Fear of a Muslim Planet
Erwin Redl, Matrix II, 2000-2003
The micro-genre of “Islamophobic futurism” in fiction unites Western liberals and conservatives
American author Robert Ferrigno doesn’t pussyfoot. Explaining his vote in the 2004 presidential election, he told Slate, “I’ll be voting for Bush because his approach to stopping the people who want to kill my children is the right one, i.e., kill them first.” Where relations between West and Mideast are concerned, he calls himself “a great believer in the clash of civilizations.” But it was a reasonably nuanced vision of American Islamism that landed Ferrigno on the New York Times best-seller list just under a decade ago with a futurist novel called Prayers for the Assassin. Its protagonist must be one the most popular Muslim heroes in American fiction, and the first sequel — Sins of the Assassin — earned an Edgar Award nomination for Best Novel. A third book rounded out the trilogy in 2009; sketching Islamic futures seems to be a decent living.
This aesthetic and its companion politics — call it Islamophobic futurism — seized the spotlight again this January. That month, French writer Michel Houellebecq published Submission, a tale of future France and its Muslim president. Wreathed in charges of anti-Muslim bigotry, its author was lampooned on the cover of Charlie Hebdo the day that magazine’s staff was massacred by al-Qaeda affiliated gunmen. Largely lost in the hubbub that followed was the divided mind animating Houellebecq’s novel. Because as Adam Gopnik pointed out, “The portrait of the Islamic regime is quite fond; [Houellebecq] likes the fundamentalists’ suavity and sureness.” This even though the troublemaker admitted, in an interview with the Paris Review, to using “scare tactics.” In this particular micro-genre, the two attitudes are perfectly compatible.
Though that love/fear dyad was difficult for most critics to digest, it isn’t Houellebecq’s invention. Islam often figures in conservative dreamscapes as an object of esteem, envy, even sexual longing. It’s said that “Africa” is Europe’s name for its own worst impulses; “Islam” might be the name traditionalists give their own unfinished ambitions. Ferrigno didn’t pioneer this emotional constellation either, but he seems to have been the first writer to novelize it. He is the inventor of Islamophobic futurism’s literary apparatus.
Prayers was published in early 2006. The War on Terror was not in good health; the State Department tallied about 14,000 terror attacks worldwide that year, with a total death toll north of 20,000. American anxiety was at something of a local maximum. And though September 11 cued Ferrigno’s imagination, his origin story for American Islamism is the sputtering Iraq War. One of his characters, a post-conversion historian in the Islamic States of America, summarizes the logic in her doctoral thesis:
When the U.S. troops trickled home from their wars of conquest, the former regime was confronted by a prolonged economic downturn and a jobless recovery that only exacerbated the gap between rich and poor… [A new President] could not prevent a cruel, godless Capitalism from sending jobs overseas, where labor costs were cheaper, leaving millions at home unemployed, and embittered.
In that vulnerable condition, “while no force of arms could defeat the armies of the West, it was their moral and spiritual void that ultimately vanquished them.” Starting with actors and country musicians (how else?), the United States is swept by a wave of conversions, a re-spiritualizing swell driven by economic dispossession, military exhaustion, and — of all things — anti-racism. With this, Ferrigno pulls a nimble ideological maneuver. His plot grants some legitimacy to leftist and Islamist critiques of modernity; in exchange, he’ll eventually get to set them against each other. It’s a gambit in the chessboard sense, a trade of material for the superior position. A trap is set.
Through despairing images of the familiar torn asunder, Ferrigno pulls his reader into the mistake of thinking the Islamic Republic a “dystopia.” In the first chapter we run headlong into a reimagined Super Bowl, held in Seattle’s Khomeini Stadium. The cheerleaders are men swinging swords, while Washington and New York are glowing craters; the nuclear terror is pinned on Israel, which didn’t do it, and in this future has been wiped from the map. Still, dystopia isn’t the right word for what Ferrigno has in mind. His protagonist, Rakkim Epps, mouths off in the early pages to a member of the religious police: “It’s a free country, isn’t it officer?” The narrator breaks in earnestly, insisting, “It still was.”
Most reviewers, whatever their ideological stripe, ignored this twist when Prayers was first published. For the New York Times’s Janet Maslin, Ferrigno’s vision was “Orwellian.” For John Miller in National Review, it was a bold stand against “Islamofascism.” Never mind that its Islamic Republic is sufficiently liberal that some bloggers, Ferrigno told CNN at the time, called him “an apologist for terrorists.” Never mind too that the ISA gets a fairly flattering portrayal compared to the breakaway Christian state standing in the outlines of the old Confederacy. While many commented on the Islamic Republic’s jihadist amusement park, fewer took the time to mention indentured servitude and ritualized Waco reenactments in Ferrigno’s Bible Belt. For the critical press, the rise of the ISA was plainly horrifying – but by Ferrigno’s account, many of its citizens hardly agree. They converted, after all, for very human reasons.
European militarists have always nursed affection for Islam’s mobilizing, disciplinary potential. Various admiring comments on the faith are often attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte. More recently, in Islam and Nazi Germany’s War, David Motadel detailed the Reich’s outreach to the Crescent, its strategic fantasy that ideological sympathy could recruit the whole Ummah in one go. Islam seemed to the German leadership usefully martial; Hitler is supposed to have told Himmler, “The precepts ordering people to wash, to avoid certain drinks, to fast at appointed dates, to take exercise, to rise with the sun, to climb to the top of the minaret – all these were obligations invented by intelligent people.” This admiration gets erased when fear and hatred are lumped indifferently together.
Ferrigno’s trilogy follows a similar line of appreciation. Technologically troubled, the Islamic Republic’s greatest asset is—in a winking American touch—its Special Forces community, the preternaturally talented Fedayeen. The hero is one: Rakkim’s title plants him in a genealogy running from medieval hashshashin through to Palestinian intifada (not a conventional bloodline for an American hero). Invested in this kind of Muslim masculinity, Ferrigno is interested too in Islam’s organization of female beauty. Saying to one interviewer that the burqa “disturbs [him] at a profound level,” Ferrigno added, “Strangely enough, a lot of observant women come to my readings with the hijab head dress and I think they look beautiful, it really focuses your attention on their features. I don’t remember ever seeing a woman who didn’t look beautiful with that.”
But the most powerful attraction is probably religious moralism. Ferrigno calls himself a “lapsed fundamentalist,” which makes him something like his hero: “Not a good Muslim, but a believer all the same.” His United States, just before its conversion, is in a state of spiritual crisis. His historian writes, “Western churches, rather than offering moral guidance, were weak and vacillating, unwilling to condemn even the most immoral behavior. Islam offered a bright light and a clear answer, and the faithful could not build mosques fast enough to satisfy the need.” Yes, in many respects life in the ISA is horrid. But it is horrid, Ferrigno intimates, in exchange for something precious: spiritual clarity. In this sense, Islamophobia is less dread of conquest than fear of seduction.
In that sentiment is a suggestion — uncommonly expressed but not so strange — that traditionalists will find themselves more at home under Islam than will the critics who, from across the aisle, call them Islamophobes. Rod Dreher of the American Conservative likes to say that the left rebuts conservative prophecies with “the Law of Merited Impossibility.” Your fears would never come true, he imagines opponents saying, though you would deserve it if they did. Ferrigno offers a symmetrical sort of rejoinder: If our fears do come true, you and your causes will suffer worst of all. Michel Houellebecq was of this mind, telling the Paris Review, “I feel, rather, that [cultural conservatives] can make arrangements. The feminists will not be able to, if we’re being completely honest.” And in the Assassin trilogy? In sharia San Francisco, on Ferrigno’s Golden Gate Bridge, “harlots and homosexuals, witches and Jews dangled from the high beams.”
Islamophobic futurism is, in this respect, an effort towards bipartisanship. If conservative readers experience a certain attraction to this vision of Islam, admiring and fearing at once, it gratifies that impulse – doubly cathartic. If readers on the left are especially vulnerable to the aesthetic’s fearful side, that fear is solicited and sharpened. On that second front, Ferrigno mines a rich vein of unease that surfaces in both liberal-popular and left-intellectual culture. Though ultimately — the trilogy argues — left and right fears are branches of one instinct: that neither, if candid, can really stomach Islam.
An example of the liberal kind of disquiet: In a 2002 episode of West Wing, Press Secretary C.J. Cregg ferociously condemns Saudi authorities for shepherding schoolgirls back into a burning building on the grounds they were improperly dressed (the plot was based on an actual incident of the kind in Mecca earlier that year). Playing to that, Ferrigno rehearses and fictionalizes the same event, moving it to his Islamic Republic. The villain is now Mullah Jenkins. “Mullah Jenkins” is a very useful idea; shearing fundamentalism from context makes it that much easier to fear, especially for the left-leaning reader who might otherwise reach for anti-racist, anti-imperial, or anti-colonial caveats. Recoiling from a Mullah Jenkins is less complicated – comfortable even.
Then again, since the Charlie Hebdo attack, some on the left are increasingly comfortable with conventional kinds of Islamophobia. In a much-discussed essay in Dissent entitled “Islamism and the Left,” Michael Walzer urged the left to reclaim — in the shadow of Paris — both critique and fear of Islamism. “Many leftists,” he writes, “are so irrationally afraid of an irrational fear of Islam that they haven’t been able to consider the very good reasons for fearing Islamist zealots.” And it’s hard not to see the word “zealots,” here, as a fig leaf. He writes, after all, in defense of “non-believers, heretics, secular liberals, social democrats, and liberated women in much of the Muslim world.” Apostasy is criminal in a dozen sovereign states across the Middle East, in many cases with substantial popular support—so if the left supports heretics urgently and everywhere, then the left is plainly at odds with a very large collection of Islamic states and publics.
Walzer would like in a sense to reclaim the word “Islamophobe,” to make it as understandable as a “phobic” reaction to the Christian Crusades. With an editor emeritus of Dissent on board, quite a group assembles in one way or another under the label. Though Ferrigno and Houellebecq both reject the word “Islamophobia,” calling it a way to police criticism of Islam, it’s accurate at minimum in a bare descriptive fashion: As writers, their material is Islam and the fear of it. And if these fearful constituencies agree on little else, that’s the point of this futurism. It makes fear of Islam a group project.
The most tragicomic evidence for the genre’s success is probably the complaint brought by the Canadian Islamic Congress against the magazine Maclean’s. The Congress went to the Canadian Human Rights Commission to accuse Maclean’s of Islamophobia; in its evidence pile was the positive review that writer Mark Steyn had given to Prayers for the Assassin. The Congress, though, seemed not to realize that the piece was a review at all (and for that matter, a review of fiction). It attributed to Steyn rather than Ferrigno the idea of the United States as an Islamic nation by 2040—and identified this, the prospect of an Islamic USA per se, as intrinsically Islamophobic. It implicitly took up Ferrigno’s frame: that Islamophobia is a natural and necessary reaction to Islamism.
Western Islamophobia thinks itself universal, and its futurist literature leverages that spirit across the political spectrum. Since Prayers, little has been thought or said to suggest that Ferrigno’s gamble on the American under-mind was off the mark. “So here I am,” Walzer declares in his essay, “a writer, not a fighter, and the most helpful thing I can do is to join the ideological wars.” Just in the nick of time, Ferrigno might say. In his novels, the bombs razing New York and Washington detonate this year, and after that come the conversions.