What should I do, Imam?
Novelist Robert Ferrigno imagines the Islamic Republic of America in the year 2040
MARK STEYN | Feb 23, 2006
The second half of the Super Bowl began right after midday prayers. The fans in Khomeini Stadium had performed their ablutions by rote, awkwardly prostrating themselves, heels splayed, foreheads not even touching the ground. . .
At the speed history's moving right now, you gotta get your futuristic novels in fast, and Robert Ferrigno's is the first in the potentially extensive genre of Islamotopian fiction. In Prayers for the Assassin, the fun starts on the inside cover: a map of the Islamic Republic of America in the year 2040. The nation extends over most of the north and west of the Lower 48. Chicago, Detroit and the East Coast cities are ruined and abandoned, Mount Rushmore is rubble, and Seattle is the new capital. Catholics remain as a subordinate class to their Muslim rulers. The evangelicals -- the "peckerwoods" -- are hunkered down in a breakaway state called "the Bible Belt"(the old Confederacy), where they still have the Second Amendment and the original Coca-Cola formula: up north, they have to make do with Jihad Cola, which sucks big time. South Florida is an "independent unaligned" area, the Mormon Territories have held out, and the Nevada Free State remains a den of gambling, alcohol and fornication. And in the most intriguing detail on the map, there's a dotted line heading through Washington state to B.C. marked "Rakkim's route to Canada" -- the new underground railroad along which he smuggles Jews, gays and other problematic identity groups to freedom across the forty-ninth parallel. I can suspend almost all disbelief at the drop of a hat, but the notion of our already semi-dhimmified Dominion as a beacon of liberty is certainly among the harder conceits to swallow.
Every successful novelist has to convey the sense that his characters' lives continue when they're not on the page: an author has to know what grade school his middle-aged businessman went to even if it's never mentioned in the book. In an invented world, that goes double. And in a "what if?" scenario, where you're overlaying an unfamiliar pattern on the known map, it goes at least triple. Saying "Imagine the U.S. under a Muslim regime" is the easy bit, creating the "State Security" apparatus and Mullah Oxley's "Black Robes" -- a Saudi-style religious police -- is only marginally more difficult. It's being able to conceive the look of a cul-de-sac in a suburban subdivision -- what's the same, what's different -- that determines whether the proposition works or not. Ferrigno has some obvious touches -- the USS Ronald Reagan is now the Osama bin Laden -- and some inspired ones -- the Super Bowl cheerleaders are all male -- but it's the rich layers of detail that bring the world to life. In one scene, a character's in the back of a cab and the driver's listening to the radio: instead of Dr. Laura and Dr. Phil, it's a popular advice show called "What Should I Do, Imam?" It doesn't have any direct bearing on the plot but it reinforces the sense of a fully conceived landscape. There's no scene set in 2028, but if you asked Ferrigno what Character A was doing that year he'd be able to tell you. If you said "What's Dublin or Brussels like in this world?" he'd have a rough idea.
The Islamic Republic came into being 25 years earlier in the wake of simultaneous nuclear explosions in New York, Washington and Mecca: "5-19-2015 NEVER FORGET." A simple Arabic edition of the Koran found undamaged in the dust of D.C. now has pride of place at the House of Martyrs War Museum. On the other hand, the peckerwoods retrieved from the wreckage the statue of Jefferson, whose scorched marble now graces the Bible Belt capital of Atlanta. But what really happened on that May 19? Was it really a planet-wide "Zionist Betrayal"? Ferrigno's story hinges on the dark secret at the heart of the state, which various parties have kept from the people all these years. Car chase-wise, it's not dissimilar to Fatherland, Robert Harris's what-if-Hitler-won-the-war novel, in which a 1960s Third Reich is determined to keep its own conspiracy hidden. And in the sense that both plots involve the Jews, plus ça change -- in life as in art.
The local colour is more compelling than either the plot or the characters: there's a guy -- maverick ex-fedayeen -- and a girl -- plucky, and dangerous with a chopstick -- and a sinister old villain with the usual psycho subordinates. Standard fare, but in a curious way the routine American thriller elements lend the freaky landscape a verisimilitude it might not otherwise have had. Writing into the future, a novelist has to figure out what will have been invented in 35 years' time. Projecting from, say, 1890 to 1925 takes some skill: who'd foresee that telephones and automobiles would be everyday items and that nations would have things called "air forces"? By comparison, from 1970 to 2005, the look of our world has barely altered: the changes are significant but visually marginal -- email and computers. Technologically, Ferrigno's 2040 seems little different from today, but he has a persuasive explanation for it: nothing works unless it's foreign-made. American inventiveness has shrivelled and the country's already mired in the entrepreneurial arthritis that afflicts most of the Muslim world. As one character says:
"Marian and I used to discuss the fact that the nation is coasting on the intellectual capital amassed by the previous regime, and we're running low on reserves. Islam dominated Western intellectual thought for three hundred years, a period when Muslims were most open to the contributions of other faiths. This is the caliphate that should be restored, not some military-political autocracy."
In a Muslim America, there are not just fundamentalists but moderates and "moderns," and, though the Islamic Republic is a land in decline, it's not a totalitarian dystopia. Ferrigno is too artful to give us an "Islamophobic" rant. If you're familiar with his earlier work, you'll know he's an efficient writer of lurid Californian crime novels full of porno stars, junkies and a decadent elite: in other words, everyday life in the Golden State. At one level, the Islamic future is a corrective to that present. "You were too young to remember what the country was like before, but let me tell you, it was grim," a Catholic cop tells the young Muslim hero. "Man against man, black against white, and God against all -- that was the joke, but I sure never got a laugh out of it. . . . Your people are big on the punishment part of crime and punishment, and they don't take to blasphemy. I like that. The old government actually paid a man to drop a crucifix into a jar of piss and take a picture of it. Don't give me that look, I'm serious. He got paid money to take the picture, and people lined up around the block to look at it. So I'm not exactly pining for the good old days. . ."
It's not an unprecedented arc: Hitler followed Weimar -- or, for fans of Cabaret, prison camps followed transvestites in cutaway buttocks. There's an extremely fine line between "boldly transgressive" and spiritually barren, and it's foolish of secular Western elites to assume their own populations are immune to the strong-horse pitch. There's a reason that Islam is the fastest-growing religion in Europe and North America, while, say, the Anglicans are joining Broadway up a chi-chi gay dead end. In Europe, it's demography that's ushering in the Islamification of a continent. In America, Ferrigno posits conversion:
"Jill Stanton's proclamation of faith while accepting her second Academy Award would have been enough to interest tens of millions of Americans in the truth of Islam, but she had also chosen that moment in the international spotlight to announce her betrothal to Assan Rachman, power forward and MVP of the world champion Los Angeles Lakers. Celebrity conversions cascaded in the weeks after that Oscars night. . ."
Ayatollah Khomeini's designation of "the Great Satan" at least acknowledges that America is a seducer -- which makes it considerably more sophisticated an insult than that of Canadians who sneer at the U.S. as the Great Moron. What gives Prayers for the Assassin an unsettling compelling power is the premise behind that fictional Oscar speech. As that cop says, "Muslims were the only people with a clear plan and a helping hand." If it's a choice between the defeatism and self-loathing of the Piss Christified West and a stern unyielding eternal Allah, maybe it's Islam that will prove the great seducer.
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