Only two weeks after this wonderful documentary about the work of Robert Fisk was released, the man himself is dead.
He was a paragon of journalism, whose doorstop book, The Great War for Civilisation, based on his PhD taken at Trinity College Dublin, is the single best explanation for why we find ourselves in the world we are in. You really should read the book, but for a taster, here’s Fisk speaking at his alma mater about his experiences in the Middle East.
Fisk was a journalist of the old school, by which I mean he believed in travelling to the site of an event to explore it in person, in examining the evidence for himself, in speaking to people (directly and in their own languages ideally) to get a rounded perspective on events, and in doing careful research and taking copious notes to augment his own prodigious knowledge and memory.
In this age when the old gatekeeper media are dying out, being replaced by both the amateur hordes of opinion mongers and influencers on the one hand, and by AI algorithm reportage and platform curation on the other, Robert Fisk’s methods seem like the craftsmanship of a lost age.
His decades of reporting on the affairs of the Middle East – its conflicts, their origins and of course Western interference – stands as a testimony to how proper, factual, neutral journalism was once the norm, or at least the aspiration, before the onset of web 2.0, clickbait, alternative facts and post-truth.
Of course, all journalism is ultimately ephemeral, at best the first draft of history. Fisk however had accrued a depth of knowledge, not only of Middle Eastern cultures and politics, but of the long history which had led to the current affairs he reported on. In order to gather this information together in one place, he wrote a doctoral thesis which eventually became his magnum opus – The Great War for Civilisation.
One often feels as if one needs a doctorate in the fraught and complex history of the Middle East to comprehend why things there happen as they do. Fisk had one, and it showed in his writing. He was fully able to account for his own Westernness in his writing about Islam, Arabs and the Middle East in general, as he had spent many decades imbibing the rich, sour and often bitter history of the West’s engagement with all three. And only a Westerner of his ilk, an Englishman with a military heritage and of ultimately Norse extraction, could have been the credible voice within the West that he was.
It is a tragic sign of the times that the fraught relationship between Islam and the West has entered a deadly new phase, just as the carefully researched journalism that Fisk embodied has been jettisoned almost entirely by news outlets motivated to generate sensationalism for clickbait income. What comes next is likely to be ugly, and I’m sorry we will not have Robert Fisk to help explain it for us.
Fortunately we do have many great creators, artists, writers and filmmakers from Muslim backgrounds who are already hard at work attempting to imagine into being better futures not only for the Middle East, or for Islam, but for the world and indeed all worlds. (Allah, after all, is called God of All Worlds in the Qu’ran.) Many of these – it sometimes feels impossibly like all – are featured in a new text about Islamofuturism.
Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life: The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World has been written by Jörg Matthias Determann, and was recently published by Bloomsbury. I have written a full review which will run in Foundation in the fullness of time. But for now, and without wishing to preview that review, I would like to note that Islamofuturism may well be the ultimate resolution for the many problems between Islam and the West which Fisk spent his life exploring and reporting about.
This is, of course, a somewhat utopian position to take, and I am an ardent anti-utopian. (Too many utopian visions result in gulags, thought police and death camps for my liking, no matter how well-intentioned they commence.) Nevertheless, what struck me while reading Determann’s fascinating survey of Islamofuturisms from Indonesia to Syria was the pervasive presence of two things in the multifaceted iterations of this rapidly proliferating genre and movement.
Firstly, the omnipresence of the shadow of The Thousand and One Nights. We have an ongoing origin debte among Western SF about when SF originated. Was it, as I’d argue, in the late 19th century alongside the development of professional science and industrialisation? Many, most prominently Brian Aldiss, argue for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) as an origin text, and this is somewhat persuasive. Others see SF in earlier eras and texts – the voyages extraordinaires of the Age of Expansion; the lunar visitation texts of Rome, even in the automata described by Homer in the Iliad, or the “alien spaceships” of the Book of Ezekiel. But these are all from the Western tradition. From an Islamic, Middle Eastern tradition, it makes perfect sense to identify The Thousand and One Nights as a seminal SF text.
Secondly, Islamofuturist cultural outputs almost entirely derive some of their animus from Western SF, according to Determann. Western forms, narrative devices and even sometimes direct lifts of scenes or characters are repurposed by Islamofuturism. Star Wars and Star Trek are huge influences, no less so than the indigenous cultures of Cairo, Istanbul or Jakarta.
What struck me, reading Determann’s book, is the sheer proliferation of Islamofuturism. His text is timely. In only a few years, the kind of survey he has conducted will no longer be possible in a single volume. Instead we will have to talk about Turkish cinematic visions of the future, Egyptian pulp SF novels, Indonesian feminist futurisms, and so on. In all of these environments and genres, Muslim dreamers are creating futures that contain Islam, centre Islam, challenge Islam, modernise Islam and most significantly, find modes of rapprochement between Islam and the West (yes, including revenge myths of total annihilation and takeover, but this is far from the norm.)
Robert Fisk and Islamofuturism thus function as two sides of one coin, or rather, as a Janus statue with one head looking back to the complex origins and sad histories of Western engagement with Islam and the Middle East, while the other looks forward, more in hope than expectation admittedly, to the future.
I hope that the Robert Fisk of a century from now has a happier narrative to write than The Great War for Civilisation. I hope he, or she, Western or Muslim or both or neither, can tell a tale of Islamofuturism and it’s reshaping of Islam and the West.