Fantasy for a Post 9/11 World: ‘The Mirage’ Author Matt Ruff on Alternate Universes, Religious Terrorism, and ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’

Muslim-influenced fantasy can take us everywhere from re-imagined versions of Al Andalus to Mars. And this week, Matt Ruff arrives with a new novel, The Mirage, that takes us somewhere else entirely: a world where the United Arab States is the dominant superpower, the state of Israel is located in Central Europe, and a devastating attack by Christian terrorists on Baghdad led the UAS to invade America and try to bring democracy to a country torn between warlords like Donald Rumsfeld, David Koresh, and a mysterious man known as the Quail Hunter. But something strange is happening: as Homeland Security agent Mustafa al Baghdadi and his team interrogate terrorist suspects, they tell a story about a world where everything is reversed. A Baghdad gangster named Saddam Hussein is buying up odd artifacts, including a pack of playing cards where he and his henchmen appear as government officials. And Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Osama bin Laden keeps sending out agents of the Al Qaeda security forces to intervene with everyone else’s work.

In other words, The Mirage is a provocative, timely, fascinating intervention in the way we think about not just the post-September 11 world but about American power and popular culture. The novel is full of funhouse mirror details like a television show with the tagline: “Shafiq: he’s Sunni. Hassan: he’s Shia. They fight crime,” where “episodes typically offered one or more moral lessons, the most common of which was ‘Respect the other People of the Book—even if you don’t like them very much.'” It’s an incredibly effective way of both exposing our debates and politics as ridiculous, and of forcing us to put ourselves in Muslims’ shoes by letting them stand in the footwear of the mostly white, mostly Christian cops, politicians and criminals we see on American television. And the magic, when it comes, is wonderfully lovely and inventive, the result of Ruff having researched not just geopolitics but fantastical belief.

I spoke to Ruff yesterday about breaking out of stereotypical images of Muslims in popular culture, how we decide which terrorist attacks to excuse and which to condemn, and how our beliefs about our ability to change history can lead us astray. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

I’d be curious how you decided which cultural phenomena would survive—or develop naturally—in your alternate history. Personally, I’m glad to hear that Oded Fehr’s still a huge star in the world of The Mirage.

For me, it wasn’t so much a matter of what to include but what to leave out. I’m a huge pop culture fan, so I had tons of ideas that I could have included. It was more a matter of picking and choosing things that were either short and clever and wouldn’t disrupt the plot, or would support it in some way. One obvious case was the Invasion of the Body Snatchers in an alternate version…it was a way of introducing the fact that Samir [one of the Homeland Security agents who works with Mustafa] is fighting his homosexuality…Another idea I had come up with that I didn’t use was the infamous Star Trek mirror world episode. I had thought to have that on TV in the background, the difference being that the Evil Spock would be clean-shaven.

I was also wondering if you could talk a bit about the decision to set the novel in Baghdad instead of, say, Saudi Arabia, and to marginalize oil politics in the novel. Are those resources democratized in the UAS?

There were a lot of specific nuts and bolts questions like that that I left unanswered becuase they didn’t fit what I was doing. The very first incarnation of the book, I had thought to set it in Riyadh. Riyadh became the federal district, it became the alternate Washington, DC, and to have it serve as New York didn’t work. What I wanted to do was offer central roles to people who suffered the real brunt of the War on Terror, so it made sense to make Baghdad Ground Zero because that is Ground Zero of the U.S. response to the War on Terror. These were the folks who I wanted to be in the center of the novel and have their turn on the other side of the looking glass…you’ve go the South representing the more religious vision of what Arabia should be, and then you’ve got Egypt as an alternate, more secular vision but they have lost out on the competition for where the capital should be.

The Mirage also has a vision of a decidedly more moderate global Islam: is there more we could be doing in politics and popular culture to be supportive of moderate interpretations of Islam?

If you give people freedom of conscience, you’re going to get more moderate versions of religion. It’ll take a while. Part of what drives extreme conservativism in relgiion is people are afraid to voice alternate views…if you can go to jail or be killed for voicing a unorthodox opinion… I don’t see anything incompatible in Islam, as I don’t in Christianity, with gay rights or women’s rights. It’s more do with people having breathing room.

Similarly, the way we talk about acts of terrorism committed by people inspired by their Christian beliefs is very different than the way we talk about terrorists who are inspired by Islam. Do you think we should be looking more carefully at things like attacks on abortion providers?

I think you always tend to be much more forgiving of the behavior, even the bad behavior, of people you are more familiar and comfortable with. I don’t think it’s an exact parallel, but the idea that the invasion of Iraq was a Christian war would trouble a lot of people. But obviously it was launched by George Bush, who was asked ‘who’s your favorite philosopher?’ in one of the debates, and he said ‘my favorite philosopher is Jesus Christ.’ People are going to assume that anything you do is essentially a Christian act. If you launch a war, even with the best intentions, that kills thousands of people, a lot of people are going to look at that as Christian terrorism.

A lot of it is being able to put yourself in the mindset of people on the receiving end of violence…[When Christians commit violence, people are able to think] ‘they’re bad, but they’re not representative of what Christianity is supposed to be.’ What are you familiar with? Who are your friends? Does the violence affect you and people you care about? And all of that goes into the calculation of what gets labeled terrorism?…Any religion that lasts for more than 1,000 years and flourished in hundreds of different cultures is going ot have to be pretty adaptable to local traditions and is going to have to speak to you in times of peace and times of war…To condemn an entire religion that way, or to do the other thing and say the violence doesn’t count because the real expression is when we’re being nice, that doesn’t work either.

I think part of the problem, too, with a lot of portrayals of Islam on television and in movies, is if you’ve only got one character who is meant to represent the beliefs of 1.5 billion Muslims, no actor is good enough to capture all that diversity. The only way to represent a religion organically is to having multiple characters practicing the faith each in their own way, and to go about their lives being Muslim. Which was part of what I was after. I didn’t want to have to say, oviously Osama bin Laden is a bad example of Islam. I wanted to be obvious that what sets him apart from other people in the story is he’s a mass murderer.

I’d love to hear how you developed your characters. One of the things I’ve found really frustrating about popular culture is how it’s essentially failed to provide a pushback to the stereotypical depictions of Muslims as terrorists, and how we haven’t had iconic representations of Muslims that are the equivalent of the Cosbys or tropes like the sassy gay best friend to defuse any anxiety people may feel about having Muslims as friends, neighbors, or even intermarrying into their families.

This was originally a pitch for a TV pilot. It came out of a more general desire to tell a story about 9/11 and the U.S. response ot it. I’m a big Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, and I wanted to do something like that where you set up a genre universe where along the way you explore these different issues in a metaphorical or a less direct way, as part of telling a really exciting story. The other thing on my wish list was to give a more central role to the Iraqis who were bearing the brunt of the War on Terror, who got committed to sidekick status or not mentioned at all. I wanted to do this more organic portrait of Islam and get away from it as a problem religion. Because I’m also a big science fiction geek, I hit on this idea of turning the world upside down, and not just the geopolitical situation, but even the idea of who the center of the story should be. Who constitues a protagonist. This is a universe wehre not only are Muslims the center of the universe, but when you turn on TV, you’d expect the elite to be an Arab Muslim, you’d expect the Christians to be the sad sidekicks, the people who remind you that, yes the people in the third world are humans too.

I just started putting together the characters. I was creating the classic thriller setup. You’ve got your main character, Mustafa, who has the tragic marriage, but in his case because they have polygamy, he’s got more than one. His loveable sidekick, who is there for comic relief, is Samir…Amal is the scrappy new recruit who’s got to prove herself. That was the core of the story, and I built out from there.

One of the basic rules was that people’s characters would not be fundamentally altered. Osama in Laden would be more a respectable political figure who was doing dastardly things behind the scenes. Originally, Saddam Hussein was going to be more of a recurring character. But it made sense that he would be a gangster. A number of the biopics about Saddam tend to do the same thing, they portray him as the Al Capone. And of course the Muslim war on drugs would be a war on alcohol.

There was the central conceit of the mirage. Apart from being a neat twist that you could build off of [it was a reminder that] your place in history, at the top of the pyramid of power, is not assured. If the world is turned over once, it could turn over again, and you should maybe build your ethics on the idea that you’ll be on the bottom some day or you’ll be in need of mercy…If you took Americans and you put them in a position where they believe they should be at the top, and instead, had been humiliated and put at the bottom, the rage that would evolve from that is probably not that different than the rage that comes out of the Middle East. They’ve been on the receiving end for a long time. Certainly guys like [Ayman al-]Zawahiri are oppressed, they’re mad. The Mirage was part of the way at getting at some of that mindless violence.

Do you think significant culture change is possible? The book is a very funny, pointed warning for folks who think they can alter the course of history and civilizations easily, but I’m not sure that answers the question of whether those world-historical forces can be altered at all?

History is in part a series of human decisions, but it’s also a series of accidents. It’s not so much that we can’t change hsitory or affect it, but we overestimate our ability to do it and to do it quickly. Desire often gets ahead of reason…If you’re happy with the way your society works, it’s natural to assume this is the way it should work for everybody. Something that drives this adventure of we’ll go into Iraq, and take out the dictator, and democracy will flourish, and that’s the end point of history for everybody, that ignores that history works differently for everybody…It’s not that I don’t hope that Iraq and other countries will eventually have a robust democracy. But part of it is having a robust democracy for long enough that people don’t want to return to dictatorship. In America, we haven’t had a king for over 200 years, so if you tried to set up a monarchy, you’d be faced with a collective disbelief of 300 million people. That interia protects us from more obvious forms of despotism.