Friday, January 27, 2006

Answering the Prayer

Prayers for the Assassin--Review

One of the more tragic traits of America's current political climate today is that opponents aren't just wrong. They're hacks, they're disingenuous, they're liars, they can't possible believe all the happy and moral sounding rhetoric they spout out. It has become impossible to even imagine that one's ideological adversaries are misguided but flawed. Instead, each party views the other with complete mistrust, certain that they have no principles or values, only an endless lust for power--and that they'll say or do anything to get it.

Robert Ferrigno's Prayers for the Assassin styles itself as a revelation of what will happen if America loses the war on terror. Set in a post-Civil War 2040 America, it has nearly 2/3 of the United States under an oppressive Muslim theocracy. But ultimately, Prayers for the Assassin isn't about bashing Muslims or Islam. It's about bashing liberalism.

One of the critical aspects that can make or break a novel is how well it constructs its "world." If it's a fictional universe, is that universe cohesive, uniform, and logical? Or is it built solely to satisfy the plot devices of the author? If (as in Assassin) the novel is set in the "real world", then are the historical events the author lays out reasonable predictions? This is Assassin's first real failing, as the book depends on several wildly implausible leaps to get us from a largely secular democracy to a near-totalitarian Muslim theocracy.

The premise of the book is that nuclear bombs had been set off in New York City, Washington D.C., and Mecca, Saudi Arabia. At first, it was assumed that these attacks were precipitated by Muslim extremists, but the world is shocked when America airs confessions by an Israeli spy that in reality, the "Zionists" were behind the attacks in order to discredit the Arab world. Credulous sheep that they are, the global populace buys the frame wholesale, and the new world order begins. A "Euro-Arabic" alliance invades Israel, which flees to Russia for sanctuary (apparently Russia gets over its severe internal anti-Semitism to do this--a social shift no way whatsoever). From here, things get a bit hazy. Americans convert en masse to Islam, though it is disputed as to why (some say it's because they blindly followed the conversion of a few pop and movie stars. Others say it's because they were sick of cheap, diluted religion and wanted something with some muscle behind it). In any event, the newly converted Muslims immediately launch a Jihad, dividing America into the Muslim North and West, and a Christian South consisting entirely of the states of the old Confederacy.

It only takes one or two sentences implying that the old South is bravely fighting for freedom against the Northern oppressors to realize that the author is clearly trying to affect some kind of psychological guilt release for conservative southerners, caught between their claims of uber-patriotism and the uncomfortable truth that they were the only Americans to openly commit treason against the state (and in the purpose of that most American of ends--slavery). The juxtaposition where this rebellion is justified is meant to imply that the last one is too. Otherwise, why would the only rebel states be the confederate ones?

To be sure, I do think that most American Southerners would not be too keen on the prospect of Islamic rule--and probably would fight aggressively against it. But the problem is that's true for most Northerners too. Not only are most Northerners not Muslim either, but their political beliefs are if anything even farther removed from radical Islam than are the prevailing opinions in the American south. Ferrigno shows zero respect for liberal ideological commitments--the entire spectrum of northern liberal socio-political norms is wiped away without any explanation whatsoever. That Ferrigno views his book as a political conflict, as opposed to a religious one, is further demonstrated by the political geography of his new nation. In addition to the aforementioned (and wholly unwarranted) North/South divide, the primary cities in the Muslim state are selected not for their connection to the American Muslim community, but for their connection to the American liberal community. Even though Detroit probably has the largest and most influential Muslim community in a major U.S. city, Seattle is selected as the capital of the new state (why not just make it Boston and be done with it?). San Francisco is labeled as "Sharia Central," and we are told that the Golden Gate Bridge has been redecorated using the skulls of stoned homosexuals (talk about a political turnabout!). One can almost see the author smirking as he wrote that package--he thinks it delicious irony, we know it's just wild delusion. Because what is missing is why the good denizens of Seattle, or San Francisco, or any northern liberal city made the abrupt switch from being on the left edge of American politics to the right fringe. Presumably, it's because of their Islamic conversion, but that just shifts the question back a notch (as well as raising the ultimately fatal question of why a largely liberal community would convert as one to an extreme manifestation of a religion opposed to their whole value system). The move only makes sense if one believes that liberals are normatively vacuous--that their entire ideology is just political parroting. This may be satisfying to hear for a certain class of rabid right wing partisans--but it's intellectual insulting to anybody else with a political pulse.

To be blunt, there is almost no set of reasonable assumptions one could make in which Ferrigno's scenario would play out. The book tries to draw a parallel between the Islamic strife growing in Europe and America's future. But the analogy is flawed--Europe has not even attempted to assimilate its Muslim minority, nor has it made even the slightest effort to incorporate Islam into it's cultural mosaic (the problem in Europe, ironically, is that there is no multi-culturalism, not too much of it). Muslims in Europe are in a permanent state of marginalization--designed to be a perpetual underclass. It doesn't take a Political Science major to predict ethnic strife resulting. By contrast, America's pluralist tradition and the recognition that "American" encompasses all faiths and ethnicities have made us a model for internal religious relations. There have been virtually no instances of home-grown Muslim terrorism in America; nearly all of our post-9/11 conflict has been with radical Muslim's who have been raised and educated in other states. The failure to even attempt to distinguish the overwhelmingly moderate American Muslim community from their radical Middle Eastern (and European) colleague is wholly unwarranted, wildly essentialist, and probably crosses the line into overt racism. Even in the Middle East, not all Muslims are reactionary radicals--there is, again, no reason to assume (and no reason given) for why in the space of a few years the entire American Muslim community abandons even the semblance of modernist ideals. That there is a powerful and radical variant of Islam in the world today is no answer--that's been true of pretty much every major world religion across history. Radicalism is only a path, it is not (in the case of Muslims or anyone else) an inevitability.

Furthermore, as much as conservatives hate to admit it, there is a real and vibrant liberal tradition in America. When people in San Francisco say they support gay rights, they aren't just biding their time until it's politically convenient to bash lesbians with rocks. Sometimes a spade really is a spade, and by and large the liberal desire for a pluralist, secular, and progressive democracy is quite genuine. Only a tiny sliver of left-wing academia even purports to defend Islamic radicalism as such, and I suspect even this group would default to its underlying progressivism if the prospect of a theocracy hit our doorstep. I hate to make the argument, because (as I said earlier) I don't believe any major American political unit really would buy into fundamentalist Islam, but if anything it is far more plausible that the conservative elements of American society would make common cause with their Islamic compatriots. If any stoning of homosexuals is on the American horizon, it's going to happen in Birmingham well before it happens in San Francisco.

In every aspect, the book goes out of its way to insult liberals and their allies, while at the same time implying that there are no actual liberals at all. The only Christian group to align with the Muslim theocracy is the Catholic Church--traditionally the largest liberal Christian denomination. Perhaps the only positive attribute given to the Islamic State is that it purports to have no poverty ("you can have your social welfare state--but only if you're willing to have women locked in their homes!"). And nearly every character in the book has dialogue along the following lines:
Main Character: This regime is crushing us! We can't write freely, we can't read freely, we can't even think freely!

Minor Character: Would you prefer the old regime? I remember back then, the government was so bad they [banned prayer in school/funded obscene art projects/struck God from the Courtroom/let criminals run amok in the streets].

With all the subtlety of a sledge hammer, Ferrigno is blaming liberals and liberal policies for turning all of America into a parody of its individualist, modernist values. Lovely sentiments, but in the real world things are more complex than that, and conservatives deserve at least as much blame for systematically undermining modernist values as liberals do for (perhaps occasionally) pushing them too far.

Prayers for the Assassin can be an entertaining thriller, along the lines of The Da Vinci Code (although nowhere near at that level of talent), if one can overlook the naked political agenda behind it. This is a bit like saying Darfur is a nice place to visit if one can overlook the genocide, but in a sense it doesn't matter because I honestly think Ferrigno wants us to take his geo-political predictions seriously. Otherwise, why would he be seeking out political bloggers for reviews? If that's the case, then it might be the saddest thing of all, because Ferrigno's vision has all the plausibility of a drug-induced hallucination. I'm not actually going to say the book is completely bad, because purely as a drama it hits a good pace and pulls the reader along. But the political stench so overpowers the rest of it, and is so blatantly partisan, that whatever benefits it might have as pulp fiction are completely eradicated. If you're going to relax with mindless fiction, try to avoid the ones which suck out your soul in the process.


Anonymous said...

"if anything it is far more plausible that the conservative elements of American society would make common cause with their Islamic compatriots."

While I have not read Ferrigno's book, as a Southerner, of Mississippi extract, the thing that always confounds me is that zealots are always blind to their own religiosity. The Religious Right and Islamic Fundamentalism share so many of the same tenets that it is only due to self induced ignorance on both side that they fail to see their affinities. And the problem is not wholly due to religion but rather intensity. Were the US a predominantly Muslim country, the South would more resemble Saudi Arabia, Iran or Afghanistan under the Taliban. The West and the Northeast would have more similarities with Jordan or pre-civil war Lebanon. The South wears its religiosity as a badge of honor. Why would they be any less enthusiastic were they Muslims rather than Christians? Again this is not because of religion but intensity there of.

Anonymous said...

Excellent review. I remember thinking the same thing about Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land many years ago. An excellent read, but, within the confines of my upbringing, I could not wrap my mind around the premise of a theocratic USA. That was then, this is now. Still, I agree that there is no chance that the secular, liberal population of the soon to be Muslin state would be so easily coverted.

Anonymous said...

I just went to the website for Prayers for the Assassin...pretty cool stuff...a CNN type news site with a ton of stories.

There is some fun stuff face masks in the NFL...and there's some creepy stuff too.

Darayvus said...

To the first anonymous:

That is precisely what Ferrigno proposes, and it is a very good analogy. The Pacific Northwest became a sort of Lebanon / coastal Syria. Its policies are as moderate as the Islamic state can make them. But the state is under constant pressure from the Black Robes to expound the true faith against the unbeliever. (San Francisco, which is today illiberal in its Leftism, became in the book illiberal in its Islam.)

And the reason the South didn't go Muslim is because so many wingnuts from the North, often with inflated stories of how they were persecuted, fled there. In the chaos of the age, it was politically impossible for the South to share the faith of the North.

I do take issue with some of our host's portrayals of the book, though.

Anonymous said...

Is the Bible Belt in Prayers for the Assassin dominated by Jack Chick-style Catholic-haters?

The fact that the Catholics didn't follow the Evangelicals south, but rather remained in the Islamic Republic, seems to suggest this rather strongly...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the Review, your bashing of it makes me een more exicted to read it. I'm sure it will be spot on!!!