The Terrorists of Our Imagination Aren't Muslims ... They're Us

Every era has its own built-in drama -- its plague or despot by which it will be remembered, whose looming menace inflects every conversation, kindles every sermon, tints every work of art. Ours is terrorism. A time of collapsing towers and exploding public-transit vehicles with charred guts ribboning the wrack is how this epoch will be pictured, centuries hence. But then to truly inhabit this era, to speak its language, I must add: if there even are centuries, hence.

Striving to picture our reality, future generations -- if there are future generations -- will sniff their anodyne air for phantom whiffs of ash or poison gas as they pore over novels published right now -- because terrorists have become stock characters in post-9/11 fiction just as spies were during the Cold War or pointy-horned demons in Dante's Florence. Maybe our descendants will read John Updike's "Terrorist" (Knopf, 2006). Its titular New Jersey teen -- Ahmad Mulloy, son of an Irish-American mother and long-gone Egyptian-student dad -- joins a jihadist cell plotting to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel and reveres an imam who intones, "The American way is the way of infidels. It is headed for a terrible doom." Perhaps they'll read Patrick Neate's City of Tiny Lights (Viking, 2005), whose hilarious private-eye narrator is an ex-mujahadeen who learned in Afghanistan how to slash a man from "his navel to his chops," and persuades an adoring young "thug lite" to infiltrate a jihadist cell plotting to blow up the London tube. (This book was published in the United Kingdom a week before the real London tube bombings of July 7, 2005.) Or they could read Xavier Waterkeyn and Daniel Lalic's "Where's Bin Laden?" (New Holland, 2006), a wacky cartoon romp in which readers are urged to locate the bearded Saudi in colorfully drawn city and circus scenes. They could pick up a copy of Robert Wilson's "The Hidden Assassins" (Harcourt, 2006), in which a bomb destroys a Seville apartment block amid clues resembling those found around the 2004 Madrid train bombings. Or maybe they'll tackle Vikram Chandra's "Sacred Games" (Harper Collins, 2007), whose brooding cops race around Mumbai seeking a nuclear bomb they know that fanatics have built and which is poised to explode.

Novelists love built-in dramas. Think of all that time and effort saved which would otherwise be spent having to invent plots, characters, motivations, denouements. Terrorists plug handily into any genre. Thrillers. Sci-fi. Romance: Belinda ached for his touch. But why was he so reluctant to talk about his flying lessons?

And the trend factor sells. Publishers dream of reviewers trilling: "A real-life drama ripped from the headlines!" and "A tale for our times!" Surely that helped Chandra score a million-dollar advance from Harper Collins, which then budgeted another $300,000 for marketing "Sacred Games." Granted, Chandra crafts characters so authentic that you can practically hear their knuckles crack. But for a 900-page hardcover novel that's one big bet.

We didn't ask to live in an era when subways blow up. Or, to put a finer point on it, when people blow them up. But that's the way it is. So terrorists are stock characters not merely in mass-market drugstore-rack airport-shop blockbuster potboilers but in intellectual epics whose authors are professors praised by the Guardian and who win prestigious prizes. Neate won the Whitbread, one of the United Kingdom's top awards. Chandra won another -- the Commonwealth Writers Prize -- and teaches at UC Berkeley. Updike has won two Pulitzers, though the last one was 16 years ago.

OK, so what insights do all these novels offer into who terrorists really are and how they feel and what they want? Well, here's a spoiler warning. Beaucoup spoilers follow. Chandra and Wilson -- a Brit who has won the Gumshoe and Gold Dagger Awards and lives in Portugal -- are among those who engage in a bit of psy-ops. Knowing that today's typical Western reader is inclined to imagine terrorists as Muslims, the authors set things up so as to appear that Muslims are indeed perpetrating mayhem on an apocalyptic scale. In "The Hidden Assassins," a van containing a Koran, explosive residue, a black hood-mask and a green sash emblazoned with Arabic script stands parked alongside the bombed apartment block. The van's registration is traced to a man named Mohammed who is on a government watch list. A victim mutters: "We all know who it is, don't we? ... the Moroccans." Another character observes that ever since the Madrid train bombings, locals have "been watching them go into that mosque and wondering." When a cop muses that the evidence is puzzling, his colleague retorts: "Explosives, the Koran and a green sash and black hood don't sound confusing to me." Yobs in a bar go ape when a TV pundit suggests it might be anyone but Muslims.

Arabic missives sent to police headquarters the press insist: "We will not rest until Andalucía is back in the bosom of Islam." Pondering the "connections made by Islamic cell members in Spain with the perpetrators of the Twin Towers and Washington, D.C. attacks," a national security agent sighs that "there seems to be an unending stream of young operatives." Arabic blueprints are discovered outlining a Beslan-type hostage operation, specifying that children should be shot "until the Spanish government recognized Andalucía as an Islamic state under Sharia law."

And then -- zing! Turns out the evidence was crafted and planted by Catholics, although by the time this happens only a Bratz doll couldn't see it coming. A cabal of capitalists, nationalists, anti-immigrationists and political aspirants hired a down-and-out apostate Muslim to help them make fake evidence. To cover their tracks, they then butchered the apostate. Yes, an actual Islamist network is afoot in Seville at the same time, striving to "liberate" Spain. At the last minute they're caught with cars full of plastic explosives, but they're not the ones who blew up the apartment block. Their presence, their reality, is the rebar with which the Catholic cabal wrought its plan.

Oh snap! This works for the novelist in so many ways. He gets to expound on the nature of evil, which is always fun. And then -- well, the joke's on you! Who doesn't love a surprise? A favorite gambit among thriller-writers is to parade prime suspects back and forth across the scenery, then at a crucial momemt reveal the perp as someone you'd least likely expect. The butler did it. The gardener did it. The Catholics did it.

In Sacred Games, Chandra displays an India torn and tenderized by age-old theo-wars. In flashbacks, we watch Muslims and Hindus slaughtering each other during the Partition. Houses blaze. One character's beloved Sikh sister is abducted by Muslims and forced to marry one. A Delhi investigator specializes in Islamic fundamentalism, tracking student groups and mullahs, but "to live always between threat and counter-threat was exhausting." Everyone remembers the 1993 Mumbai bombings: "On television the torn buildings stood eviscerated. ... Of course, of course ... Muslim boys from Bombay had been flown to Dubai and then to Pakistan ... they had been trained by Pakistanis." A narrator confirms that Islamic cells are importing "huge shipments of automatic rifles ... grenades ... anti-tank weapons, and Stinger missiles." Sure enough, a nuclear device is scheduled to wreak havoc. If and when it does, all evidence will lead back to an Islamist group called Hizbuddeen, the Army of the Final Day. The brooding Sikh cop rushing to find and neutralize the bomb is haunted by images of all that he loves in flames. And then -- zing! The religious extremists behind the bomb plot turn out to be Hindu. Their kingpin is a half-paralyzed old guru in a wheelchair boasting thousands of acolytes worldwide. He dreams of "a final, glorious battle" because "every golden age must be preceded by an apocalypse." He created the bogus Hizbuddeen, even enlisting unwitting actual Muslim radicals, so that this battle would be blamed on you-know-who.

Rather deftly -- remember, Chandra is worth seven figures to Harper Collins -- both of these thrillers do what thrillers do best: stack up precarious possibilities, raising tension, suspicions, expectations as readers chew their lips and scratch their heads. But by making the villains appear to be Muslims, then unveiling them as not, these books pull yet another trick: shaming readers for having suspected Muslims all along. What -- you went along with the crowd? You bigot, the reader chides himself. You're no better than that wife-beater in "The Hidden Assassins" who rants that terrorism is a disease and that the "only cure" is "to get rid of the lot of them. ... Muslims, Africans, Arabs." In which case these postmodern intellectual epics do what postmodern intellectual epics do best: thrust readers into self-examination, self-recrimination, self-loathing. The built-in dramas of earlier eras were easier to parse in real life and in art. Consider the "Iliad": us versus them. We are living in more complicated times. Now it's us versus them-who-might-actually-be-anyone, plus it's us versus us.

But these books spawn yet another side effect, this one arguably unintentional. While building up their big surprise, the authors invest much effort in foregrounding fully fledged flesh-and-blood non-Muslim characters. These characters eventually turn out to be terrorists, but by that time we have spent hundreds of pages as yet unaware, getting to know their hearts and minds, watching them eat, meeting their lovers and wives. A fully fledged character is always, just by virtue of being fully fledged, sympathetic at least a little bit. Meanwhile, in both of these books Muslim extremists really do exist. They are not the main attraction, yet they visit mosques and assemble explosives and conceptualize a Caliphate. But never do we meet any of these men or women face to face, learn the shapes of their trousers or their children's names. They remain faceless, elusive, furtive. The authors might imagine themselves as bold rebels unshackling readers from prejudice: See? Anyone could be a terrorist, at any time! Yet a faceless furtive phantom, afoot in the shadows and deliberately unmet, seems in his facelessness all the more potent a threat.

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