I’ll admit, right off the bat, that I’m a fan of G. Willow Wilson’s work in the comic book world. As I’ve noted elsewhere, I’m a great admirer of Wilson’s Ms. Marvel, particularly its ability to valorize an immigrant, non-white perspective within the confines of the Marvel universe while also making the protagonist appealing to girls of every culture. Which is why I was excited to read Wilson’s non-comic novel, Alif the Unseen. Indeed, I remember fondly Neil Gaiman’s transition from comics to prose: when Neverwhere was first released, and I was in the last year of high school, I saved up so that I could buy it in hardcover at the bookstore near my school – I was extremely excited by its very existence.
Two decades later, and lacking the same fanboy manic energy, I waited for years to read Alif the Unseen, picking it up when it appeared in my local branch of the public library. But I was still just as excited: it was about Arab Springs, quirky characters, magical jinn! On one level it did not disappoint: Wilson is just as deft with prose as she is with comics – the writing was beautiful and polished, the characters danced off the page – and Alif is definitely a promise of great work to come. But on other levels I found this book quite bothersome.
Alif the Unseen is about a fictional Arab city-state on the edge of the Empty Quarter that resembles various autocratic governments that were targeted by the movements of the squares that collectively formed the so-called Arab Spring. And taking its cue from the Arab Spring, Wilson’s novel is about the resistance to autocratic middle eastern dictatorships and the “hacktivists” invested in this resistance. Specifically it focuses on the titular “Alif” (an internet handle, the character’s real name is [predictably, because of the story] “Mohammed”), a hacker whose response to his love life gets out of control and ends up sparking an uprising, as well as a conjunction with the world of the jinn. All in all this would very interesting… except that it rubbed me the wrong way.
Maybe it’s because I was raised in a Christian family that was marginally invested in shitty religious literature that I’m extremely allergic to literature that is religiously didactic. I’ve got no problem with authors who are invested in a particular faith trying to sell this faith through myth and allegory, but my hackles rise when I encounter literature that boldly and unapologetically proselytizes x religion. Anyone who is familiar with this kind of literature (in particular the first world Christian “literary” industry [yes, I intentionally scare quoted literary] which has pumped out Left Behinds and a whole bunch of other shit) is aware that it functions with conversion in mind. That is, the story orbits around the significance of conversion, about recognizing that the Bible contains the answers, and that any skepticism regarding the true faith will be challenged by supernatural events. And look the Bible and some random preacher answers all your questions, an easy resolution is achieved, and yay this particular expression of faith!
Needless to say, as a consummate secularist I find this approach to reality quite dubious. More importantly, as someone who appreciates literature I find this approach to narrative downright insulting. Hence, I found Alif the Unseen similarly insulting because it read like the Muslim equivalent of this shitty Christian literature: at many points it read like thinly veiled religious proselytization – that is, piss-poor religious apologetics masquerading as a story. The point of this kind of literature, regardless of its religious affiliation, is to result in a conciliation between the main character and the religion in question; on the way it presents many arguments as to why this religion is the truth, why its doctrine is sacrosanct, and why unbelievers are fucking idiots and/or hypocrites.
Over and over Wilson presents the Quran as an infallible doctrine of reality, greater than all religious doctrines. While I’m happy to accept that Wilson is a Muslim and that her perspective about belief should be just as respected as those invested in other beliefs (and, to be fair, I’m even more happy to protect the right to be Muslim in the face of some of the most abhorrent Islamophobia), as someone who believes in the importance of secular demystification, I can’t help but cringe when Wilson waxes eloquent about the Quran’s monopolization of truth. Isn’t this what all religions claim, with similar arguments, about their holy books? And isn’t this the problem of religion that necessitates a secular movement?
But Wilson goes to great length to present the Muslim doctrine as the doctrine of reality, greater than secular science. Her jinn characters claim it is truth! Because it protects itself from translation betrayal it must be correct! Because it possesses some esoteric truth that reveals itself at the moment of translation it knows more than science… Seriously, at one point she argues that because an English translation uses the word “atom” the Quran has predicted particle science! Never mind the fact that the word “atom” – as well as the notion of infinitesimal building blocks of existence – preceded the Quran by millennia. I found myself quite offended that Wilson wanted me to think that the Quran was aware of modern particle physics when, in point of fact, it was tailing ancient philosophy – as so many religious texts were.
Even worse is the claim, made by the character called “the convert”, that Islam is some “matrix of social justice.” Okay, on some level every religion possesses a “matrix of social justice”, which is why there is such a thing as liberation theology. To assume that Islam possesses a better corner on this social market is pretty strange when the truth is that only a secular movement can permit social justice. Why? Because movements based on a particular religious expression must necessarily bar people who from other religions since the point of any religion is about conversion, about the afterlife endgame. Social explanations for social phenomena require a secular, irreligious movement to be the foundation of struggle. And the experience of liberation theology confirms this: it is no accident that liberation theologians decided that they should be subordinate to larger, secular struggles. Ever since the French Revolution, no religious movement by itself has produced anything resembling progressive social justice; rather, purely religious expressions of resistance have tended to generate the kind of cultural nationalism that Frantz Fanon, among others, warned about.
But since Wilson is invested in proselytizing, everything about Islam must be the best thing ever. In this sense, the character of Dina was particularly cloying. Aside from the fact that it was clear, from the get-go, that Dina was the formulaic authentic love interest of a protagonist who was initially unable to understand who really loved him, I was more bothered by the fact that someone who was a traditional religious conservative was overly valorized. Although Wilson attempted to characterize Dina as someone who was not the typical conservative Islamist – she doesn’t like censorship, she has problems with the regular Islamists, she likes music – the character’s fundamentalism annoyed me. Deference to the patriarchal convention of being owned by her father, her complaint about how metaphors are lies, her ideological certainty of religion… These are virtues of a reactionary.
Sure, Dina is more like your beloved avuncular conservative – that red tory religious individual who is somewhat sympathetic to the liberal rule of law – than a fanatical reactionary, but so what? The fact that my conservative family members can complain about ISIS doesn’t mean very much when they also complain about the accessibility of abortion, the institution of gay marriage, sexual education in public schools, and a whole host of other “moral dilemmas” that place them in the same constellation as the conservative militants they fear. Only the problematic of Islamophobia in my social context made me find Dina even half-ways interesting as a character, but in the fictional context where she exists she should be understood as politically backwards. Replace her devotion to Islam with a devotion to US Christianity and she would be a Trump supporter.
2: liberal social networking bullshit
Even worse than her proselytization of her religion is Wilson’s proselytization of abject liberalism. Alif the Unseen takes the worst analysis of the Arab Spring: a) that it was extremely revolutionary (never mind the fact it that it was immediately contained, that no revolution actualized); b) that it was brought into being by social networking hacktivism. Even more problematic is its assumption that the liberal values of such a “revolution” (meaning, the values of US-style “democracy”) are the apex of ethics and morality.
Alif’s moral significance is based on his pursuit of a liberal anti-censorship ideology, regardless of political substance – the value of liberalism is his moral substance. He is a “hacktivist” who shelters anyone who is censored by his shitty autocratic state, whether they be Islamists, communists, or pornographers. The morality that is valued in this book is a morality of allowing everyone the right of free expression and nothing beyond this, i.e. the “American Dream.” Obviously, I could not help but find this approach to reality somewhat disturbing. If you’re going to defend Islamists, pornographers, and communists altogether just because they’re all repressed, you’re not a hero – you’re a bloody opportunist. Pornographers are anti-women; Islamists of the ISIS type are anti-people; communists should disdain both camps along with people, like Alif, who shelters reactionaries. Because let’s be honest: a society based on the freedom of speech of everyone and everything, even people who are anti-people, is pure capitalism. While it is indeed the case that the US is Islamophobic, it uses the language of free speech to defend Christian reactionaries, pornographers, and anti-capitalists all alike: this is its justification for being a state of “freedom” and we know that it is complete and utter bullshit.
There is a moment in Alif the Unseen where a movement of the squares develops and the masses emerge, but in a way that replicates the most simplistic understanding of the Arab Spring: all these people of different ideological commitments are getting along because they want bourgeois democracy! Alif and his friends are excited to discover that Islamists and communists are marching together “IRL”, and that their hacktivism has produced this “non-sectarianism” that is a hallmark of liberalism. Never mind the fact that any anti-capitalist movement worth its salt should not collaborate with reactionaries; never mind the fact that the history about these collaborations is very clear – the religious reactionaries have liquidated those secular communist forces that have marched with them (in Afghanistan, in Iran) because maybe they are natural enemies.
But if we begin by assuming that an American style democracy is worthwhile, then we have to accept that the core value is a capitalism defined by vague “anti-censorship”. Worse: social movements are governed by social networking, by hacktivists like Alif, who are determining “IRL” by virtual activities. All of which runs contrary to reality where movements are determined and destroyed by on-the-ground organizing. Which is why, despite the vaunted power of social networking, there was eventually a military coup in Egypt because the Egyptian military was an organized on the ground force – the social networking meant shit, just as it hadn’t really meant shit in the initial uprisings. Rather, it was a symptom of mass spontaneous rebellion, not at all a cause. The very American ideology of maverick individuals setting themselves against government conspiracies, however, generates the “hactivism” and social networking narrative; Wilson bought into this wholesale and, in buying into it, was completely uncritical of the liberal discourse that it mobilized.
Just take this crowd-sourcing, hacktivist understanding of social transformation away from Alif‘s simplistic understanding of the Egyptian intifada and what we have is an “Anonymous” idea of the world. You know, those scary internet blokes whose symbol is a Guy Fawkes mask – because, you know, they all decided they were rebels upon seeing V for Vendetta when they were eight and that’s about as far as their social analysis goes. Those rebel leaders who are great at making ominous videos but whose rebellious activities consist mainly of shutting down websites, social networking accounts, and doxing. Their politics, based as they are on a juvenile anarchism (which is pretty much “question everything and rebel dude”), tend to endorse the ruling ideas of the ruling class. Like when they got on the #iamcharlie bandwagon, or when they endorsed Gamer Gate’s claims (but not the people running Operation Gamer Gate because they thought they were snitches), or when they decided to target Black Lives Matter. Alif the Unseen‘s protagonist might as well be part of Anonymous; he certainly acts the part.
If it wasn’t for Alif the Unseen‘s didacticism I would have enjoyed it far more than I did; the characters were interesting, the urban fantasy was well developed, the writing was well crafted. I am not saying that I’m opposed to didactic fiction – hell, I happen to like a lot of didactic fiction – but only that if one is going to craft a didactic novel they should realize where the didacticism becomes cloying: when it enters the realm of religious proselytization, or makes political points that feel entirely juvenile. These aspects tended to undermine what would have otherwise been an enjoyable read by an author who is doing excellent work elsewhere. (Indeed, the statements made about Islam in Ms. Marvel are far more sophisticated, while still being didactic, than what Wilson writes in Alif the Unseen.) I look forward to Wilson’s future novels; it’s too bad her first attempt wasn’t as great as it could have been.