Religion, Submission, and Authority

With the events in Libya over the past week and the anniversary of 9/11, it seems serendipitous that I recently finished Amy Waldman‘s brilliant book, The Submission. I think it might just be one of the most important books of this young century (yeah, I said it!) and certainly for our time now.

Set in a fictional post-9/11 America, one that thankfully didn’t transpire this way, but one that easily could have, Waldman tells the story of an open competition to design the 9/11 monument. A panel of judges from business people to art historians to family members accepted thousands of submissions which they judged anonymously. The book opens with jury deliberations over the two finalists, one proposing a “void” and the other proposing a garden. The Garden wins, barely, after much deliberation. When the panel, and eventually the public, learns the artist/architect’s identity, Mohammed Khan, all hell breaks loose. Never mind the fact that Khan is not a practicing Muslim and is a born and bred American, everything about him is called into question from his appearance to his motives for entering the competition. Soon, camps form between those who think he should withdraw or that the jury should reject his submission, some of whom undertake violence in their resistance, and others, a minority, who believe that Khan’s submission should be honored, along with the American values of equality, diversity, and, quite simply, fairness.

The Submission touches on nearly every major issue facing us today, but never feels threadbare for doing so. I’ll list a few: the violent/peaceful nature of Islam, immigration, secularization, journalistic integrity, political machinations and corruption, mourning and remembering terrorist activity, and the list goes on and on. Waldman’s characters are as diverse as the experiences of both the immediate victims and the mourning nation in the aftermath of 9/11. There are family members that accept Khan’s design and others that reject it for a variety of reasons, some understandable. There are a range of Muslim characters from the secular Khan to the devout and silent-suffering Asma, who grieved in silence the death of her Muslim husband, a janitor in the World Trade Towers. If Waldman employs any character to, perhaps, represent the silent/silenced Muslim majority, it is certainly her.

There are echoes in Waldman’s book of both the shameful and prideful ways in which people responded, around the world, to the real-world 9/11 attacks. Of course, there are echoes of both 9/11 and this narrative in the events taking place in Libya and throughout the Middle East even as I type this. As Khan’s submission showed, the uprising of Muslims protesting against violent extremism and the attacks on the United States complicate the harsh judgments that condemn Islam as a violent religion. That these protestors do so with a greater potential of violent retribution demands more of our respect. But back to Waldman’s novel.

The most interesting character is most definitely, “Mo” Khan, who, I think, stands in for not only Middle Eastern/Muslim immigrants but all immigrants who face pressures to define and redefine themselves based on demands of their fellow American citizens, even as those who demand explanation never think twice about their own constructed identities. The conclusion to which Waldman arrives on both the memorial competition and Khan’s own life is one that will certainly engender on-going conversation not only in light of the plot but in the ways in which they speak to the larger themes in which Waldman works.

That indefensible violence will continue in the Middle East and that ignorance in the United States will continue to stoke it is an unfortunate given. As such, Waldman’s The Submission, and other measured, insightful narratives like it, should be go-to resources for communities seeking to better understand these turbulent situations and to find peaceful ways forward through them.