On Sept. 11, 2001 Jonathan Raban was writing Waxwings, his novel about America at the turn of the millennium. For months after 9/11, it lay abandoned, as, day after day, Raban watched CNN compulsively, visited web sites, went off to the university library to get hold of books like Sayyid Qutb's Milestones -- in his words "the essential charter of the jihad movement" -- trying to find out everything he could about the motives and character of both the 9/11 hijackers and, increasingly, as the US war on terror got going, those of the Bush administration.
Raban shared his findings in, among other publications, The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker, in essays and articles now collected My Holy War: Dispatches from the Home Front. In them, he takes up topics including the Western roots of jihadist ideology, the Bush administration's manipulation of the terror threat, religious fundamentalism of both the Christian and Muslim varieties, and the changes wrought by the war on terror on the texture of daily life in Seattle, where Raban, an Englishman, now lives.
Raban's books include Arabia: A Journey Through the Labrynth, Passage to Juneau. He is the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award and is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books. He talked with Mother Jones by phone from his home in Seattle.
Mother Jones: You're primarily a novelist, not a political writer, so how did you come to write these very current, often political, pieces?
Jonathan Raban: I'm not at all a political writer. I'm a writer who's been dragged by circumstances, on the whole unwillingly, into writing about politics.
I had written a book about Arabia, a long, long time ago, called, in the United States, Arabia: A Journey Through the Labyrinth, which meant that after Sept. 11 I did get calls--on the thinking that as I'd written a book about Arabia I must have something to say about Arabs. The experience was long in the past. But when I saw Paul Wolfowitz on CSPAN talking about the invasion of Iraq long before it happened, but proposing it to right-wing think tanks, and I was so enraged. It seemed to me that he was describing a world he didn't remotely understand. I didn't think at the time that I knew much about Arabia, but I was absolutely convinced, having watched this program, that I knew more than Wolfowitz.
MJ: Was there an advantage to not being a political writer in this case?
JR: Yes, because most political writing comes out of cities like London, New York, or Washington, D.C., and writers write from those places as if from the center of the known universe. In other words, foreground is of no interest to them because foreground is taken for granted. One of the interesting things about writing about politics from this private perspective, and from a city that is not at the center of things, is that you find yourself necessarily dealing with the foreground, with what is right in front of you. And I hope that adds to the book. It's from a very specific and local position, which is a congressional district which is probably about as far to the left as any in the nation, represented by Jim McDermott, and separated by three highway bridges from Red America. I've never believed in the red state/blue state divide; it's blue cities and red suburbs and countryside. It seems to me that one can write about the large shape of national politics simply by traveling within King County, where I live, which includes both the city of Seattle and a lot of both rural and suburban neighborhoods out to the east, and you get the whole pattern of national politics.
MJ: In one of the essays you describe driving out to the suburbs in the days after 9/11. What struck you?
JR: There was a tremendous outpouring of religious sympathy—roadside shrines everywhere, prayers to God, American flags en masse, and a sense of extraordinary violation—and you had that in the city, too, in the immediate wake 9/11, except for in the matter of religion; that's the one thing that really divide city from country was that the city's response was largely secular, the country's was obviously, blatantly religious.