Thursday, May 29, 2008

Useful Idiots & Lots of Rope

John Dos Passos has been on my mind lately. I also finished "Terrorist," by John Updike, I've been contemplating their intellectual takes-- filtered through populist perceptions-- on the willingness of we Americans to be duped by those across the sea or in our own neighborhoods preaching apocalyptic (outer) jihad or (class) war as the means to a blissfully utopian end by umma or diktat. While the phrase "useful idiots" cannot be attributed to Lenin, it sticks as a fitting label for the schlemiel (passes spellcheck!) as opposed to the schlmazel (fails spellcheck). Today's entry considers if Lenin's saying-- first popularized by the types of Reds who harangued Dos Passos even in his heyday of rallying for Sacco & Vanzetti, now by those fearing we're being taken by those who wish to do us in for our own greed, tolerance, and good-natured gullibility-- might be closer to a novel like "Manhattan Transfer" or Manhattan's newspaper.

Apropos, here's Lenin's adage, twisted a bit in my memory with the Clash's second album, the overproduced "Give Them Enough Rope." I bought it when it came out. Hard to believe it was album of 1979 in Rolling Stone. My first printing lacks orientalized typography, which I admit hones the wit of its cover art. Gene Greif's postcard "End of the Trail"-- Mao on horseback watching vultures peck out the remains of a sprawled cowboy's back. Vladimir Ilyich mused: "The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them." I'd add: the oil that my fellow Muricans buy to fill up those damned Avalanches and Tundras.

My own distrust of systems and credos seems to be increasing as I age, if not mature. Niall judged me with a twelve-year-old's wisdom yesterday, when we discussed my innate skepticism about any of the candidates vying for our presidency. He doubted, correctly, that any politician would align with my own attitude towards platitudes, slogans, and manifestos. While I enjoy researching such, especially in their florid Irish manifestations, I tend to keep them at arm's length from my scowling brow.

Furthering my unease at instant answers, I opened the New York Times to find yesterday's front page article by Elaine Sciolino & Souad Mekhennet. A Moroccan-born, Belgium-raised Malika El Aroud lives off of her adopted nation's unemployment benefits while she "calls herself a female holy warrior for Al Qaeda." I'm not thrilled about adding to her publicity, but she's a black canary in an eschatological coal mine. She may not be visible under her dark-clad cloak, but on the Net, her condemnation of our freedoms appears to me more than hyperbole. You might disdain the NY Times for giving her this platform to promote her agenda. Some bloggers already blamed the messenger, the Old Grey Lady. I don't. We see the enemy, if only by the whites of her eyes.

We deploy our fragile ideals against her death cult. The battle lines drawn, it feels like Frodo vs. Sauron. Hiding behind the West's guarantees of open speech, she boasts that she knows the system, and can avoid prosecution simply because she does not "disseminate instructions on bomb-making and has no intentions of taking up arms herself. Rather, she bullies Muslim men to go and fight and rallies women to join the cause." This sounds like many bloggers' spare room desk-bound egotism, until you ponder the reach such messages attain, in an age beyond samidzat or soapbox tract. Fiction and fact blend.

I picked up a copy of Robert Ferrigno's thriller, "Prayers for the Assassin," about a near-future Islamic conquest, by mass conversions and military intervention, of a divided America after a dirty bomb took out Mecca and nukes have devastated major cities here. They've balkanized the USA. Balkanized proves an appropriate adjective. The Christians have fled into the Bible Belt where a frontier war against the infidels and vice versa continues; a Nevada Free State survives, as sheikhs need the gambling and the getaway. (I guess Dubai met fallout.) There's also a Mormon enclave, an island amidst an Muslimized Midwest and Pacific that's relegated Catholics to second class. Mexico's claimed the Southwest in all but name and the Canadian border's defended against escape as assidiously as Mexico's frontera never was. After the devastation wreaked, many Yanks choose to don the burka and profess fealty to Allah, both for social advancement and spiritual succour.

This is not my usual fare, and I admit impatience. As with science fiction or mysteries, I find I must adjust my reader-response critical sensitivity. These types of stories get told differently, and it's a shift even from Updike. Ferrigno's caper reminds me of other alternative histories, such as Robert Harris' "Fatherland," Phillip K. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle," Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Years of Rice and Salt," or Owen Sheers' "Resistance," in its depiction of weary men doing their distasteful duty in a world where, once the routine takes over and the battles settle, it's still the same old same old. Dick, for all of his obvious shortcomings in plot and consistency, did achieve this well if sporadically in his fiction. After a few chapters of Ferrigno last night, I did get the hang of the rather plodding expository set-up that, in all fantasies, needs to be given the reader as chunks of information along with the customary who what where when why of more familiar settings. It's a trick few authors can pull off smoothly. So, they who dare to try must gain more of our admiration, compared to the hackneyed coming-of-age or finding one's self or inspirational voyage prefab narratives that make fewer initial demands.

Same as the music I prefer. I'd rather hear The Move take on their late-60s sound with more verve if less polish than The Beatles, dulled by over-familarity. The Fall, rattling and ranting woozily, charm me (if I'm in the mood) more than the more calculated Clash. Lúnasa's easy groove into the Celtic mystic lacks the rawer grain of Téada.

When you get out of your element, you keep your attention fresher. That's why I remember the two weeks last summer in Donegal far more vividly than the past two weeks here at home and work. You respond to the new stimuli and notice their tendrils extending into nooks of your wandering thoughts or crannies of the daily paper. The shift in Dos Passos from left to right over his lifetime, the exploration by Updike into an idealistic New Jersey teenager's mind as he volunteers for a suicide bombing mission, and an article on Malika-- as she's known to Interpol apparently-- shows that what when I went to sleep last night after reading Ferrigno appeared to be exaggeration may be, after finishing the NY Times this morning, be extrapolation.

Which, as predictors for plausible futures know when crafting durable future scenarios, whether in Interpol, Al-Qaeda, or Ferrigno's imagination, matter much more. Malika, about a year older than me, represents a chilling side of feminism. Eighteen women in Iraq so far this year have blown themselves (at least) up for their cause; eight did this all of last year, and it seems quite recently that news of the first to do so in the intifada made headlines. The voluminous folds of the shroud make it easier for women to elude the Israeli police at the Palestinian borders.

Undercover, in a book or a burka, the danger awaits of the undetected dynamo. Here, too, with Malika, we have this same medium that you and I share being used to advance hatred in the name of specious liberation. What kind of a caliphate, what sort of a sudden breakdown akin to the collapse of the USSR, might convulse a hedonistic people back into obedience? Far-fetched, of course, which enhances the appeal of his theme. Yet, such escapism carries, whether Gulliver or Marco Polo or Sinbad or Ishmael tells the tale, its own provocation to shake you up, to see the unfamiliar beneath the ordinary, as we yearn to find in our flight into fiction.

Escapes cross back onto real maps. Malika's earlier husband carried out a bombing of an anti-Taliban leader, on the orders of Osama bin Ladin, two days before 9/11. He died, and she went on the Web as a "martyr's" wife and as an icon for Al Qaeda. "I write in a legal way. I know what I'm doing. I'm Belgian. I know the system." She learned about the Qur'an in French after an early marriage broke up; she bore a daughter later out of wedlock. I wonder who cared for her when her mother went off to try to fight in Chechnya, and later in Afghanistan, where the devout men rejected her. "Women didn't have problems under the Taliban. They had security." Still, when she got tangled up in that nation after her husband's mission, it was the Belgians who arranged for her safe passage home. She claimed humanitarian work as her defense. She was charged with smuggling weapons when tried later for the killing of the man her now-dead husband was ordered to murder.

Acquitted, she's off to Switzerland. There she marries another man, who had "political refugee status" there. Outraged when the Swiss forces raid her house there to investigate "several pro-Qaeda Web sites" and net forums, Malika charged the government with abuse. Her six-month sentence suspended, her husband released after a few weeks, he's now off "on a trip" according to her. The authorities lost track of him; he's suspected of Pakistani terrorist connections and plots to carry out attacks in Brussels last December. She's also under watch for the latter skulduggery.

Maybe there's hope for us. While for now, when not roaming on her own trips among the umma, she's on the Net, arguably safer. The police understandably wait. She insists with the aplomb of a jailhouse lawyer of her own law-abiding balancing act, yet she notes that if she's locked up: "That would be great. They would make me a living martyr." I guess her husband would be able to fend for himself, and her daughter.

Ferrigno's Seattle, the capital of his Islamic Republic, finds its women, if they wear the garments identifying them not as "moderns" but as traditional Muslims, required to also show a plastic card around their neck with permission to be out unaccompanied by husband or father. The women can be beaten, just as in some Middle Eastern countries today, by the Black Robes who enforce total veiling and complete submission to the rules that their rulers flaunt privately. Back to the Taliban.

Codes of conduct for students at a U-Dub campus that my father-in-law, class of 1940, would be hard-pressed to recognize come complete with small print attesting to Koranic verses for every proscription. With shariah in place and the caliphate established over a good portion of the post-nuclear fruited plains, many people submit to Islam out of safety, others for advancement, and others out of insecurity. I'm curious if Ferrigno's characters will reflect on their various reasons, or lack of such, for their decision to pledge fealty to Allah.

As with Scripture and its billions of adherents of all degrees of devotion, any faith relies on submission for its power. And, speculative fiction delights in subverting any total capitulation to any creed. In such tension between individual will and collective duty, the tension ignites. I wonder if any totalitarian system can create convincing fiction. That's why fascists turn out duller novels than liberals. It may tangentially explain Dos Passos' much discussed decline from his anarchic energy into a more conservative, and conventional, portrayal of Jeffersonian self-government. I wish he was around to expound on the threat that his Jazz Age generation never saw coming, global Islamo-fascism, to replace the binary Cold War system he hated so.

Today, we may misquote Lenin. But we tend still to run into many who recite the Bible. Naturally, as with Holy Writ, the Qur'an can reveal whatever you wish. The more forgiving suras come earlier in the Mecca years; the harsher Medina passages turn more vengeful towards the Jews who conspired against Muhammed. The often-vaunted "People of the Book" inclusion quoted by defenders clashes with the tribal exclusion so familiar to anyone who's read The Good Book.

All these loyalty oaths make me wonder at our own weakness. Of course, the secular West, as with the Christian, has had no shortage of fulminating assassins, on orders from the Old Man. Ferrigno's titles and roles fill these stock characterizations from a millennial run at our theatre, from the medieval Blackamoor to the Jacobean Turk to Updike's Shaik Rashid or yesterday's paper's Malika. As an intelligence expert expounds: she "is a role model, an icon who is bold enough to identify herself." Despite the total covering, black from head to toe, which she wears in the European Parliament's host city. Her "strategic role as a source of inspiration" displays her cleverness and her danger. However, Al Qaeda still won't let the tomboy into the Boyz-only clubhouse.

Malika threatens from the periphery, electronically-- and, perhaps she ships electronics to her husband, wherever he may be. She cackles her dismal doom from the safety of her Belgian flat. But, as I assume with half the characters in Ferrigno's uneasy Seattle, she's ecstatic at coupling her wiles with her willies. It's a relief to be told how to order your life, and perhaps many Westerners long for the slap on the wrist if not its severing.

Even if Malika's shoe's not in her pounding hand at the UN, she like old foes wishes to call doom upon us for our own hubris. "Vietnam is nothing compared to what awaits you on our lands. Ask your mothers, your wives to order your coffins." Like Khruschev, isn't it curious how many use the media of the West to promote oppression of values exported, however imperfectly, by the West? Malika assures her fellow believers, in the timeworn phrases of the deluded, that salvation awaits in the hands of a perpetually angry deity, ready to rule on a throne of blood. "Victory is appearing on the horizon, my brothers and sisters. Let's intensify our prayers."

Do I consign her table-talk to the shelf of fiction, with Updike and Ferrigno? Are these speeches fanciful harbingers, like some Edward Bellamy prediction of a century hence, of our own progress into a future that the speaker's contemporaries scoff at as invention? Or, when some Fedayeen censor uncovers this blog and her quotes tangled together in a data-mining to venerate early-21st century Muslim warriors unimagined decades from now, will Malika be proven the seer? I see myself ridiculed as the fool, another Gaunilo who in his heart denied the ontological proofs of God.

Malika in her insistence may find canonization as had Anselm under an earlier European power that sought to be catholic, one, and universal. Secularism, in its own late preachers such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, might represent a heresy no less dangerous than Albegensians or Arians. If Islam drives back the Fifth Crusade, I doubt many of the burghers of Brussels will find its jealous desert god worth worshipping. The people of the Book, in past caliphates under the umma, tend to be alive, yes, but taxed, harried, and subjugated. Better than a pogrom or an auto-de-fe, but not much of a contest there. Will martyrs such as Malika not only proclaim God's reign but force us all to confess to its imposition? If we refused to bow, would she see me as her brother or you as her sister? Reading today's facts in the paper, I speculate about fictions and futures.

Al Qaeda Warrior Uses Internet to Rally Women


Carrie said...

Completely briefly and more as a quip than a comment, first, you do have some sort of weird conduit, like those odd spam messages that appear to reference names of people you know (lucky guess? keyboard logger? some spam worm in your address book? paranoia rules ok?), to your reader's conversations, as the other day Laverne & Shirley's theme song intro, the Yiddish-American hopscotch chant, was a point of discussion for me, and I know now schmiel, schmazel (neither spellchecked) is said chant from having to wiki the words as neither could remember the last half. The schemial and schmazel we could recall readily.
Second, does not your woman Malika seem too much like your other woman from Sleeper Cell 2? It's like she leapt off the pages of the script, making the truth stranger than the fiction, or more dangerous, yet still operating in the fictional twilight of the internet.
Looked for the Feringo the other day after you mentioned it (I enjoy thrillers), but if it is more fantasy than mystery I am not sure if I should chase it up. Needless to say it was not on the local Waterstone's shelves, nor in the library. I haven't spied a used book store in our new digs yet.

Fionnchú said...

Ferrigno's two books are more near-future thrillers, Carrie. The fantasy's not to the forefront, but the speculation about an altered US of course enhances the plot, so far.

I never saw Sleeper Cell (the cable series, right?) I wanted to, but Layne thought it'd be traumatic if Niall wandered in, as the end of the first season had a terrorist plot at Dodger Stadium! I guess it didn't happen in fiction as in fact. The show's gotten rave reviews here, and if there's a Malika character, that'd make it all the more appealing.

That Yiddish pairing does annoyingly stick in my mind! I hated L & S. The power of jingles lingers for decades, the detritus of childhood and too much TV.