Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Maria C. Khoury: The Life-Giving Tomb of Christ

http://www.orthodoxytoday.org

At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the last few stages of Jesus' journey to the cross are realised. The Church marks where Christ was nailed to the cross, where He died and finally where His body was laid in the tomb. This is where Jesus laid for three days and is the very place where He was resurrected. As such it is the most precious site in the world for Christians to visit today. I have been coming to the Holy Tomb for the last twenty-four years but in the last eleven years I have been living full time in the small village of Taybeh, the only all Christian village left in Palestine twenty minutes outside Jerusalem.

Our Christian community is a small dwindling one, but it seeks solidarity with Christians from all over the world to come and venerate this holy site where the Lord experienced His passion, His crucifixion and His holy resurrection. It should be a spiritual journey of a lifetime that every believer should hope to undertake.

There are many reasons why a Christian would want to venerate this holy place, essentially it can be an experience of deepening ones faith and glorifying God in the very spot of His Holy Resurrection. One might ask though, how is this possible and what role does it play today -- The dwindling Christian community might ask itself the same question -- what role do we play? For the tomb seems like a contradiction -- it is empty, yet it is life giving. Our community is small, but has within its reach sites of such significance.

The significance of the Tomb being referred to as the "Life-Giving Tomb," is that Christians seek a life with Christ which is not of this world but of God's Heavenly Kingdom, our Promised Land is Paradise. If we choose a life with Christ and place Him first in our lives then earthly and material things seem less important. Life with Christ becomes a focus for the individual and more important to pursue. These Christian values and beliefs can help to promote non violent resolutions to the conflict and violence all around us. Thus, we come and venerate this holy site seeking forgiveness of sins and seeking life with Christ for eternity.

Christians learn from the Creation story in Genesis that man was created in the image of God and lived in communion with God, until he broke that communion and was expelled from the Garden and became subject to death. So, the question becomes, "How do we return to communion with God? How can we get back to that place where we can talk to and walk with God? Many feel that there's a void within, a void that can only be filled by communion with our Creator. It is the Life-Giving Tomb that reminds us that the barrier between God and man was removed by Christ's resurrection. When one walks the footsteps of the Lord, this is the message that reaches the soul. That all darkness can be overcome by God's love and God is here for us.

If ever one needed an indication of how relevant and powerful this message is, one need look no further than Holy Saturday, when many from the Christian community in Jerusalem gather to witness the greatest of all miracles--the Miracle of the Holy Fire. The Miracle of the Holy Fire is the celebration of Christ's resurrection, when the flame miraculously appears, literally, from within the marble stone tomb. This is the uncreated light of God not God Himself. It is received by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch as it has been done every year, on the same day, in the same manner, at the same time, at the same holy place of Christ's Life-Giving Tomb. Sometimes it can be a gathering of chaos with the soldiers, the police, the large crowds, the noise, the drums of the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts anxiously waiting to receive the light outside the Holy Sepulchre.

During peaceful times, representatives of many churches from all over the Holy Land come to receive the Holy Fire and carry it back in small lanterns to their particular churches for the Midnight Resurrection Service. Even now, many local people go to great extremes to get the proper permits in order to partake in this centuries old celebration that reflects our Christian heritage and deep roots in Palestine.

All lights, candles and vigil lamps are put out at the start of this ceremony. The Holy Fire is physically apparent as a blue mist, a moving cloud in the air and the words "Christ is Risen" are chanted in many languages as the light is quickly distributed to everyone present.

The light that proceeds from the core of the stone that covers Christ's Life-Giving Tomb has been celebrated as one of the oldest unbroken Christian ceremonies that exist in the world today. Some people find it hard to comprehend what happens, just as people find it hard to comprehend the eternal love and presence of God. It therefore takes faith to believe in the significance of the Holy Tomb. Christians appreciate that they have a holy place that is the remembrance of Christ coming to earth to reconcile us to God and God to us. The very spot where victory was shown over death by Christ's resurrection.

This is the miracle that allows us to know that Christ is in our midst. This is the miracle that allows us to feel that Christ is truly among us. This miracle is another way that God communicates to us as a community our role to the world today. As we remember when we chant in our Midnight Resurrection Service: "Come ye and receive light from the unwaning Light, and glorify Christ, Who a rose from the dead." When you glorify Christ you begin to hear the gospel message and practice it.

The ceremony of the Holy Fire is one of the most magnificent celebrations in the Holy Land that has been overshadowed because of the violence and turmoil that this region has experienced. Living the cycle of death every day has made it even more important for Christians to celebrate Christ in Our Midst and place all of our hope in the Saviour. Many years of killing, back and forth, people here have surely been living in the darkness of all evil. It would therefore seem even more important than ever to see Christ as the true light and to be inspired towards peaceful ways to coexist. As it is written in the Gospel of John, "And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not" (John 1:5).

As a small Christian community in the Holy Land we have a duty to share this message with the entire international community. To give hope to people that might be suffering from darkness in other corners of the world. At the Orthodox Easter service we sing:

You arose, O Christ, and yet the tomb remained sealed,as at Your birth the Virgin's womb remained unharmed;and You have opened for us the gates of paradise.

During the ceremony, Orthodox Christians remember that Christ is the One Who has smashed the gates of Hades and opened the gates of Paradise, and gone before us! Seeing the Life-Giving Tomb of Christ is another reminder of our final destiny. As a small Christian community we want to witness and reflect Christ's eternal love. We pray for peace and hope Jerusalem can be an open city of all faiths so Christian pilgrims from all over the world can come and be inspired and spiritually uplifted by the true Light of Christ and share the richness of the Christian roots that exist in the Holy Land.

The Myrrhbearing Women who came to the Holy Tomb over two thousand years ago may have wondered who was going to roll away the stone. Later on, they may have even wondered whether it was Jesus or the angel who did it. Either way, it doesn't matter. The stone wasn't rolled away so Christ could get out. Rather, the stone symbolizes death and the barrier that existed since the original sin between man and God. Through our annual recollection of Christ's passion and holy resurrection, Orthodox Christians are physically reminded that once again that this barrier between God and man is removed, now and forever!

For us, the stone symbolizes the boundary between the living and the dead, between those who are dead in sin, which are separated from God, and those who are alive in Christ and growing in union with Him. This is the message the Life-Giving Tomb has for the world today.

St. Peter says, in his first Epistle, that God has called us out of darkness into his wonderful light.

Also, St. John wrote:

"Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, 'I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life (Jn. 8:12)."

The significance of Christ's Life-Giving Tomb is a reminder of this call to be in the image and likeness of our creator. To fill our souls with God's love since God is love. To fill our hearts with God's grace thus fostering understanding and compassion. To answer the call to be in the image and likeness of God means, more than anything else, that we must love with a perfect love.

The tomb also reminds us that Christians are called not merely to love God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength; and their neighbour as themselves. These are the chief commandments of the Old Testament. But we Christians are called to hear the Lord of the New Testament and to fulfil His commands found in Matthew 5:

"Love your enemies; Do good to those who hate you; Bless those who curse you; Pray for those who abuse you; Turn the other check to those who strike you."

In Luke 16:15 we read that Jesus said:

"Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved"

We witness the truth and receive the Holy Fire every Holy Saturday so that all who are not blessed to live in the land of Christ's Holy Resurrection can believe that Christ is the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world (John 1:9).

In this Holy Lenten Season, the Life-Giving Tomb of Christ can serve as a reminder that no matter what we have done, how badly we may have suffered or what deep pain we may have experienced, we too have a chance for a new life with Christ, an everlasting life. It shows that no matter how small and seemingly insignificant, we have a purpose and that through commemorating Christ's holy resurrection, we too can rise up with a pure heart, a cleansed soul and a new life in God.

This article was recorded for the BBC Radio Annual Lenten Talks at the site of Christ's Holy Tomb in Jerusalem.

Maria C. Khoury was born in the US, but moved to Taybeh (biblical Ephraim) after marrying David Khoury, an Orthodox Christian Palestinian.

Maria Khoury is author of Witness in the Holy Land and the children's book, "Christina's True Heroes" about seven women saints.

Contact Maria Khoury at Saint-george-taybeh@saintgeorgetaybeh.org

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

David Brooks: Virtues and Victims

DAVID BROOKS
The New York Times
Published: April 9, 2006

All great scandals occur twice, first as Tom Wolfe novels, then as real-life events that nightmarishly mimic them. And so after "I Am Charlotte Simmons," it was perhaps inevitable that Duke University would have to endure a mini-social explosion involving athletic thugs, resentful townies, nervous administrators, male predators, aggrieved professors, binge drinking and lust gone wild.

If you wander through the thicket of commentary that already surrounds the Duke lacrosse scandal, the first thing you notice is how sociological it is. In almost every article and piece of commentary, the event is portrayed not as a crime between individuals but as a clash between classes, races and sexes.

"This whole sordid party scene played out at the prestigious university is deeply disturbing on a number of levels, including those involving gender, race and the notion of athletic entitlement and privilege," a USA Today columnist wrote.

"The collisions are epic: black and white, town and gown, rich and poor, privilege and plain, jocks and scholars," a CBS analyst observed.

The key word in the coverage has been "entitlement." In a thousand different ways commentators have asserted (based on no knowledge of the people involved) that the lacrosse players behaved rancidly because they felt privileged and entitled to act as they pleased.

The main theme shaping the coverage is that inequality leads to exploitation. The whites felt free to exploit the blacks. The men felt free to exploit women. The jocks felt free to exploit everybody else. As a Duke professor, Houston Baker, wrote, their environment gave the lacrosse players "license to rape, maraud, deploy hate speech and feel proud of themselves in the bargain."

It could be that this environmental, sociological explanation of events is entirely accurate. But it says something about our current intellectual climate that almost every reporter and commentator used these mental categories so unconsciously and automatically.

Several decades ago, American commentators would have used an entirely different vocabulary to grapple with what happened at Duke. Instead of the vocabulary of sociology, they would have used the language of morality and character.

If you were looking at this scandal through that language, you would look at the e-mail message one of the players sent on the night in question. This is the one in which a young man joked about killing strippers and cutting off their skin.

You would say that the person who felt free to send this message to his buddies had crashed through several moral guardrails. You would surmise that his character had been corroded by shock jocks and raunch culture and that he'd entered a nihilistic moral universe where young men entertain each other with bravura displays of immoralism. A community so degraded, you might surmise, is not a long way from actual sexual assault.

You would then ask questions very different from the sociological ones: How have these young men slipped into depravity? Why have they not developed sufficient character to restrain their baser impulses?

The educators who used this vocabulary several decades ago understood that when you concentrate young men, they have a tropism toward barbarism. That's why these educators cared less about academics than about instilling a formula for character building. The formula, then called chivalry, consisted first of manners, habits and self-imposed restraints to prevent the downward slide.

Furthermore, it was believed that each of us had a godlike and a demonic side, and that decent people perpetually strengthened the muscles of their virtuous side in order to restrain the deathless sinner within. If you read commencement addresses from, say, the 1920's, you can actually see college presidents exhorting their students to battle the beast within — a sentiment that if uttered by a contemporary administrator would cause the audience to gape and the earth to fall off its axis.

Today that old code of obsolete chivalry is gone, as is a whole vocabulary on how young people should think about character.

But in "I Am Charlotte Simmons," Wolfe tried to steer readers back past the identity groups to the ghost in the machine, the individual soul. Wolfe's heroine is a modern girl searching for honor in a world where the social rules have dissolved, and who commits "moral suicide" because she is unprepared for what she faces.

Many critics reacted furiously to these parts of Wolfe's book. And we are where we are.

Srdja Trifkovic: Islam as the Agent of Revolutionary Change

Friday, April 07, 2006
http://www.chroniclesmagazine.org

The following is from an interview with Srdja Trifkovic broadcast on April 7, 2006, on The Right Balance (abbreviated transcript)

The show’s presenter Greg Allen first asked Dr. Trifkovic to draw a distinction between Islamic terrorism and other varieties of the same problem: What makes Jihadist terrorism different?

TRIFKOVIC: All other forms of terrorism use it as an instrument in pursuit of some wider objective. The Bolsheviks were blowing up banks in 1905 and assassinating political leaders, and their purpose was to undermine the structure of the system so that when the revolutionary moment comes, as it did in 1917, you go a stage further. With ETA in Spain, the IRA, Sendero Luminoso, Tamil Tigers, or the Sighs in India, you have terrorist outrages but they are not an integral part of the mindset, the world outlook of the given group. With Islam, terrorism is not only an instrument, a tool, it is also the core of policy itself. Terrorist violence is not only divinely sanctioned, it is divinely ordained. We don’t have time for the details, but suffice to say that the condoning and overt advocacy of violence both in the primary texts of Islam, such as the Kuran and the Hadith, the traditions and sayings of the “prophet,” and in more than 13 centuries of Islam’s historic practice, make that record pretty straightforward. For people to still debate the allegedly peaceful nature of Islam, its “true character,” is plainly absurd. The truth is out there and those who want to deny it are the same ones who, 50 years ago, would have been the apologists for Uncle Joe, or 30 years ago would have claimed that the bold experiment of Chairman Mao was paving the way for the future . . .

The mindset of appeasement, even after Munich 1938, is at work. It’s not only that those who had claimed that Mein Kampf was a pacifist tract, or that Uncle Joe’s Moscow trials were an exercise in impeccable legality, are now acting as the apologists for Islam. They are actively importing the jihadist fifth column! It is the particular emphasis of my book that we need an absolute moratorium on the immigration of Muslims into both Western Europe and North America, coupled with the denial of citizenship to all practicing Muslims, the denial of security clearances, and the policy of systematic deportation of all jihadists activists. Once we realize that jihad is a political mindset and that jihadist activities—which are inherently discriminatory against women, against Jews, against so-called infidels—are a political, subversive and radically seditious activity with a revolutionary objective, i.e. turning the World of War into the World of Faith, Dar al-Harb into Dar al-Islam, then we’ll realize that the First Amendment no longer applies. To all intents and purposes Islam ought to be regarded as a violent political ideology rather than just a religious cult.

The next question concerned the curious tendency of the Left to overlook, ignore, or even deny Islam’s mistreatment of women, homosexuals, and other protected minorities:

The explanation is fairly simple, and we see the same syndrome all over the place. For instance in Scandinavia you have literally a rape epidemic, perpetrated by Muslim immigrants against Swedish, Norwegian and Danish women. And yet, very active, very well organized and financed feminist movements in those countries are keeping quiet—both about the epidemic itself, and about the identity of its perpetrators.

The reason is that the Left sees Islam as a de facto ally—as Marxists would say, an “objective ally”—in the destruction of the vestiges of the traditional society based upon Christianity and its moral code, and traditional cultural patterns. So what they are doing is using Islam as the battering ram and as a would-be fellow-traveler, in their grand anti-Christian, Christophobic design. They hope that once they create their brave, new multiculturalist Utopia, Islam can be tamed, that soft porn and state education will convert the Muslims’ offspring to the general multiculturalist melange.

We know they’re wrong because we know that second and third-generation Muslim immigrants in Western Europe, particularly in France and Britain, are far more radical and far more Islamic-minded than their parents and grandparents. The explanation is very simple: the tepid, non-descript multiculturalist pap that is being offered by the dominant elites cannot inspire these young men and women. They need something that gives meaning to their lives, and so they fall back upon the religion of their forefathers—and once they do that, they cannot do otherwise but turn against the multiculturalist host-society. So the Leftists are making a colossal miscalculation. Far from being the clients of their future global welfare state, the Muslims—in the Western world in particular—will be the agents of revolutionary change not only against the remnants of Christianity today, but also against the secularist, multicultural Utopia of tomorrow.
Greg Allen’s next question concerned the difference between Islam’s basic tenets and the teaching of other monotheistic religions, Judaism and Christianity: do we all worship the same God, as some claim?

One of the clich├ęs that are endlessly repeated by those who seek to conceal the true nature of Islam is that Muslims “believe in the same God” as Christians and Jews. This is a severe distortion of the truth. What Muslims believe is that they know the true nature of God that Judaism and Christianity tell lies about, and have a distorted picture. The fact that Muslims share a Levantine monotheism of sorts with Judaism and Christianity only makes them more, not less antagonistic to us… The concept of an utterly transcendent Allah that cannot be “known” and doesn’t “reach out” to man or man to him. There is no “contact” with God that is essential to the Judaic and Christian tradition. In fact, the forlorn call, repeated five times a day from every minaret in the world, sounds more like the cry of an abandoned child for an absentee father.

At the practical level, the notion that Muslims award Christians and Jews some level of respect as “the people of the book” is also greatly distorted. In practice it only means that for as long as they accept the status of second-class citizens, and pay the poll tax with “the hand of humility,” their security will be guaranteed—but not their equality of rights.

At the theological level, the fundamental difference is the absence of love. It needs to be understood that Islam’s denial of the Trinity creates a completely different world outlook. “Allah begets not,” i.e. he is no Father, and “is not begotten,” i.e. he is no Son, and no one is like him, i.e. no Holy Spirit. The utterly . . . not only “monotheistic” but monistic image of the world under an unreachable, unknowable god, creates the kind of spiritual uniformity that ultimately results in both cultural and social-economic wasteland that is the Muslim world today. [ . . . ]

What is known as Islam’s “golden age” happened largely in spite of Islam, rather than thanks to it. Connecting the brief blossoming of arts and sciences in Baghdad and Cordoba with the “benevolent” influence of Islam is the same as saying that the high level of scholarship on Pushkin or Tolstoy in Moscow in the 1950s was the result of Stalinism and dialectical materialism, or that the Berlin Philharmonic under Furtwaengler was as good as it was in the late 1930s thanks to Nazism. But the true causes of squalor and corruption in the Muslim world are indeed moral and cultural, rather than economic. After that brief period of flowering its had very little to offer to the world, either in the sphere of ideas or in the sphere of material production—even though it had that unique geographic position at the crossroads of civilizations . . . The problem cannot be resolved by seeking to import Western technology and Western know-how, while retaining the old mindset. We’ve already seen it with the Ottoman Turkey in the 19th century. They’d brought in Western engineers and military officers, and doctors, to train their Muslim students, but the latter never managed to produce more than what was imparted to them.

The problem remains insoluble to this day. The Christian world’s discipline, cohesion, ingenuity and prosperity are rooted in certain aspects of the Western psyche that cannot be easily transplanted. It has a lot to do with the notion of delayed gratification as opposed to instant gratification and sensuality that is the hallmark of the Muslim world.

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David Forsmark: The Munich Puzzle

David Forsmark
http://www.FrontPageMag.com
April 11, 2006

Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel’s Deadly Response
By Aaron J. Klein Random House, $24.95, 256pp.

In a sensational new book, Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel’s Deadly Response, Aaron J. Klein, Time Magazine military and intelligence affairs correspondent, mines newly declassified documents and over 50 interviews with high ranking Israeli intelligence, military, and political figures to finally tell us what really happened at the 1972 Munich Olympics—and after.

Striking Back is authoritative and definitive—if by necessity somewhat incomplete. It will be many years before all the details are revealed, but Klein manages enough to tell a gripping story, and give a good overview of one of perhaps the 20th century’s highest profile terrorist act, and its aftermath.

Because they could operate abroad without fear, Palestinian terrorists became bold and audacious by 1972, culminating with the atrocity in the Munich. In response, Israel’s military and intelligence special units conducted a series of assassinations. These were set up by spies, planned by top-level officers and carried out by highly trained commandos.

Striking Back blows away the central conceit of Stephen Spielberg’s implausible film Munich and Vengeance, the single-sourced book by George Jonas on which the movie is based. Namely, that the Mossad -- recognized as one of the world’s most effective and skilled intelligence agencies in 1972 -- sent a team of guilt-ridden, kvetching amateurs into the field to hunt down terrorists, and relied on a French crime family out of a bad Robert Ludlum novel for information.

The reasons for the assassinations of PLO members involved in terrorism went far beyond mere vengeance, Klein writes. It was the only way to disrupt terrorist networks. In most Western European countries, terrorism against Israeli targets drew no real punishment. Participants could expect maximum sentences of 3 or 4 years -- if the police or security forces bothered to catch someone.

It wasn't just the heinous Munich Massacre that motivated the Israelis to put together their counterattack, which became known as Ceasarea. Equally disgusting was the Germans' incompetent and cowardly response to it during the initial standoff and afterward. Klein details how the first priority of the Germans and the Olympic Committee was to get the hostages off campus so the games could go on. Worse, Germany had no military or police counterterrorist unit; in the end, the federal police handled the situation worse than any small town police force in the United States could have done in its worst nightmare.

Munich galvanized the government and security forces of Israel in much the same way that 9/11 did in the United States, including finger pointing by the opposition party (though the report, unlike the 9/11 commission's document, was classified until recently and is summarized in Striking Back's appendix ).

And there was plenty reason for finger pointing. First, Klein reveals, the head of the Israeli Olympic delegation was scorned for protesting that the accommodations were the least secure in the complex. Second, he details the way in which different Israeli intelligence and security agencies did not communicate with one another, much like U.S. agencies before 9/11.

For Ceasarea, there were three assassination teams for logistics, surveillance, and assassination, each with about a dozen members. “The logistics squad drove the cars, spoke the local language, and was in charge of communications… The surveillance team, frequently the largest, had many female members (who often acted as parts of ‘couples’). Their job was to blend into their surroundings…The final component of each group were the assassins. They were combatants who trained in pairs… generally well-prepared young men from top flight army units.”

The assassins employed various methods from pistols to car bombs, from bombs in beds, to in one case, a full blown military commando operation launched from the sea.

What they did NOT do—memo to Academy Awards nominating committee-- was sit outside KBG safe houses all day in their cars, waiting for the target to show up, then jump out and start shooting.

Klein takes a skeptical view of Ceasarea’s claims of success, weighing their plusses and minuses dispassionately. He points out the early targets were chosen not because of their importance or their connection to the massacre but because they were "soft" targets that were easy to reach. He discusses whether some of the more peripheral Palestinian radicals were worthy of full-blown assassination missions, although he doesn’t feel bad for any of them. (If you’re going to run around advocating the murder of the innocent and assist anyone who actually carries out an attack, you become fair game.)

Klein also discusses at some length the botched mission in Lillehammer, Norway, where a waiter was misidentified as Ali Hassan Salamah, one of the prize Black September targets, and killed by mistake. Several Israeli agents were arrested and convicted in Norwegian courts. The sloppiness of the mission showed that the Israelis had grown complacent and arrogant about their successes. After that, of course, the politicians pulled back farther than necessary, and the Mossad began refining both its target list and opting for less spectacular assassinations.

Not only does Klein name names when it comes to several of the missions supposedly run by the assassin called "Avner" in Speilberg’s film, but he notes that the most important hit -- the interagency strike on Beirut that took out several important terrorists in a place where they felt safe -- was led by Ehud Barak, a future Israeli prime minister.

And while Spielberg and radical screenwriter Tony Kushner say in Munich that terrorism increased as a result of the hit teams. Klein proves that the opposite is the case. In fact, most of the highly visible terrorist acts that happened after the launch of Ceasarea had been planned months earlier. By the time a year passed, the disruption in the PLO networks due to the loss of key players and a shift to defensive mode led to an undeniable lull in Palestinian terrorism. Within a few years, terrorist acts against Israelis abroad had all but ceased.

So much for “the cycle of violence.”

After reading this book it is hard not to conclude that Speilberg and Kushner drew all the wrong lessons for all the wrong reasons. Terrorism cannot be treated as a law enforcement problem. War is messy and imprecise, and that cannot be used as an argument against waging it. It’s not whether specific missions are successful or the target is important, but whether the effort itself bears dividends.

When the film Munich falsely says every act of terrorism that happened after the assassinations was in answer to the Israeli response, it is an argument that is forced onto the story to make a case against George W. Bush’s war on terror—especially in Iraq. It’s impossible to imagine the professionals we meet in Striking Back sitting at the dinner table and dithering over whether their targets are guilty enough to hit—that’s the soft privilege of American liberals safe in their Hollywood mansions.

With his concise, exciting and informative book, Aaron Klein strikes back against a cause celebre fraud against Israeli (and American) counter terrorism. It should settle the argument, but it won’t. After all, evidence matters little to the people still maintain Sacco and Venzetti were framed, Stalin opposed Hitler out of principle, and the Israelis botched their revenge against those who murdered their athletes and then beat themselves up to boot.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Robert Ferrigno: The Making of 'Prayers for the Assassin'


http://www.prayersfortheassassin.com

If I had never ditched church, stolen the family car and gone to the bowling alley with Carla Johnson, I might not have written Prayers for the Assassin. I was sixteen at the time, attending a fundamentalist southern Presbyterian church under great duress. Carla wasthe hottest girl in the congregation, the wild-eyed daughter of a church elder. We spent a couple hours at the bowling alley where we listened to loud music and rubbed thighs while playing pinball, the trifecta of sin in those more innocent times. That was the end of my formal church attendance.

While I left church, the church didn't leave me. As Simone de Beauvoir, a French atheist put it, "you can abolish water, but you can't abolish thirst." Amen to that. I've been writing crime thrillers for the last fifteen years, and for some time I had given thought to writing a crime novel about a man who lost his faith, and suffered the loss badly, a cop more interested in justice than legalisms and failing at both.

9-11 changed these plans. I live on the West Coast but get up early. I was watching the news when the second airplane hit the World Trade Center, and knew the world was changed forever. In the weeks that followed, I realized that my hero who had lost his faith would be a Muslim warrior.

The premise of Prayers for the Assassin is that the USA loses the war on terror and becomes an Islamic republic. I make it clear that the USA was never defeated militarily, but bled white by a conflict without end, weakened internally by dissent, economic malaise, and a consumer culture hostile to people's thirst for meaning in their lives. A lot of people have asked me if I think such a thing could really happen. As always, the answer can be found in The Godfather.

There's a great scene in Godfather II, where Michael Corleone goes to Havana to deliver twelve million dollars to the Batista government to set up some casinos. On the drive from the airport to the presidential palace, Michael sees a young rebel blow himself up with a grenade, taking out the military police attempting to arrest him. While his partner, Hyman Roth dismisses the chances of Castro's rebels being successful, Michael is discomforted, noting that the soldiers are paid to fight, but the rebels are dying for what they believe in. I think this is the key to the world of Prayers for the Assassin.

We live in an innovative, sectarian nation, which values personal freedom and creativity, but it also leaves us shortsighted and vulnerable, demanding quick fixes and steady progress. In a generation-long war, technology will not matter as much as the absolute belief in the rightness of one's cause and the willingness to die for those beliefs. The ongoing and deadly hostility between the Sunni and the Shiite branches of Islam stems from the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, in a battle over 1300 years ago. Can you remember who won the World Series two years ago? Which culture do you think is better equipped spiritually to fight a fifty-year war?

In contrast to the moral certainty of Islam, we have the flabby pieties of our own leaders. George Bush talked about angels watching over the U.S. after 9-11, and then suggested that we all go shopping, lest the terrorists win. John Kerry's Catholicism was high on his resume when he ran for president, but he was unapologetic about his thirty-year record of voting against any limits on abortion, in clear violation of the most basic tenets of his Catholic faith. Now try to imagine an Islamic politician stumping with a ham sandwich in his hand, or suggesting that shopping is the best defense, and ask yourself what kind of leader would you trust to lead you through dark and perilous times? Moral ambiguity and cultural relativism are luxuries when the ground shakes beneath your feet.

Try this on for size. On October 23, 2001, six weeks after 9-11, David Weston, president of ABC News, told an audience at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, that he didn't have an opinion as to whether the Pentagon was a legitimate target. "As a journalist I feel strongly that's something that I should not be taking a position on. I'm supposed to figure out what is and what is not, not what ought to be." Weston's sense of objectivity mirrors a statement former CBS News anchor made during a PBS discussion some years ago. Rather said that if he was attached to a Viet Cong patrol in his capacity as a newsman, and the Viet Cong were about to ambush American soldiers, he would not warn the Americans. Good night and good luck, Dan.

I sometimes think that people who can't imagine American's converting to Islam are deaf to the serenity and comfort of a deep religious faith. In my research, I discovered many aspects of Islam that I found appealing, particularly the sense of worldwide community. One of my favorite parts of the book is when the hero, Rakkim, is walking through the streets of Seattle at dawn and hears the call to prayer.

Rakkim stood there in the pink glow of daybreak, trembling with the sound, the perfect resonance. One heart. One soul. One God. He hadn't prayed in three years, but he found himself mouthing the words of the muezzin as people hurried past him toward the mosque, businessmen in three-piece suits, teenagers in jeans, women leading children by the hand, urging them on so as not to be late. Congregational prayers were said to be twenty-seven times better than individual prayers, and greater blessings were given to those who were first inside. In a few minutes the faithful would be on their knees, facing toward the Ka'aba in Mecca, a perfectly synchronized wave of submission, selfless and infinite, rolling through eternity. Rakkim watched them rush to mosque and he envied them their devotion.

I spent over two years researching the book, everything from theology and geopolitics to small unit battle tactics and the proper position of the hands and feet during Muslim devotions. As a former reporter, I utilized facts to bolster the story, from dietary proscriptions, to the second-class status of Christians under Islamic law, to the nature of the main antagonist in the book. This character, known as the Wise Old One, is in fact a figure from Islamic lore, the Mahdi, a descendent of Muhammad, who will someday unite all Muslims at their time of greatest crisis, and go on to conquer the world. I took great pains to internalize my research so as not to get in the way of telling a good story. My intention was always to tell a tale, to write a novel filled with love and violence and betrayal, a thriller set in the future that makes you forget it's not happening right now. If you read the first page and are not eager to turn to the next, then I've failed.

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