One nation, under Allah: an interview with Robert Ferrigno
By Orrin C. Judd
Best-selling novelist Robert Ferrigno burst onto the crime thriller scene with his critically-acclaimed 1990 debut, The Horse Latitudes. With his penchant for rendering truly scary psycho-killer villains against a sunny Southern California backdrop, he soon developed a reputation for delivering a combination of what NY Times mystery reviewer Marilyn Stasio termed, "frantic energy" and "macabre fun." But his new futuristic thriller, Prayers for the Assassin, represents a considerable departure.
In the year 2040, New York City, Washington, D.C. and Mecca have all been devastated by nuclear warheads, the attacks admitted to by Mossad agents who were trying to drive a wedge between the West and the Islamic world (giving the event the title the Zionist Betrayal). The resulting chaos has led to the creation of an Islamic States of America, making up most of the Northern and Western states of the old Union. An uneasy truce exists with the Bible Belt states of the South after a long civil war, and the Catholic Church is tolerated, but the federal government is essentially an Islamic republic.
Within this richly imagined context, Mr. Ferrigno sets the story of Rakkim Epps, a former elite soldier in the American Fedayeen, and Sarah Dougan, a young historian who has uncovered evidence that casts doubt on the official version of the Zionist Betrayal. The two were raised by Redbeard, the head of State Security -- Rakkim an orphan he found on the street; Sarah, the daughter of Redbeard's assassinated brother. When Sarah disappears, Redbeard asks the estranged Rakkim to find her, without revealing why she's gone into hiding. As he searches, Rakkim soon finds himself shadowed by Darwin, an assassin and psychopath, who serves the Wise Old One, a fundamentalist leader who thinks Redbeard and others in the government too moderate.
All of the author's usual chops are on full display, so fans and thriller readers will be satisfied, but the background he provides will interest even policy wonks and political mavens. Fiction is used here to make us consider why a billion people choose Islam and whether it's too far-fetched to think that Americans might find it attractive under the right circumstances. As Mark Steyn said in his review, "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."
Mr. Ferrigno kindly took time out from his author's tour to answer some questions about where he got his ideas for the novel and what he hopes readers will take away from it.
Howdy, Mr. Ferrigno. Congratulations on a fine novel and thanks for sharing some of your time with us.
Q: A novel imagining a future Islamic States of America is pretty big departure from the crime noirs for which you're renowned. What inspired you to write this story?
RF: A combination of 9-11 and my own growing personal interest in matters of faith. Immediately after 9-11 I asked myself, if nineteen zealots armed only with box cutters and a rudimentary knowledge of Microsoft Flight Simulator could take down the two tallest buildings in New York City, crash into the Pentagon and throw the US economy into recession, is it possible they could actually win the war? The answer, of course, is that the US could never be defeated militarily within the near future, but the actions of the nineteen illustrated our Achilles heel, the disparity between the power of faith in a liberal western democracy and a fundamentalist Islamic world. In a war that will likely go on for decades, which power bloc do you think will tire first? Three years into the Iraq struggle, which side shows signs of weariness and turning on its own leaders?
Q: Comparisons seem inevitable, to books like 1984, Brave New World, Robert Harris's Fatherland, The Handmaid's Tale, etc.. Did you read other novels of alternative futures in preparation for your own?
RF: I remember reading Fatherland about fifteen years ago and enjoying it a lot. I didn't think about any other book while working on Prayers but I see similarities between them, both involve protagonists who are in some way part of the new power structure and both involve the protagonist uncovering a huge secret that is at the core of the change. Another book I feel a kinship with is Dune, a science fiction novel by Frank Herbert, which posits a non-technological people, the Fremen, who bring down a sophisticated galactic empire through their own spiritual superiority.
Q: The book depends on making an Islamic version of America believable and so requires some considerable level of knowledge about Muslim life. How did you go about doing research on Islam?
RF: I was a philosophy major is college, so have always been interested in spiritual aspects of thought, but was not focused on Islam until the mid-90s when it was obvious where the next great national challenge lay. I spent about a year prior to writing Prayers doing research. I read numerous books on comparative religion, guerilla warfare, the Koran, history of the Middle East and spent hours on all sorts of blogs for information.
One of my favorite blogs was www.askimam.com which is a complete information site for Muslims with questions about the faith -- everything from the proper outfit to wear to school, to whether or not peanut butter is acceptable under Muslim dietary strictures. A site like this gives a clearer picture of Muslims and their desire to maintain pious than all the newspaper articles I read.
Q: One of the things that makes the premise of the novel work is that so many of the likable characters, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, prefer the culture they live in to the one that immediately preceded it. What is the source of that preference?
RF: Only religion delivers moral certitude, and this hunger for certainty I believe is universal.
Science, the other great faith, is by its very nature always in flux, always changing doctrine as new data comes in. This is why the West will always lead theocratic societies technologically. This is why when wealthy Muslims get terribly sick, they always seem to come to the West for treatment. This is why there are a total of approximately two Muslims who have received the Nobel prize and one of them was for Literature, which doesn't count.
Science deals in doubt and progress. Religion, if it is to deliver certitude, must change very, very slowly. There was a noted Saudi religious scholar who delivered a lecture last year which asked the question: Is Progress a Goal to Be Sought? His answer was no, since progress implied that Allah had not worked out the best of all possible worlds.
Q: Do you have a personal faith in God?
RF: Yes, although I have not attended church in forty years, I feel a closeness with God that has only increased since I started working on Prayers.
Q: Did working on the book change your views of politics or geopolitics or both? About Islam or the Islamic world? Do you think Islam is going to adapt itself to liberal democracy?
RF: These are profoundly important questions, perhaps the most important questions of the day.
Yes, my views did change. I started out hostile to Islam and after a couple years immersion I gained a greater understanding of the faith, recognizing its strength and power over believers. At the same time I feel that the hierarchal aspects of Islam, the subordination of self and the rigor of its doctrine --- Islam means "submission" --- is profoundly out of phase with the modern world.
I think the administration's efforts in the Middle East arise from the best intentions --- the blood for oil argument fails to understand either Capitalism or democracy --- but I also think the administration's broad goals stand little chance of being achieved. The latest information, as of March 12, show that Saddam was more worried about internal enemies than the US, even while the shooting war had already begun. Saddam realized that the fractures within the Middle East in general and Iraq in particular, are profound, Shiite and Sunni and Kurd, Arab and Persian, differences that to the melting-pot USA seem trivial, but which are life and death over there. I find myself aligned with those who seek small steps, evolutionary movement within a society rather than external demands.
Consider Pakistan, a much more fundamentalist state than Iraq, a state that actually does have WMDs, but a state we can work with because its autocratic leader, General Musharraf --- who took power in a coup – is someone we can deal with. Pakistan will never be a liberal democracy, but we are doing the best we can with who the Pakistanis are.
Rather than trying to figure out who lost Iraq, it would be better to find out who lost Saddam, since his sort of brutal dictatorship seemed to govern the country effectively for many years. We worked with Saddam until the Gulf war. He was our bulwark against the true danger in the Middle East, Iran. What caused the split? I have no idea, but I do know the country that gained the most from Gulf War 1 and 2 was Iran.
As to the question of Islam and liberal democracy…. I have great doubts such a transformation is possible, other than at the margins. Liberal democracies embrace doubt and diversity, neither of which are welcomed by Islam. One of the most liberal of Muslim nations is Turkey and they still lock up dissidents, jail journalists and keep a tight lid on their fundamentalist population. Fundamentalist Islamic states like Yemen, Iran, Saudi Arabia would have to give up their faith to embrace modern values, and I don't see that happening.
Think about the cartoon controversy. Bush should have said, we regret offenses against Islam as we regret offenses against Christianity, like Piss Christ, but this is the West, we deal with offenses and blasphemy on a regular basis over here. Nothing is sacred in the public square. If you don't like it, stay home.
Q: The topic of the novel is inherently controversial. Did you experience any difficulty in publishing the book?
RF: I expected difficulty and I got it. My former publisher, where I had happily published four previous novels, passed on the book. My agent was adamantly against me writing it for several reasons, but eventually came around. My current publisher, Scribners, was completely supportive. Foreign publishers in France, Germany and Italy, where I have always sold well, all declined to publish the book, citing potential legal and physical problems. Hollywood studios, which had optioned almost all of my prior books, declined to make offers.
Q: One of the innovative ways in which the book is being marketed is by sending it out to bloggers--was that your idea or your publishers?
RF: This was my idea. I read more blogs than newspapers and feel I am better informed because of it.
Q: Why do find blogs so useful?
RF: The variety of opinion -- often from professionals with a greater skill set than the average journalist, who is by nature a generalist -- plus the use of hyperlinks to get additional information make blogs a superior source of data. Blogs also make near-immediate corrections since they have no investment in their "image" other than an image of intellectual integrity.
On to some personal questions:
Q: Brian Lamb of Booknotes (C-SPAN) always asks a question that I find interesting. How do you go about the physical task of writing?
RF: I research and let the information make connections at the neurological level before I start work, a process than can take days, weeks, months or years.
I write on a computer in my office, but can write anywhere. All I need is an idea and a working cerebral cortex. I love to work, so there's no need for a set schedule.
Q: There seem to be some other stories (maybe even many stories) left to tell about the Islamic States--have you thought about sequels or prequels?
RF: The success of Prayers has allowed me to start work on a second book, with a third projected. Book Two ventures into the Bible Belt.
Thank you very much for your time and your consideration. Best of luck with the book.