I am very pleased to interview Ruth Francisco today. Her book, ‘Amsterdam 2012’ is a towering, terrifying and masterful work about the possibility of an East/West World War 3. It provokes such a range of emotions I can’t really sum them up.
It is a book I strongly recommend but not a Christmassy read, so be warned!
A young woman who witnesses a murder that starts a Muslim rebellion in Amsterdam, which touches off riots throughout Europe and leads to the Great Eurabian War–World War III.
This is her diary.
Welcome to my blog, Ruth.
What inspired you to write this book and how long did it take?
I started this novel in 2006 after I heard a report on NPR about Islamic tensions in France and Europe. This was soon after the civil unrest in late 2005, which tore through Paris and spread to Toulouse, Lille, Strasbourg, Marseille, and Lyon. I hadn’t been to Europe in about a decade, and I was curious what in the world was going on. I started researching, and discovered some quite alarming statistics coming out of Europe, such as the demographic changes in schools, which in many large European cities are half Muslim. Just last week it was reported by BBC that the number one baby name is now Mohamed. With growing populations comes growing political power. I am not an alarmist by nature, and at the time I wondered if some of the anxiety wasn’t the result of growing pains, the transformation of a singular European culture to a more American model, with many cultures making up the population. But the violence, the intense segregation of many of the Islamic communities, the rejection of democratic principals by fundamental Islamists, was all alarming. And Americans seemed quite oblivious to what was happening in Europe.
I did about six months of research before I started writing. The first draft took four months or so. But I always do a lot of rewriting, trying to get pacing and tone right. Amazingly, so many of the things I wrote about 3 years ago have come true—the election of a conciliatory liberal president, the oil crisis of 2008, the growing tensions in Europe, civil war in Somalia, the rise of a Tea Party movement. I don’t think I am prescient, but as a writer, I followed the logical consequence of what I saw.
You researched very thoroughly. Did that get you into trouble for looking up certain sites on computer? E.g. FBI investigations.
That’s funny you should ask. I read Al Jazeera and Jihad Watch every day, and visited a lot of “opinionated” websites. My boyfriend forbade me to access those sites from his computer—he didn’t want to end up on some list. I didn’t go undercover or anything, didn’t talk with jihadists. I think the FBI gets interested in writers and journalists if they think they may uncover information they don’t have. I didn’t really go that deep.
Have you had any backlash from individuals or groups about this book?
I wanted this to be a controversial book, and it does what controversial books are meant to do—stir up readers and open up discussion on difficult topics. I tried very hard to present all sides of the issue, the conservative and liberal points of view, and the Islamic extremist and moderate points of view. Yet it is interesting how some readers see it as anti-Islamic and polemical. One reader told me I should “be ashamed of myself”. Other readers have called it a “must-read,” which is enormously gratifying. On the other hand, I got a message on Facebook from someone who called himself a jihadist that said he was giving it to all his friends.
This novel could be seen as ‘anti Muslim’. How would you respond to that accusation?
It is dangerous any time religion and political agendas mix. Fundamentalism, whether Christian or Islamic, is frightening, anti-democratic, demanding conformity of everyone to its way of seeing the world. Islamic spirituality, on the other hand, is quite beautiful. I show this in Ann’s sister’s attraction to Islam, and in Ann’s own sensual response to visiting a women’s group in a mosque, and her jealousy of her sister’s Muslim teacher. I think I clearly show the difference.
You draw a strong parallel with your main character and Anne Frank. Why is this?
My main character, Ann Aulis, sees Anne Frank almost as her mentor. I use Frank’s diary as an emotional touchstone for Ann as she struggles to figure out what is happening to the world. Frank’s diaries are a huge turning point in many young women’s lives—often the first time history really touches them, when they first understand that all children don’t live like they do. Ann uses the diary to give her strength—if Frank could live through the siege of Amsterdam, than maybe she can too.
There are a tremendous number of parallels between World War II and what could easily happen again. For instance, the extreme rapidity in which Hitler took over Europe. Using Frank’s book seemed a way to give credibility to the story, and to remind readers that it wasn’t long ago that Europe was overtaken by extremism.
As the Eurabian war worsens, gender roles become more rigid with the men working and the women staying at home. Do you think the submission of women is inevitable in times of great hardship?
No. Sometimes in hardship, women make great strides, such as the large numbers of women entering the workforce during WWII. In times of hardship, people do whatever they have to do. If that means there are only half the jobs, probably the biggest earner (the male) will keep his job. If only half the children can go to school, do you send your son or daughter? If you have one car, who uses it the most? If you have to grow your own food, who tends the garden? In times of plenty, everyone has more choices. In times of scarcity, you make the best choices for your family that you can.
Your characters symbolize political standpoints e.g. Alex is the right wing isolationist American. The most tragic character is Cynthia, who is confused about Islam. What does she symbolize? And what does her ultimate fate symbolize? The end of uncertainty? The ultimate end of Islam?
I think fundamentalism eventually kills spirituality, which is why it is so important to have a separation of Church and State. Cynthia is completely in love with the poetry, mysticism, and the beauty of Islam, which ultimately is incompatible with political jihad. The paradox of Islam is “jihad” means both the spiritual struggle of one to submit to the will of God, and a political reclamation of all land once under the Caliphate. I do not believe the two are compatible.
Is the flu pandemic a metaphor for the spread of Islam as well as a storytelling device to allow local Muslims to step in ‘save’ America?
Very interesting! I never thought of the flu as a metaphor. But that works well. Civilization is sick, susceptible to disease and takeover. Charity is one of the great pillars of Islamic faith, and they must step in to help those in need. But it is also part of jihad, a way in which Muslims spread their influence. Again, the paradox of Islam.
The ending of this story strikes me as rather too upbeat: we will prevail, we are Americans etc. It is rather ‘Hollywood’- everything will end happily after all, don’t worry folks! Did you have a few different endings? Did you choose the upbeat one to ensure people feel reassured instead of worried?
I wanted to show how much Ann had changed. She is no longer ambivalent. She is a soldier. She must beat the drums of war, of victory. She cannot entertain the possibility of failure. It is not exactly a reassuring ending—they are in the middle of a war—but I did want to leave the story with a glimmer of hope. Just as democracy became the predominate ideology of the twentieth century, I think the strong desire in all of us for freedom, self determination, and justice will prevail.
In your novel, religions living together in tolerance leads to war; religions living separately leads to war, so what is ‘the third way’ to avoid war and confrontation? What would be your solution to an impending war between Islam and the West?
I think religions can live together in tolerance perfectly well, as long as they all agree on a completely separation of Church and State, and agree to practice their religions under the laws of the State. Europe needs to work very hard to integrate their Muslim communities into the mainstream culture. Taking the money and power out of religion would help, e.g., no tax-exemption, no religious schools, no religious political movements, etc. As far as aggressive Islamic States, I’ll leave that for the experts. But it seems obvious we should remove our oil dependence, and then use economic/diplomatic power.
Thank you very much for this interview, Ruth. Amsterdam 2012 moved and concerned me more than any book I’ve read recently and I personally think it is a ‘must read’.