My Holy War

In a series of essays, a novelist examines our new era of "religious ferocity."

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.

MJ: You also describe incremental changes in the texture of life in the city. What have they been?

JR: We move more and more into a surveillance society. The United States used to be the most open and hospitable country on the face of the globe. There is now such a suspicion of strangers, of the other, such a sense that people need to be watched in their movements, such an alertness to the wrong person in the wrong place, such a constant theater of mock terrorist attacks, which have been terribly visible in Seattle. There was the TOPOFF exercise of two or three years ago, which was a supposed dirty bomb going off in a container. Of course, the bigger danger is a massive earthquake, but there aren't the resources to deal with one. You can get billions in federal money if you want to mount an anti-terrorist exercise, but you can't have a bean for earthquakes.

MJ: Sure, but, then again, Seattle is as likely a terrorist target as any, isn't it?


JR: True. Seattle has one quality about it that would make it an extremely attractive target: its container port is more closely integrated with downtown than any other container port is with the rest of a city. If they wanted to use a container-borne device, as they call them, probably the easiest city to get would be Seattle.

MJ: It just so happened that you were in Britain last summer on the day of the tube bombings. How did the British reaction differ from the American one on 9/11?

JR: The British lived through the 70s and 80s with constant IRA bomb scares and occasional IRA bombs and developed a kind of sanity about terrorism—that it's something that's going to happen at some time; that you can take every possible precaution to prevent it from happening, but you acknowledge that terrorism is something impossible to prevent. It can be minimized, you can take precautions against it, and there's a ton of sensible things you can do about it, which is just about what Steven Flynn proposes in America the Vulnerable, which I think is the most underrated, book about post-9/11 terrorism. And what Flynn inveighs against is that the War on Terror is being conducted as a go-to-source war, essentially a pursuit of the bad guys, which admittedly makes much more sexy reading than, say, establishing red lines and green lines to control the import of goods into this country, to bring more or less hidden communications networks out into the open to allow for inspection and fast-tracking and so on.

MJ: Okay, so going back to your first answer, you were seized with a desire to understand the 9/11 hijackers, where they came from and so on. And one thing you found was that they were, most of them, thoroughly westernized.

JR: That's right. What you find with, among others, Mohammed Atta and Sadiq Khan, the leader of the of the London bombers, is that they were brought up in Western culture, educated at western universities, out of which many of their ideas sprung. I think it's very important that we realize that we're dealing not with fanatics but with intellectuals of a sort. I mean, they've been reading the same books we have; they're fans of T.S. Elliot's Wasteland. When they talk about the degradation of the West they're merely echoing the first generation of high literary modernists like Elliot. You can see that the Wasteland is a poem that chimes extraordinarily well with Sayyid Qutb's Milestones. They talk about the same decadence of the West, and that same desire to demolish, which is there persistently in the Wasteland. And they've been reading our own anti-colonial literature, too; they've read Frantz Fanon..

That's why people like, say, Salman Rushdie, are so wrong when they say we're dealing with people who want to drag the world back into the Dark Ages; they see their movement, however much we may dislike the thought, as a modern, reformist movement that is as much political and almost literary-intellectual as it is religious, though certainly religious belief supplies the necessary steel.

MJ: But clearly there is that religious element. And it's mirrored on the US side.


JR: Yes. I don't think it was any accident that the word "crusade" was used right at the beginning, though it was replaced very quickly. I think George W. Bush coming to power, with his Christian fundamentalist base, was to some extent consciously fulfilling their prophecies of the last days; and the religiose rhetoric brought to bear on the war on terror, the war or Iraq, the war of good against evil, was calculated to appeal to the base. But there was something else in it, too, which is that an administration based on elevating faith as a good in itself, which this one very much has done, is an administration that can ignore realism safely, because faith ties in very closely with what I've tried to label "American Platonism," this idealist view of the world—slightly more in its technical sense than its vernacular one—a culmination of Christian faith. It regards realism as being essentially low-minded and putting unnecessary blocks in the way of a greater vision to be achieved.

Reason has been lost. We're not living now within a rational political context at all; the ways in which arguments are advanced are not by means of reason; they're questions of faith. And if you question that faith you're seen as being effectively an atheist. Running through the whole of the book is an argument, I hope, that rationalism has a place and so does realism, and that we're living under a faith-based administration that's dangerously fundamentalist and religiose in its own right, even as we're fighting an enemy that's fundamentalist and religiose in its own right.

MJ: Right. So realism matters. Reality matters. And knowledge matters. But, as you argue quite vigorously, the US went into Iraq without troubling to learn about the lands we were invading.

JR: Absolutely. It was astonishing to hear Iraq spoken of with almost no comprehension whatsoever of the social, the religious, the ethnic, the tribal divisions. Iraq is a series of cracks, it always has been; the British wanted it that way. They deliberately bound it together as a sort of impossible object, just as Syria was bound together on the same principle by the French, because it made the minority government of the Sunnis, which the British installed, totally dependent on the British, because without British arms the whole thing would have been unenforceable. What the British needed was tame puppet rulers who were dependent on the colonial power for the effective running of the state—the state that never should have been a state.

MJ: So when Wolfowitz, for instance used to talk about respecting "Iraq's territorial integrity"…

JR: Oh yes, I love "territorial integrity." Iraq has about as much territorial integrity as, I don't know, a pair of trousers, a banana, and a bicycle.

MJ: Back to religion. In the title essay, "My Holy War," you write of your adolescent struggles, as an militant atheist, with your clergyman father, and you link that to the "hunger for the battlefield" that seizes young radicalized Muslims. What's the connection?

JR: I come from just about the longest line of Anglican clergymen in history, in England, and mine is the first generation in which there isn't one in the family, and certainly the first in which there aren't believers. I'm the oldest of four sons. I fought the great adolescent battles against my father and his dog collar and his religious beliefs, and I have to say I don't think my position has changed terribly much since I was thirteen, when it occurred to me that God and Santa Claus were pretty much the same person. I just remember that the fury of both me and my father, and in a sense the anger of the jihadis reminds me of the time when I, in my adolescent way, also had the lock on truth and wanted to shoot down the world represented by my father. And I think both in their anti-colonialism and also that terrifying sense of having the lock on holy truth—or in my case unholy truth—there is something one can find in one's own history, one's own life experience, something that's not wholly alien to what drove the 9/11 hijackers and what drove the 7/7 bombers in London.

MJ: You write in that same essay that, from your vantage point as an adolescent in the 1950s in England, "the idea that any religion would have sufficient power left in it to fuel a twenty-first-century war would have struck me as grotesque." And yet, here we are in a new era of "religious ferocity."

JR: Like everybody I knew, I saw that the age of sanity was about to dawn. Nobody would believe in God anymore. And there was this idea that religion was the opiate of the masses, and the more people watched the news on TV, the more education they got, then of course they'd drop their old superstitious beliefs as these sort of village things that they'd outgrown. Well, we couldn’t have been more wrong. And it's very interesting that the assumption, which is often made by sociologists, that with increasing wealth and possessions, that in a capitalist society people will have less and less reason to go to church. Well, America marvelously disproves that theory and sends it packing. I mean, this most materialist country on the face of the globe is also the most superstitious country this side of Iran.