Thursday, September 23, 2010

Red Mars, Muslims and the Mosque on Phobos

In light of the controversy surrounding plans to develop a proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero in New York City and American science fiction & fantasy author Elizabeth Moon's recent apocryphal comments concerning Muslims, it is worth noting that there is similar religious friction, political conflict and cultural animosity in Kim Stanley Robinson’s award-winning novel Red Mars (1992). For example, in the opening pages of the book, set in the year 2056, Frank Chalmers, captain of the American contingent, United States ambassador to Mars and one of the First Hundred humans to settle on the planet, meets with a group of Arab men in the city of Nicosia to discuss renewal of the United Nations Mars Treaty:
He studied the men's faces as they talked. An alien culture, no doubt about it. They weren't going to change just because they were on Mars, they put the lie to John's [John Boone] vision. Their thinking clashed radically with Western thought; for instance the separation of church and state was wrong to them, making it impossible for them to agree with Westerners on the very basis of government. And they were so patriarchal that some of their women were said to be illiterate—illiterates, on Mars! That was a sign. And indeed these men had the dangerous look that Frank associated with machismo, the look of men who oppressed their women so cruelly that naturally the women struck back where they could, terrorizing sons who then terrorized wives who terrorized sons and so on and so on, in an endless death spiral of twisted love and sex hatred. So that in that sense they were all madmen.
Shortly after this gathering, Frank Chalmers, while walking through the Arab neighborhood in Nicosia to meet a politically disgruntled young friend named Selim el-Hayil, “took the shears from his pocket and scratched into a few plastic windows, in Arabic lettering, Jew, Jew, Jew, Jew, Jew. He walked on, whistling through his teeth.” Selim el-Hayil, who believes that John Boone, another important American political leader, a member of the First Hundred and the most powerful man on Mars, is anti-Arab, had argued in secret against United Nations approval for Arab settlements on Mars, and later blocked permission to build a mosque on the Martian moon of Phobos, tells Frank Chalmers that John Boone "hates everything that gets in his way. And he can see that Islam is still a real force in people's lives. It shapes the way people think, and he can't stand that."

Later that night, John Boone is assaulted by a group of “strangers” and left for dead outside the city gates, in the oxygenless Martian night. Although the murder of John Boone is engineered by Frank Chalmers, Selim el-Hayil, who is poisoned by Chalmers that same night, is believed to be the sole culprit. “Because of Selim el-Hayil, the Ahad wing of the Moslem Brotherhood had gotten blamed for Boone's assassination, and Chalmers had always been quick and public in defending them from all such accusations. Selim had been a lone assassin, he always asserted, a mad murder-suicide.”

In a later chapter of the novel, Frank Chalmers escapes the political arena by joining an Arab mining caravanserai, led by an important and respected Bedouin named Zeyk Tuqan. One evening, the discussion turns to the subject of women:
Frank ground his teeth, and when Al-Khal began pontificating again he said, "What about your women?"

They were taken aback, and Al-Khal shrugged. "In Islam men and women have different roles. Just as in the West. It is biological in origin."

Frank shook his head and felt the sensuous buzz of the tabs, the black weight of the past. The pressure on a permanent aquifer of disgust at the bottom of his thinking increased, and something gave, and suddenly he didn't care about anything and was sick of pretending he did. Sick of all pretense everywhere, the glutinous oil that allowed society to run on in its gnashing horrid way.

"Yes," he said, "but it's slavery, isn't it?"

The men around him stiffened, shocked by the word.

"Isn't it?" he said, helplessly feeling the words bubble up out of his throat. "Your wives and daughters are powerless, and that is slavery. You may keep them well, and they may be slaves with peculiar and intimate powers over their masters, but the master-slave relationship twists everything to it. So that all these relations are twisted, pressured to the bursting point."

Zeyk's nose was wrinkled. "This is not the lived experience of it, I can assure you. You should listen to our poetry."

"But would your women assure me?"

"Yes," Zeyk said with perfect confidence.

"Maybe. But look, the most successful women among you are modest and deferent at all times, they are scrupulous in honoring the system. Those are the ones that aid their husbands and sons to rise in the system. So to succeed, they must work to enforce the same system that subjugates them. This is poisonous in its effects. And the cycle repeats itself, generation after generation. Supported by both masters and slaves."

"The use of the word slaves," Al-Khal said slowly, and paused. "Is offensive, because it presumes judgment. Judgment of a culture you do not really know."

"True. I only tell you what it looks like from the outside. This can only be of interest to a progressive Moslem. Is this the divine pattern you are struggling to actualize in history? The laws are there to read, and to watch in action, and to me it looks like a form of slavery. And, you know, we fought wars to end slavery. And we excluded South Africa from the community of nations for arranging its laws so that the blacks could never live as well as the whites. But you do this all the time. If any men in the world were treated like you treat your women, the U.N. would ostracize that nation. But because it is a matter of women, the men in power look away. They say it is a cultural matter, a religious matter, not to be interfered with. Or it is not called slavery because it is only an exaggeration of how women are treated elsewhere."

"Or not even an exaggeration," Zeyk suggested. "A variation."

"No, it is an exaggeration. Western women choose much of what they do, they have their lives to live. Not so among you. But no human submits to being property, they hate it, and subvert it, and have what revenge they can against it. That's how humans are. And in this case it is your mother, your wife, your sisters, your daughters."

Now the men were glaring at him, still more shocked than offended; but Frank stared at his coffee cup, and went on regardless. "You must free your women."

"How do you suggest we do this?" Zeyk said, looking at him curiously.

"Change your laws! Educate them in the same schools your sons go to. Make them the equal in rights to any Moslem of any kind anywhere. Remember, there is much in your laws that is not in the Koran, but was added in the time since Mohammed."

"Added by holy men," Al-Khal said angrily.

"Certainly. But we choose the ways we enforce our religious beliefs in the behavior of daily life. This is true of all cultures. And we can choose new ways. You must free your women."

"I do not like to be given a sermon by anyone but a mullah," Al-Khal said, mouth tight under his moustache. "Let those who are innocent of crime preach what is right." Zeyk smiled cheerily. "This is what Selim el-Hayil used to say," he said.

And there was a deep, charged silence.

Frank blinked. Many of the men were smiling now, looking at Zeyk with appreciation. And it came to Frank in a flash that they all knew what had happened in Nicosia. Of course! Selim had died that night just hours after the assassination, poisoned by a strange combination of microbes; but they knew anyway.
Note: Passages and quotes may have been taken out of context and they do not necessarily represent my personal views on Red Mars, Muslims or the Mosque on Phobos.

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