Banned Books Week: Devil of the Week

Banned Books WeekEvery generation seems to need a bugbear. That’s the Terrible Other, the Axis of Evil, the Stinking Commies–some nebulous They that’s coming to get us all booga booga.

Well before the attacks on 9/11, Islam had become the bugbear of the hour. The collapse of the Soviet empire left a gap in the fearmongering stats. No  more Commie Menace, Iron Curtain, Cold War, Evil Socialists Booga Booga. But! Just in time! Radical Islam leaped in to fill the void.

Or rather, the same persons and institutions that had been selling the Red Menace so successfully for so long now had a new Menace to wave in front of the cowering public.

In the Eighties, while the Berlin Wall still stood and before the Soviet Union dissolved, Ronald  Reagan’s administration bankrolled and supported the regime of Saddam Hussein. But even then, the first foundations had been laid, thanks to the collapse of the monarchy in Iran during the Seventies, and the hostage crisis in the American Embassy in Tehran.

Over those 444 days beginning in November of 1979, Iran became a  Bugbear. And stayed one–and still is, to this day. There are old warriors and equally old chickenhawks whose wet dream is to “Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran.”

In the Eighties, Islam had yet to become the Evil Realm. I was able to write and sell fantasy novels set in the Middle East during the time of the Crusades, and those books did rather well. (One, Alamut, is appearing on the front page of Book View Cafe on Mondays.) Nobody was trying to burn the Qur’an, and we didn’t hear of hate crimes against people who were mistaken for Muslims (gays and people of color, of course, were quite another matter).

Then came the Gulf War in 1991. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait; the US, under Bush the First, galloped to the rescue. That’s when things started to go really sour. The first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 made a poor situation worse, but the Nineties had other preoccupations–notably that blow job in the Oval Office.

It took ten years and another Bush to turn the tide conclusively. The attacks on 9/11 struck the United States to the heart–and gave the Bugbear Brigade its juiciest target since the Red Menace. As a writer I felt this directly: I had a book out that week. Set in the Middle East. With sympathetic portrayals of Islamic characters and culture.

The book tanked. Nobody wanted to read it. Nobody wanted to hear anything good about the Other Side–even in an alternate history in which “Our” Side did considerably better than it did in the regular timeline.

Grief and anger locked minds shut. There were attempts to prevent this–Bush was careful to make a distinction between “Muslims who attacked us” and the whole, diverse, multitudinous range of Islam. But the Bugbear Brigade was out in force, and it found plenty of marchers for its parade. Islam attacked us. Islam was Evil. Islam had to go down. We were taught to hate a whole religion for the actions of a tiny fraction of its followers.

And so we were lied into a war against a nation that had nothing to do with the attacks, because it was in the same general area and practiced the same general religion and, well, it had oil. And its leader had tried to do bad things to our leader’s Pappy.

Bush Junior got his war. But we didn’t get the hate out of our system. It’s worse now than ever. To say a man is a Muslim is equivalent to, in 1955, accusing him of being a Communist. Our President has to insist that he’s a Christian, because it’s such a bad thing to be That Other Religion. Red-baiting has given way to Muslim-baiting. And now it’s the in thing to hold a little Qur’an-burning, you know, just a few thousand of our closest media connections.

Hate is hate. Bigotry is the same, whatever its target. People have to hide their racism and their sexism behind code words and cultural shorthand, but it’s fairly widely accepted that the word “Muslim” signifies something negative. Something that, even if you’re quite tolerant and rather well educated, you have to defend yourself for defending.

The stereotype? The mad-eyed zealot with the beard and the turban. The country that “hasn’t imported anything, really, in the past couple of decades, except terrorists.” The religion that’s “all violence and hate and holy war. Oh! and hates women.”

That’s not the religion I’ve studied. I’ve read their holy book that’s been banned as evil. It’s full of beautiful ideas and beautiful language. It praises the Prophet Jesus, speaks positively and tolerantly of the other People of the Book (Jews and Christians), and preaches mercy and compassion and understanding for the hearts and minds of others.  It has, for its time,  a remarkably enlightened view of women.  Its Five Pillars or duties do not  (contrary to Bugbear belief) include holy war. They do include the profession of faith, the giving of alms, daily prayer, fasting in the month of Ramadan, and the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Education is death to the Bugbear Brigade. If a person understands the Scary Thing, and studies it, and sees it as it really is, it’s not a Bugbear any more. It’s a belief system held by human beings just like us, just as good and bad and in between as we are, with hopes and fears and wants and needs very like our own.

Education makes the Bugbear human–and the Brigade can’t have that. It has to burn the holy book unread, and keep its followers from hearing anything positive about the Generalized and Stereotypical Evil That Is Out to Get Us.

That’s one reason why I’m publishing Alamut on Book View Cafe in this particular political climate. One of its protagonists is an honest-to-Allah terrorist, but she has her very solid, very human, and very convincing reasons for what she does. We see her from the inside, as she sees herself–and as she sees the world she lives in.

Scary stuff. Might, you know, educate people. Show them the Bugbear with its human face.

And if there’s anything the Brigade can’t stand, it’s that. That’s why the Brigade bans books–and that’s why we’re making a point of reading such books this week.




Banned Books Week: Devil of the Week — 7 Comments

  1. The people who promulgate hatred–whether it’s against Muslims or Jews or gays or communists –are often stunned by the real world consequences of their screeds. Acting out their fear as if it were a moral force can cost lives, ruin lives. The answer is not to forbid their speech–it’s to encourage and celebrate books like Alamut. Because “I didn’t think…” is not an excuse.

  2. I was encouraged by the report, back in late 2001 or early 2002, from somebody who visited a very Wahabi-ist school. The students assured the visitor that America deserved the 9-11 attacks and that the terrorists were blessed by God. Then the visitor showed some video of the attack — the people leaping out of high windows to escape the fire. And the students changed their minds, and agreed that this was Not What God Likes.

  3. Great stuff, guys.

    If you humanize the Other, show that person as a person, it’s a lot harder to hate. There are still evil people and evil actions, and those need to be brought into the light, but it’s really important not to fall into generalized hatin’ on the bad guys.

    There’s been a pretty stinky mess in the sf genre recently with a very respected author who posted about the “Ground Zero” (actually two blocks away) “Mosque” (actually a community center) by generalizing, negatively, from the WTC attackers to the entire religion–while trying their very best to seem fair and balanced. The original post was an interesting example of unexamined assumptions in someone who claims to be not only educated and intelligent but also highly tolerant of the Other.

    We are all biased. It’s a constant challenge to be aware of those biases.

  4. The “Ground Zero mosque,” it is to laugh. Not only is it several blocks from the old WTC site, you know what used to be there? A Burlington Coat Factory. Sacred, right.

  5. One thing I find is true as I blog in support of reason, faith and the unity of all the people on our little blue marble and that is that inveterate haters do so by demonizing the “other” and if you try tell or show them that the demons are people very much like them, they will refuse to listen or look.

    Those Wahabist students who changed their mind when confronted with the blazing reality of 9/11 are the real heroes of Islam. And their lives will not be easy from here on, because they will no longer have the certitude that extreme hatred endows.

    I hope they’ll all go back to the Qur’an and really read it. When Muhammad said God did not wish us to despise each other, when He said there was to be no compulsion in religion, I’m pretty sure He meant it.