led government with 3 percent inflation, a 2.5 percent growth rate, 800,000 unemployed and a minimum wage, they would think you were in fantasy land.
SPIEGEL: But isn't that foundation been laid by the government of Margaret Thatcher?
McEwan: She did the dirty work that no left wing party could do. But Thatcher was terrible to live under. Yet now, looking at both France and Germany, if the social model is keeping 20 million people unemployed, then that's a human tragedy.
SPIEGEL: Mr. McEwan, thank you for this interview.
INTERVIEW: VOLKER HAGE UND MATTHIAS MATUSSEK