- The Washington Times - Friday, February 26, 2010

THE ROAD FROM DAMASCUS

By Robin Yassin-Kassab

Hamish Hamilton, $20,348 pages

REVIEWED BY IASON ATHANASIADIS

The shootings at Fort Hood, the attempted bombing of a plane over Detroit and the obliteration of seven CIA agents by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan were all committed by men who believed that self-detonation would be their last earthly act. Their discovery has ushered in a renewed torrent of introspection about the psychology of the suicide bomber.

But the darkly compelling genre of why humans choose to sacrifice themselves for what they consider a higher calling has proved surprisingly infertile literary ground. With the notable exceptions of Mohsin Hamid’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” and John Updike’s “The Terrorist,” Western authors have steered clear of a controversial subject whose treatment could be judged to be humanizing radicals.

All the better then that first-time author Robin Yassin-Kassab should wield his Syrian roots, British cultural identity and Muslim background in adding some much-needed nuance to a subject usually vigorously rendered in black and white.

In the wake of the attempted bombing over Detroit and the radicalization of the Nigerian suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, as a student in the British capital, “The Road From Damascus” comes as a fascinating guide into the ghetto of superficially harmonious multicultural communities that make up Britain’s simmering laboratory of fundamentalism.

Mr. Yassin-Kassab effortlessly negotiates “Londonistan’s” ethnic and religious ghettos, slipping from Arab to Jewish communities and the British mainstream alike. He unfavorably compares London’s Pakistani Muslims to its Jews, sketching out their “proletarian role in the economy and a bourgeois conservatism. Neither sexy nor strong. Badly dressed and poorly educated. Islam’s cobwebs in their eyelashes, and its mould on their tongues.”

Mr. Yassin-Kassab’s novel is ostensibly a coming-to-maturity tale about a confused 31-year-old aspiring academic terrified by the effects British culture has on an idealized vision of his Syrian heritage. On his sole encounter with the real Syria, he is equally alienated. His traumatizing encounter with the country he idealizes as home is only a humiliating reminder that his own extended family views him as an alien interloper.

More disturbingly, he regards them from the cold distance of a foreign anthropologist poring over an exotic species. He returns to England to grapple with his attitude to Islam, against the background of an increasingly religious wife and the legacy of a staunchly secular father.

But “The Road From Damascus” is also a versatile narrative of how six very different characters - five Arabs and a Jew - are propelled toward engagement with Islam from a post-religious, consumerist milieu that leaves them feeling hollow.

Tellingly, it is exposure to the West that is the greatest radicalizer: Just as Sayyid Qutb, the grandfather of Islamist ideologues, was shocked into condemning the Christian West as “immoral” after attending a church-sponsored Kansas barn dance in the 1950s, so is the book’s only radical Islamist someone who grew up in the West. After trying and discarding political gangsta rap, Ammar gravitates toward political Islam, an ideology that voices his frustrations far more eloquently than Public Enemy and the Five Percenters.

“Palestine, brother!” he screeds at one point as he puts himself through survival training. “Iraq. Crusader bases all over the Gulf, on holy soil. Vodka-addicted atheists raping our sisters in Chechnya. Brothers in Bosnia blockaded so they can’t defend themselves from kuffar (unbelievers). Hindus desecrating mosques in Kashmir. Oppression all over the umma (transnational Muslim community). But we’re waking up now. Palestine’s the start of it. Soon there’ll be a world Intifada, and then this training will have a purpose.”

Whether religious or agnostic, Mr. Yassin-Kassab’s engaging characters all have the commonality of an angry alienation. Sami’s father-in-law struggles to adapt to London’s “aggressive youths, beer cans in knuckly hands, navels exposed, sometimes pierced.” Sami’s secular sheik is a British survivalist hiding from society in a university lecturer’s job. He frequently rages at his listeners about the coming apocalypse like some excitable fire-and-brimstone preacher.

“Lightning flashes from his brow. … His eyes are cups of blood,” as he deliriously sweeps “the new forms of religion, the fundamentalisms, the blood and soil movements, the BNP, Le Front National, the megachurches, Louis Farrakhan’s people” into one apocalyptic vision of a society split “into sects, into fraternities, usually mutually hostile.”

“The Road From Damascus” is ultimately a cautionary tale about the perils of unchanneled anger and the consequences of bigotry, whether Muslim, Christian or secular. One of the book’s most ambivalent characters is Sami’s father, a pan-Arab intellectual who believed that “it was only a matter of time until everyone would work in an office, productive eight-hour days, and go home in the evenings to read novels, or go to the cinema to watch art films. He thought everyone would own a car and a house to fit a nuclear family, and that they’d all drink whiskey and smoke cigarettes. He thought they wouldn’t need anything more than that.”

This faith in the inexorable march of secular modernity turned Sami’s father into an apologist for the Syrian Ba’ath Party’s 1982 obliteration of an Islamist insurgency in the Syrian town of Hama. When asked to explain his support for the killing of up to 30,000 people in pursuit of an abstract idea, he justified himself with an appeal to the domino effect theory: “Look, if Hama goes, so does Damascus, and then it’s war without end, the cities against the army, the cities against the countryside. Of course it’s worth it. These people (Islamists) would take us back to the Stone Age. They would destroy us. The rot must be stopped. For the sake of future, of progress. At any cost. At any cost.”

Iason Athanasiadis is a freelance reporter for The Washington Times.

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