Guardian readers accuse me of being everything from a neocon ‘Uncle Tom' to an ‘Islamofascist'. Does this mean I'm doing my job properly?
If someone were to try to construct a composite personality photo-fit of me based solely on the more outlandish reactions to my Guardian articles, they would come away with a very surreal and confusing Picasso-like picture.
In fact, I hardly recognise myself in these bizarre depictions. According to their combined hearsay, I am some sort of suave, sophisticated and opportunistic pen-for-hire who serves a multitude of masters.
These include the hidden hand of the “Islamofascists” of Tora Bora, the all-powerful neocons of Washington, the Zionist string-pullers, orientalist academia, the sinister eurocrats of Brussels, with a lucrative sideline spin-doctoring for New Labour and the Egyptian president's men. I've even lost a beauty contest I didn't even want to enter with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Here's a taster. “What a piece of 6th form, wannabe Orientalist triteness. But no more than one would expect from the Guardian's own Arab Uncle Tom,” concluded The Simpsons wannabe KrustytheKlown comment under a Guardian article last week.
The character assassins come out in particular force when the topic happens to be polarised and partisan, such as the Middle East, particularly Israel-Palestine, Muslims or Islam, and the EU. “So Mr author of this piece, spare us the transparent attempt to masquerade your hawkish siding with Bush and the neocons,” GreekforGodsGift fumed.
It is quite usual for snipers from both sides of an issue to aim their shots at me, which, some readers suggest, means that I'm doing something right if I can wind up the opposing sides equally. “An eminently fair, reasoned and well-articulated article. Prepare yourself, therefore, to be assailed as both a ‘neo-con warmonger' by one group of loons and an apologist for ‘Islamofascism' by another,” GreenLake warned me.
In one article on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I was accused of two polar opposites. “Yet again another article on Cif which promotes the impression that only the Arabs can be victims. That Zionism is evil and that the West are [sic] to blame,” BatleyMuslim alleged.
“I think [your article's] first line ought to read ‘We collaborators …', shouldn't it? You, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Mohammed Abbas, and Salman Rushdie all play bridge together. Don't you?” countered Travblonski.
Not surprisingly, considering all these alleged income streams enriching my imaginary alter-ego, some seem to assume that I'm absolutely rolling in it. “Have you ever considered that when you get older and wiser, you will wish you could sell your soul to take back the things you are doing now for money and power?” Travblonski continued. “Your memories will be of consciously facilitating the deaths of your fellow Muslims, for a car, a TV, a house, and some spending money at the bar.”
Well, just to clear things up for old Trav, I should point out that all the opinions I express are exclusively my own and, because they are honestly held, I don't expect to regret them in my dotage, although I may change them at any time if I discover they are wrong. As for wealth, although it is an honour to write for the Guardian, my Cif articles will never make me rich and I definitely won't be giving up the day job any time soon!
Of course, I don't take this type of rabid vitriol seriously and I realise that I am caught in the crossfire of ideological conflict. But there are others who express opinions of my supposed partisanship more subtly and moderately, and this cuts deeper. I have nothing against people who hold diametrically opposed views to my own, but when they question my integrity, that is a somewhat different matter. For someone who has always prided himself on his independence, suggestions that I am one party or another's lackey hurt, despite my attempts to ignore or rationalise them.
It appears to me that some readers have the idea that Guardian columnists, with their unmoving, fixed expressions in the photo at the top of the page, are not quite human – or perhaps are superhuman – and will not be affected by the insults hurled at them. Of course, your skin thickens with time, but all armour is penetrable, no matter how much a journalist protests to the contrary. So, I urge all Cif-ers to go out and e-hug a comment writer today, and show them that you appreciate them for standing up exposed and bare in the agora, even if you don't agree with them.
That said, I am fortunate. In the balance of things, I'm one of the luckier Cif contributors, particularly given the controversy and sensitivity surrounding many of the topics I write about. For instance, the debate following many articles on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often resembles a political pitched battle. Although some tempers may fray after my articles on the topic, I am generally impressed with the unorthodoxy, intellectual quality and sensibility of the discussions that ensue.
Even though it is generally accepted that people are more motivated to comment when they disagree with something, the volume of positive remarks my articles elicit is truly heartening. However, I will refrain from boring readers or appearing to massage my own ego, by repeating any of them here.
Despite the occasional flak, I am not tempted to trade in my Cif platform. For me, it has redefined my notion of journalism. Only a few months ago, being a journalist was a question of solitary reflection and research, with only the occasional letter to the editor or e-mail to disturb my tranquillity.
Today, some eight months on, and journalism has become, for me, a multidirectional and multidimensional conversation. The debates that have ensued under many of my articles have been truly uplifting and illuminating, and I have learnt a lot from them. I read the comments under my pieces with as much interest and attention as I hope Cif-ers read the original article.
In the process, I have built up good rapport with many regular commenters, developing a certain disembodied, metaphysical intimacy, free of the influence of physical appearance, gender, nationality or race.
In his Cif classic, ‘Boris, Israel, 9/11 and me‘, Sarfraz Manzoor wrote: “I have begun developing symptoms of a condition best described as ‘post envy'.” I will openly admit that I feel a particular rush of excitement when one of my articles enters the hallowed top 10 and a vague sense of disappointment when a piece I expected to elicit a lot of debate fails to do so.
Nevertheless, I am more often happier taking the path less-trodden on Cif, exploring the more off-beat, strolling down the backstreets and alleyways of society, culture and politics. I am thrilled that the Guardian allows me a space to wonder and wander, and that readers seem to enjoy coming along for the ride.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 10 January 2008.