Over the last few years, I’ve read three alternate history books about a world in which the Muslim community or an Islamic country is the predominant cultural and political global superpower. Empire of Lies by Raymond Khoury, The Mirage by Matt Ruff, and Through Darkest Europe by Harry Turtledove. The United States has been locked in a perpetual war throughout the Muslim world for most of the last thirty years, and so it is perhaps unsurprising that speculative fiction writers have taken to considering the possibility of the converse; imagining a universe where Islamic countries are the center of finance, culture, military and political power, and the Christian West is a backwater, home to religious extremists and terrorists and not much else. All three of the books are interesting, and take different approaches to exploring the realm of possibility, but it’s ironic that Turtledove, a competent but not particularly innovative author, wrote what may be the most subversive of the books. Though these novels are about other worlds and universes, the assumptions built into the storytelling expose more about the biases and preconceptions, the limits of the author’s imagination, even when they are purposefully constructing an imaginary world. Through Darkest Europe has some serious problems as a book, including a very stupid point of divergence and the absence of an actual plot, but it’s the only one to portray a truly modern Muslim World.
On the surface, The Mirage is by far the most explicitly political of these books. The novel is directly about the War on Terror, but from the view of the agents of the United Arab States, fighting against Christian Fundamentalism after the devastating 11/9 terrorist attacks on Baghdad, when Christian terrorists rammed two hijacked jetliners into the Tigris & Euphrates Trade Center. In this world, the UAS is the dominant superpower, stretching across the Middle East and North Africa, and allied with Persia, Kurdistan, and an Israel nestled in what used to be Northern Germany, set aside as a Jewish homeland after the UAS defeated the Nazis in the Second World War. The Christian World is a mess of theocratic dictatorships and monarchies, from the Evangelical Republic of Texas to a Britain ruled by the Archbishop of Canterbury since the 1979 Revolution. It’s set up less as an alternate history and more as a mirror universe, with the UAS having television shows like CSI: Damascus and Law & Order: Halal and the amazingly-named 24/7 Jihad. There is a band called Green Desert that had a hit anti-war song called “Arabian Idiot”. The book is designed to shine a light on the War on Terror by flipping the script, showing us an advanced Muslim world locked in mortal combat with medieval, terrorist Christians.
But despite what we’re told about the UAS in 2009, what we’re shown is that political corruption is rampant, large areas of Baghdad are controlled by militias, the major right-wing party has an ideology indistinguishable from Wahhabism, and as of 2009, there is not even the shadow of a gay rights movement. Meanwhile, what we’re told is that the Christian States of America is a brutal, theoretic dictatorship. But what little we see of it seems normal; white-picket fences, Colonial-style houses, fast-food restaurants. It’s a failure of visual storytelling to live up to the underlying premise. Or perhaps a failure of imagination. Even the “modern” Muslim world envisioned by Ruff is far more theocratic and violent than ours; with the right-wing Party of God still opposing female participation in politics, the gangster Saddam Hussein ruling the State of Iraq with an iron fist, and the Baghdad slums ruled by Sadr’s Mahdi Army. And the world is one which religion seems to far more important than our own; for reasons never explained, communism does not seem to exist in this world, with the UAS spending much of the 20th century locked into a “Cold Crusade” with the Russian Orthodox Union.
Empire of Lies has a much less ambitious agenda. Rather than trying to make us question the righteousness of our cause, it is an affirmation of the correctness of history. In this world, the Ottoman Empire triumphed in the 1683 Second Siege of Vienna, leading to the Ottoman conquest of Europe, Persia, and Arabia, and the establishment of a superpower that still dominates the earth three and a half centuries later. While this Pax Ottomanica has prevented either World War, the Holocaust, or the invention of nuclear weapons, it has also strangled the Enlightenment and democracy in their cribs. The Ottoman Empire is a panopticonic, totalitiaran surveillance state, and it’s main geopolitical rival, the Christian Republic of America, is a theocratic ethno-state with citizenship restricted to white Protestants. To Khoury’s credit, the book is not a polemic, he is careful to go into the details of historic Ottoman law, showing both it’s strengths and weakness vis-a-vis the contemporary European equivalent. Women in the Ottoman Empire, for example, are under a number of restrictions, but still have more liberal divorce and property rights than their sisters in the Christian Republic. Still, the domination of the Ottoman Empire is explicitly treated as a Bad Thing. The plot revolves around the main characters discovering the truth and trying to undo the Ottoman victory in 1683, and the book ends with a character giving a speech about the importance of democracy and Western Civilization.
That leads into another similarity between the two books. Both of them present worlds in which the supremacy of the Islamic world came about as a result of external meddling with the timeline. In The Mirage, an American soldier participating in Operation Iraqi Freedom found a genie and wished the New World into existence (this is my favorite plot twist, possibly ever). In Empire of Lies, an ISIS commander found the secrets of time travel in the ruins of Palmyra and used the ancient spell to travel back to 1683 and change the course of history in order to create the Caliphate of his dreams. Additionally, both books end with their worlds gone. In The Mirage, the death of the genie at the hands of Senator Osama bin Laden (it’s complicated) leads to the collapse of the universe, with the main characters thrust into an ambiguous future. In Lies, the main characters steal the secrets of time travel and eventually succeed in helping the Christians triumph at Vienna, restoring normalcy to the world. Both books, in Mirage‘s case accidentally I think, end up showing us that these worlds shaped by Islam are definitionally improper, incorrect, unstable. They are defined by being the not-real world. A major plot point in The Mirage is Gulf Syndrome, a mental disorder first catalogued after the Mexican Gulf War, in which people feel like the world is fundamentally wrong. They get glimpses of another life, or just feel intense sensations of vertigo as the world around them seems to break down and the Real World intrudes. The main plot centers on a group of Arab Homeland Security agents trying to track down artifacts that purport to be from “beyond the mirage”, from a world where everything is different. It’s a great plot point, albeit one inspired by The Man in the High Castle. But it helps send the message that our world, the world in which the nations of the Middle East are Third World pawns who’s resources are fought over by the Great Powers, is the only real possibility.
Through Darkest Europe is the only one of these books that shows us a world in which democracy, secular government, and human rights organically arose from an Islamic context. Where both earlier books required intervention in the “natural” flow of time to bring about their worlds, Turtledove has an ordinary point of divergence. As it happens, it’s one I rather dislike. There’s a theory you hear sometimes about St. Thomas of Aquinas, the Christian theologian, and his near-contemporary, the Muslim philosopher Al-Ghazali, that claims that each one tackled the question of whether scientific inquiry was permitted under their religion. Supposedly St. Thomas believed it was, Al-Ghazali believed it was not, and that explains why Europe surpassed the Muslim world in technological development. As it happens, this is a very facile understanding of both scholars, neither of whom were interested in “technology” so much as Aristotelian philosophy. Turtledove accepts this theory, but flips, positing a world in which Christian Europe rejected scientific advancements because of St. Thomas of Aquinas, while the Islamic world continued to develop and prosper. By the 20th century, Europe is a global backwater, controlled by petty tyrants and brutal, theocratic monarchs, insulated from the Global Civilization. I think this is a really dumb POD, one that helps spread historical misinformation, but I do think it’s quite radical to suggest that the Muslim world could have come up with many of Western Civilization’s most prized intellectual accomplishments on their own.
Here, the Islamic world isn’t depicted as perfect, but it’s shown as being genuinely First World in a way that neither other book accomplished, with women’s civic participation and democratic government being taken for granted and secularism on the rise. Perhaps most dramatically, it shows a Muslim world where Islam itself is less important to most people than it was a generation ago. Characters constantly comment on the fact that people don’t take religious laws as seriously as they used to, that morals are looser, and faith doesn’t play the central role in the nation’s political life that it once did. In The Mirage, a subplot focuses on the liberal fight against entrenched religious conservatism, but in Europe, the situation seems far more akin to our contemporary American one; there is (presumably) an intense religious conservative movement, but popular culture and ordinary life are increasingly secular. One of the major conflicts in the book is the effort by the main character, an security agent from the Republican Sultanate of the Maghreb sent to help prop up the corrupt, autocratic government of Italy against radical Christian terrorists, to convince his Italian girlfriend to move with him to a civilized country where she’ll have more opportunities. After all, Christian women can’t go outside without covering every inch of skin, they’re barred from political participation, most people don’t think that it’s proper for them to work outside the home, etc. Sure, the Islamic world has it’s problems, but nobody questions the existence of female doctors, lawyers, business owners, or politicians. Only Turtledove seemed to concieve of the possibility that an Arabian World might only be as Muslim as the European World is Christian today.
Turtledove also does a good job of depicting Christian Europe as genuinely backwards and poverty-stricken, including details like Roman street markets that the protagonists remark remind them of the souqs that used to exist in North African and Algerian cities. When they visit the Vatican, the buildings are dilapidated and worn down, the robes of the clergy patched and thin, the result of centuries of decline. The weapons and technology used by the Italian Army and Italian Security Services are all imports from North Africa or Turkey. Classical Arabic is the international language of commerce and diplomacy, and most businessmen or important Europeans wear robes and a keffiyeh. The protagonists have an air of polite condescension towards their European neighbors, after all, they’re not racist. I mean, these Christians, they used to have such a great civilization, and they could again, if they could just overcome their religion’s natural extremism and violence. At one point someone muses about how there’s just some something so rigid and inflexible about Christianity that makes it hard to reconcile with modern civilization.
The point here is not that Through Darkest Europe‘s approach to world-building is the best or most accurate. I was annoyed by the triumphalist, “best-of-all-worlds” approach that Empire of Lies approaches modernity with, so obviously I don’t think modern civilization is such an unalloyed success that no one should criticize it or imply that it’s imperfect. Frankly, of the three books I’ve discussed here, I think Turtledove’s may be the weakest. The Mirage is a really fantastically strange book with great world-building and a willingness to defy the logic of the story. I’ve written about it at length here before. But while Ruff clearly had a political agenda, I’m not sure how much you take away from the book besides “Neo-Cons and Islamist terrorists are both bad”. This is true, but perhaps not particularly innovative, and the message is undermined by the format. Empire of Lies is a perfectly serviceable thriller. I very much enjoyed it! But it’s political message is banal at best. Through Darkest Europe muddles along without much of an overarching plot, and certantly doesn’t have an explicit political message. But I do find it interesting in it’s willingness to go the farthest in portraying a Muslim society that reached a very similar endpoint as our own. It’s a subtle, and perhaps accidental, rebuke to those who constantly pontificate about the unique importance of “Western” Civilization, the ineffable contributions of our “Judao-Christian” values (ugh) to the rise of democracy and universal human rights.
Whether or not Turtledove’s rejoinder is realistic is besides the point, time-traveling ISIS commanders and genies are also not very realistic. It’s about the willingness to present a truly radical alternative: the idea that a Muslim world might not be as different from ours as we’d expect.