Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Big Mullah

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Big Mullah

Article excerpt


Sleep soundly, good people, everything is sheer falsehood, and the rest is under control." So begins Boualem Sansal's new novel, 2084. The author, an Algerian secularist, has rewritten George Orwell's 1084 imagining the oppressive power to be political Islam. The result confirms everything you think you know about religion, politics, and literature-provided you're a member of the French Academy (which awarded Sansal its Grand Prix) or an average American teenager.

The story is set in the late twenty-first century, in a country called Abistan. This "land of believers" has been founded on the conviction that a God named "Yölah is great," that a prophet named "Abi is his faithful delegate," and that submission is the sole disposition and response of every member of the faith. Through a series of convoluted descriptions of this world's culturalpolitical features-punctuated by such observations as "true religion can be nothing other than well-regulated sanctimoniousness, set up as a monopoly and maintained by omnipresent terror"-we learn that Abistan cows and controls its people by making them fear God and state. There is no free passage in Abistan. Citizens are only allowed to move about the country on state-directed pilgrimage, to witness the show trials and industrial-scale public executions that take place each day, to fight the vaguely outlined enemy and become glorious martyrs, or to be sent to and from sanatoriums.

The novel's hero, Ati, has himself been living in a sanatorium for some time when the story begins. He knows neither why he was sent away in the first place nor why he's being released now, only that his fate is determined by "the Just Brotherhood." Ati has always accepted that allpowerful unseen others make decisions about his life, but (as will happen in this kind of novel) something has changed in him. "His heart was beating so fast it hurt. A strange sensation: the more fear overwhelmed him and twisted his guts, the stronger he felt. He felt so courageous. . . . Before dying, Ati wanted to live his life, the life he sensed emerging from darkness, even if for only a split second."

Set aside the melodramatic delivery. Even if you're not a French cultural bureaucrat or American adolescent, you can identify with Ati's longing for liberty. The challenge, for Ati as much as the reader, is to locate liberty's true and abiding source.

Ati's awakening coincides with news that Abistani authorities have uncovered an ancient village that will soon become a site of pilgrimage. Nothing from the past is allowed to exist unless it affirms the exclusive glorification of Yölah and his delegate, Abi. …

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