Read an Excerpt
My Holy War Dispatches from the Home Front
By Jonathan Raban
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS Copyright © 2006 Jonathan Raban
All right reserved.
Chapter One MY HOLY WAR
WHEN I WAS growing up in England, churches were still by far the tallest buildings in the landscape. With their towers and battlements, these domestic fortresses of Christendom, built as much to intimidate as to inspire, were close cousins and coevals of the Crusader castles in Turkey and the Middle East, like Birecik, Markab, and Crac des Chevaliers, whose lordly ruins I later saw, always from a distance and always with an unwelcome pang of deja vu. My boarding school was attached to Worcester Cathedral, a magnificent crenellated pile, from the top of whose two-hundred-foot tower you could, so it was said, see clear across six counties. It was also said that a threepenny bit flipped out from the tower onto the head of an unwary passerby would cause instant death. This maneuver wasn't as easy as it may sound, and the cathedral roof below the tower was spattered with coins that had failed to reach their target, several of them mine.
The cathedral was full of emblems of Christianity's violent past. In the choir was King John's tomb, topped with a marble effigy of the King, brother of Richard the Lionheart, who taxed England dry to pay for his bloody Third Crusade against Saladin. In the south aisle, a museum case held a number of small treasures under dusty glass. I particularly relished a curled, yellowish-brown object that looked like a half-eaten cannoli shell. A faded label, inscribed in sepia ink, proclaimed it to be the skin of a flayed Dane. I never quite believed in children's hymns like "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild"; one had only to look around Christian buildings to see that this was a religion of the sword, of imperial conquest, of torture and coercion-a great, antique war machine, disguised as an engine of sweetness and light.
My father was a clergyman who came to ordination late, after a successful wartime career as an artillery officer followed by a spell as the regional secretary of a Christian voluntary organization. I was, from age twelve, a sullen atheist. Pimple-faced, voice treacherously skidding from baritone to falsetto, I tried to explain to my father that religion had always done more bad in the world than it had done good: What about the Spanish Inquisition? What about the Salem witch trials? What about the Thirty Years' War? What about the Bishops and the Bomb? It was obvious: religion was over-finished, a long disease for which the cure had been found in the form of mass education and a taste of modest material well-being. My father, in the yellowed dog collar that had seen service around my grandfather's neck and the ancient black cassock that had been passed on to him by my great-uncle Cyril, was an egregious (fast becoming my favorite word) anachronism, and might just as well have gone strolling around the village in codpiece and tights.
It was a lot easier to be a budding atheist in the mid-1950s than it was to be a budding vicar. The churches of England, grand as they appeared from a distance, were riddled with worm and rot. Beside each church stood a giant plywood thermometer, precariously rigged with guy ropes, recording the progress of the restoration fund for the tower or the roof. The thermometers often perished in the weather before the red paint began to climb the scale. Sunday congregations were thin and growing thinner-lost to TV, the home improvement craze, and weekend jaunts in the new family car.
After his curacy, my father's first full parish was a sprawling village, Pennington, on the outskirts of Lymington, in Hampshire. Luckily for him, the church was Victorian and not in a state of imminent physical collapse, and a fair sprinkling of parishioners still showed up at services. The local gentry came to Matins to set an example to the villagers, and because the church porch was their gathering point before they climbed into their Jaguars and Rovers and swept off for preluncheon sherry. The farmers came. So did the retired army types, who addressed my father as Padre, along with a dutiful remnant of shopkeepers and agricultural laborers.
Like most sixteen-year-olds, as I was then, I could see inside people's heads. None of the churchgoers actually believed. They might go through the motions, singing the hymns, crossing their hands to accept the Communion wafer, covering their eyes in the performance of public prayer, but they didn't really think that the world had been created by a Palestinian peasant, or that a personal paradise of harps and angels awaited them on the far side of their last visit to the Lymington hospital. These dark-suited hypocrites no more subscribed to my father's ritualist, Anglo-Catholic theology, with its transformational magic, than I did. I could tell, for I was an angry fundamentalist with a lock on truth, and as militant in my own way as any fanatic with a holy book. I could understand the idea of a Church Militant, but a church without passion, without conviction, without the steel of the true believer was beyond my adolescent comprehension.
It would be nearly twenty years before Philip Larkin wrote the lines that I wanted to quote to my father in 1958: "Religion ... /That vast moth-eaten musical brocade/Created to pretend we never die." Even in rural Pennington, even on Sundays, we were on the brink of a new and saner world of secular realism. God would join the rest of our discarded toys up in the attic; the pretense of belief would be gone soon; and no one would ever again go into battle high on the hallucinogen of religious superstition. 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.
* * *
My father's second parish, to which he moved in the mid-1960s, was the kind of place that bishops describe as "a challenge"-a vast, shabby council estate, Millbrook, built by the city of Southampton to house its poorest citizens. The ugly purpose-built brick church was dwarfed by twenty-five-story tower blocks with vandalized elevators and urinous concrete stairwells, into which were packed new immigrants, single mothers, recidivists temporarily at liberty from their prisons, the unlucky, the feckless, the jobless, the chronically dependent. The windy shopping plaza at the center of the estate was largely untenanted. For some 20,000 people, there was a ladies' hairdresser, a liquor store, and a grocery smaller than the average American 7-Eleven.
The experience of ministering to this impossible parish radicalized my father. A lifelong reflex Conservative voter, he joined the Labour Party. His High Church theology became ever more attenuated and symbolic. He climbed his way through the tower blocks less as a priest than as a psychiatric social worker. He grew a beard that made him look like Karl Marx, left his dog collar in the drawer, and went about in an open-necked plaid flannel shirt. Although his church congregations were now tiny, he worked around the clock, negotiating with the authorities on behalf of his parishioners, succoring the needy, counseling the desperate, befriending the friendless.
In Millbrook, the Anglicans, the Catholics, and the Methodists were all in the same boat-down to the same dwindling, elderly band of congregants. My father's vicarage became an ecumenical center for the local clergy, fellow pilgrims in the stony landscape of twentieth-century unbelief. My mother served tea to the Methodists while my father shared his Haig whiskey with the Irish Catholic priest. Left out of these cheerful conferences were the proprietors of what my father called "tin tabernacles"-sectarians of unorthodox hue, like Spiritualists, Seventh-Day Adventists, charismatics, Pentecostals. I was now teaching the literature of the American Puritans, at a Welsh university college, and was getting professionally involved with serious theocrats, like Increase and Cotton Mather, whose take-no-prisoners style of religious practice struck a strangely warming chord in my atheistic, Marxist heart.
The despised tin tabernacles didn't appear to find Millbrook stony ground at all. There was always a good crowd on the balding grass outside the Pentecostal chapel on Sunday mornings, and many of the people there looked disconcertingly young. I had been taught to think of the wilder reaches of English nonconformity as marginal and eccentric, if not certifiably insane, and wrote off the Pentecostals as an irrelevant blip on the smooth graph of rising skepticism and declining superstition. The coming age of reason wouldn't be forestalled by ninety or so suburban enthusiasts, in puffy nylon golf jackets and raspberry-pink twinsets, talking in tongues. But I should have paid more attention. Millbrook was an issue, and so were tin tabernacles-small, disestablished powerhouses of vehemence and zeal. I made no connection then between the modern English illuminists and their American cousins and ancestors. Had I actually visited a tin tabernacle, I might have heard an echo of Jonathan Edwards preaching on "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," and realized that something was up-a new era of religious ferocity.
The leading players in the September 11 attacks found their vocations as fanatical holy warriors not in the God-fearing Middle East but in the most profane quarters of big cities in the West. Back home in Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, their fathers, brothers, uncles have formed an incredulous chorus. "He was a donkey when it came to politics." "He was a normal person.... He drank alcohol, he had girlfriends." "His personality and his life bore no relation to the kind of things that happened." "We are in shock.... We thought he liked the USA." In Europe and the United States, each of these ordinary, insecure, unprepossessing men learned to think of himself as someone who might yet have a spectacular career, as a martyr. This peculiar strain of religious belief, with its equal measures of rage and passion for death, was hatched in Egypt more than fifty years ago, and seems to have found an ideal growing climate in exile, in the most secular-looking landscape yet devised: the low-rent, rootless, multilingual suburbs.
The essential charter of the jihad movement-its Mein Kampf-is Sayyid Qutb's Milestones (1964). Before Qutb toured the United States, between 1948 and 1950, he was best known as an Egyptian novelist, poet, and critic. After his time here, he became famous as an Islamic ideologue and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Cairo-based think tank and home of theocratic revolution. He achieved martyrdom in i966, when he was executed by Gamal Abdel Nasser. His book lives on. It can be found, in whole or in part, on many of the Internet sites created by Muslim students.
The heart of Qutb's argument rests on a rhetorical flourish: the modern world exactly reflects the state of things at the beginning of the seventh century, before the Koran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. The richest parts of Arabia were then occupied by foreign imperialists-Romans and Persians. Drinking, fornication, shopping, and vulgar entertainment were the chief pursuits of a morally bankrupt society sunk in jahiliyyah, the condition of ignorance, barbarism, and chaos from which the Arabs were providentially rescued by the gift of the Koran. They toppled their foreign oppressors and established the khilafah, or caliphate-that is, the nation (ummah) of Islam, which existed, though in steadily deteriorating form, until 1924, when the last caliph was deposed. The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, in which the British and the French carved up Arabia into colonial spheres of influence, lent symmetry to the argument: history was on rewind, with the Romans and Persians walking backward onto the screen. The twentieth century was a new jahiliyyah, and the great project of the Islamic revival was the restoration of the rule of Allah by force of arms. The coming jihad must be global in scale. Qutb wrote, "This religion is really a universal declaration of the freedom of man from servitude to other men and from servitude to his own desires. It is a declaration that sovereignty belongs to God alone and that He is the Lord of all the worlds."
Qutb didn't join the Muslim Brotherhood until 1952-three years after the assassination of the movement's founder, Hassan al-Banna, and two years after Qutb's spell of expatriation in the United States. Firsthand experience of Western jahiliyyah seems to have transformed Qutb from a devout but orthodox believer into the architect of worldwide jihad. His American writing (fragments of it were translated and published by John Calvert in 2000 in the journal Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations) shows him as a lonely naif, adrift in a world of lewd temptations. Although Qutb was forty-two when he sailed from Alexandria for New York in 1948 (the Farouk regime was paying him to study American education methods), his voice sounds painfully young. On the voyage out, a "drunken, semi-naked" woman showed up at the door to his cabin, an American government agent, dispatched by Langley expressly to corrupt him-or so he told his Egyptian biographer years later. Qutb's sense of extreme moral precariousness comes to the fore in every encounter. Few men past the age of forty can ever have felt their immortal souls to be in such danger at a church hop as Qutb did when he attended one in Greeley, Colorado. The pastor, doubling as disk jockey, lowered the lights to impart "a romantic, dreamy effect," and put on a record of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" (presumably the Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban version, from the soundtrack of the 1949 hit movie Neptune's Daughter). "The dancing intensified.... The hall swarmed with legs.... Arms circled arms, lips met lips, chests met chests, and the atmosphere was full of love." We're in the psychodrama of temptation here -the language tumescent with arousal, even as it affects a tone of detachment and disdain.
In his Koranic commentary, In the Shade of the Qur'an, Qutb suggested that the believer's brief sojourn on earth should be spent "purifying the filthy marsh of this world." Rich, sexy, Truman-era America gave him a taste of this world at its filthiest and marshiest. His American letters show him wading fastidiously, a lone pilgrim, through "the life of jahiliyyah, hollow and full of contradictions, defects and evils." American jazz, football, wrestling, movies (though he confessed to enjoying Gone With the Wind and Wuthering Heights), the talk of cars and money supplied Qutb with ammunition for his great theological assault on "this rubbish heap of the West"; and so did the dedication of his Greeley neighbors to weekend lawn maintenance. America, with its natural disposition to clamor and excess, has always been a happy hunting ground for puritans of every denomination; Qutb scored a notable first when he hit on lawn mowing as a target for a spiritual critique of the West. But sex, not lawns-shameless, American, jahili sex-was clearly uppermost on the mind of this lifelong bachelor. The word "desire" ripples through Milestones, and always, it seems, meaning the same thing-the drunken temptress on the ship, a tattooed boy in a Washington, D. C., coffee shop, the terrible peril of the church hop.
The Muslim Brotherhood's Hassan al-Banna, who attempted to liberate Egypt from its corrupt "apostate" monarchy, had told his followers to "prepare for jihad and be lovers of death." It is easy to see death's erotic allure for a man of Qutb's temperament, raised on the Koran's worldly and sensual depiction of the hereafter. The Gardens of Bliss resemble nothing so much as the great Playboy Mansion in the sky, watered by underground springs (all sorts of delightful wetness abound in Paradise), and furnished with cushions and carpets designed for life on the horizontal. Male entrants are greeted by "companions"-"maidens, chaste, restraining their glances, whom no man or jinn before them has touched." Qutb insisted that the descriptions of Heaven in the Koran were symbolic, not literal. The pomegranates wouldn't really be pomegranates, nor the maidens really maidens. These "luxuries ... similar to luxuries enjoyed in this life" were there to "help us to imagine the ultimate of sweetness and joy." Yet the Koranic Paradise remains obdurately earthbound, full of nubile girls unzipping plantains. It reads like the dream of a repressed and awkward man who might be a young soldier on a foreign posting, or Sayyid Qutb in Greeley, Colorado, or Mohamed Atta in Harburg, Germany.
Excerpted from My Holy War by Jonathan Raban Copyright © 2006 by Jonathan Raban. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.