Author: Tim Parise
Publisher: *Not Listed
Cover Artist: unknown
Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
The Iranian Supreme Court has sentenced two teenagers to death. Their crime? Being involved in a three-year long homosexual relationship. Every gay rights organization in the Western Hemisphere has cried foul – and left it at that. Protest, they claim, is an adequate response to violence. But Major Matthew Martin, an instructor at the Marine Corps University, disagrees with their lack of action, and he’s feeling bored at the moment, having been relieved of his duties after giving a controversial speech at a local high school. The Major pulls together a few other disenchanted Marines and activists for a little side venture of his own: staging a private invasion of Iran and stopping the execution by rescuing the prisoners. His connections with military contractors in Afghanistan appear to make the project feasible at first, but word leaks out, and the Iranians relocate the teens while mobilizing their army to bar his escape route. Four gay Marines face off against fifty thousand troops for the possession of two boys who have become more than just ordinary convicts.
On the opposite side of the Persian Gulf, the government of Bahrain has been stepping up its efforts to suppress pro-democracy activists, left over from the Arab Spring, who are becoming increasingly strident in their demands for reform. When Asim, a computer science student, is nearly arrested for sedition, he runs for his life and ends up in the company of an underground organization of hackers aiming to bring the state down by more oblique means. The underground is headed up by an unlikely leader, an imam who asserts that there can be no such thing as an Islamic state. Reasoning from the Quran, he argues that all existing states are nothing more than idols, a position that places his group at immediate and lethal odds with the Bahraini government.
Back in Washington, Republican congressman Mark Randall is meeting with one of his Democratic colleagues, freshman representative Michael Elliott. Apparently Randall isn’t far enough back in the closet to have kept Elliott’s husband, a magazine editor, from discovering his recent affair with a party operative. Elliott agrees not to publish the information just yet – as long as Randall casts the final vote necessary to make the Equal Marriage Act law.
And while Randall searches for a way out of his predicament, and the Bahraini government is rocked by one disclosure after another, Major Martin disappears into the heart of Iran, leaving nothing behind except a trail of argument and debate over the merits of his actions.
Tim Parise has some very interesting axes to grind. In his compelling novel, “In the Name of God the Merciful, God the Compassionate” we get to see those axes being ground, and it mostly works. Tim Parise is a young man, and already the author of several books. He’s a good writer—an elegant writer. I enjoyed every page.
Buy this book and read it.
The poetic title is from a Muslim prayer, probably from the Koran, and sets the tone for the entire book, which is really three distinct narratives that are only connected in the most tenuous way. We have an adventure story with a gay hero; we have a political story with gay power-brokers (no heroes here); and we have a tale of oppressed Muslims rising up to victory through personal sacrifice and intense computer geekery (no gay folks in this one). Each story is compelling on its own, but the lack of real integration among the three story lines is the book’s major weakness. The “Arab Spring 2.0” storyline was the one that fascinated me most, and, oddly enough, the one that really stirred me emotionally. Although there are no gay characters (I might ask why, but I think I know the answer), the parallel intended by Parise is obvious: gay people are an oppressed minority, in spite of forward progress, despised and marginalized in all societies. His corollary: unlike these brave young Arabs, we have ceased any real meaningful fight for our rights in order to claim assimilation into the oppressor mainstream. Mr. Parise is quite a polemical guy.
Warning: the rest of this review is spoilery, because it needs some discussion. Proceed at your own risk.
The core narrative is a film-worthy action caper (assuming impossibly that Hollywood would ever invest in any story that forefronts gay characters and gay rights). It involves the rescue of two young Iranian men, sentenced to death just for being gay. Their hero is an out and angry Major Martin. Disgusted by the smug complacency of A-list gays in power, and the lip-service betrayal of all liberal organizations, who won’t do anything real to help gay folks at a real human rights level; Martin organizes his own personal A-team.
The second narrative tells a tale of ugly Washington politics among gay congressmen—one out and one closeted—that is not what you might expect. The hero, such as he is, is Congressman Randall, a closeted Republican representative of a conservative district somewhere in America. He is forced to defend his right to be closeted and vote against the “gay agenda” in order to be true to the wishes of his hometown. Congressman Elliott, out and rich and the husband of a gay media mogul, tries to extort Randall’s vote for a gay marriage bill. The closeted congressman was Major Martin’s college roommate, and they apparently share a disgust for the smug heteronormativity of modern gay politicos.
The third is the real surprise, because it has nothing to do with gay anything. It is the story of a group of young underground hackers in Bahrain, constantly under threat of arrest and torture by the government. They join forces under a young blind pacifist imam, who preaches a perspective on the Koran and sharia law that essentially states that there is no such thing as a legitimate Muslim government, because God gives each of us the right to live our lives as we wish, and that only God may judge or punish us for our religious failings. Surely Parise has done his research, and this is the most startling—and moving—interpretation of Koranic scripture I’ve ever heard. Using this pacifist/anarchist view of Islamic law, our Bahraini computer geeks start a revolution that made my heart soar. They put their lives on the line to defend their faith. It is the most positive presentation of modern day Islam that one could imagine. If only it had some greater bearing on modern Muslim reality. It is a glorious fantasy wrapped around the historical truth that Parise clearly studied closely. Although none of the cast of characters in this story become very fully developed, each one is a vivid reminder that the Western attitude toward Muslim societies is blinkered and narrow. Reading this thread in the book’s plot made me think, and rethink, my own knee-jerk reactions to the Muslim world.
Major Martin’s rescue caper was page-turning and fun. It is great fun watching this brilliant but under-appreciated (read: not willing to assimilate comfortably into a post-DADT military world) tactical soldier take matters into his own hands to rescue the gay Iranian couple. His frustration surely echoes that of every gay man and woman in America, who watch the injustices and vicious homophobia all over the world with exasperated helplessness. Martin rightly decries the fatuous platitudes into which the major gay “power” organizations have declined in the last ten years. He criticizes anti-bullying campaigns and the “it gets better” movement as enshrining victimhood instead of empowering gay teens to fight back and take charge of their lives. He slams power-gays and their organizations as drones of assimilation, abandoning real civil rights in favor of a tenuous place at the straight table. When he realizes that the gays and the government liberals are going to sit by and weakly whine while two innocent young men are hanged for being gay, he starts calling in favors and networking mightily to pull off the impossible. It’s a great ride and a delicious fantasy.
This critical perspective on American gay politics comes to a head in the shortest and, in my view, weakest of the three story lines. The quite believable narrative of Congressman Elliott trying to extort cooperation from Congressman Randall makes its point: blackmail, even for a good cause, is just wrong. The corollary here is that everyone’s right to remain in the closet is as sacred as any other civil right—the inborn right to live our lives the way we see fit according to our own conscience.
Unfortunately, while I agree that Elliott’s tactic is repugnant, not to mention illegal, and I couldn’t help taking pleasure in Randall’s turning the tables on his scheme; I cannot quite agree with the author’s premise that Randall is morally untainted. The whole issue of political “outing” of closeted people in places of prominence—whether celebrities or politicians—has a long and controversial history in the gay rights movement. Personally, having come out in the 1970s, when just being gay was still illegal in much of the USA, I am not inclined to forgive closeted politicians (or anybody) when they actively do damage to the rights of other gay people from the safety of their closets.
Thus (and this is my personal perspective as a child of Stonewall), celebrities who remain in the closet have that right. But when they publicly decry gay people (as Liberace did, unbelievably), they cease to be morally neutral. When conservative politicians stay closeted, it is for their own preservation and for the advancement of their careers. This is already morally tenuous, I think, but at least more or less neutral. However, when a closeted gay politician actively works to damage (by action or inaction) the rights of other gay people, he is no longer morally neutral. He is an enemy. This is like Jews working for the Nazis; blacks working for the KKK. The balance tips against them and their moral high ground is entirely lost.
So, while extortion and blackmail are completely unforgivable—the end does NOT justify the means—closeted homosexuals who vote against gay people to further their careers are equally repugnant. They have no ethical standing; their right to live their lives as they wish is trumped by their moral duty to do no harm to innocent people.
At the center of his argument Parise doesn’t seem to think that gay marriage is an important enough cause to trigger any sort of moral compunction. There I disagree with him. Marriage equality is not where my partner of 40 years and I would have expected things to go back in 1975. It is not something we particularly cared about or yearned for: but as something that has become important as a matter of freedom of choice to the wider world of gay men and women, it cannot be simply dismissed as heteronormative mimicking of straight culture. If we are to have agency in our own lives, this is also a choice that we should be given. It is not the be-all and end-all of gay liberation, but it is an important part of how we choose to live.
This is where I take a page from Parise’s Arab Spring story: I will judge, but I will not punish these closeted conservatives for their actions. I will shun them and denounce them, but I will go no further. As long as they do no harm. Once their action/inaction starts to undermine the position of their fellow gay people, all bets are off.
Congressman Elliott, in my view, has every right to out the closeted Congressman Randall for voting against gay rights. But he did not have the right to blackmail him for his own political ends. Parise has taken a very simple ethical premise and tried to build it into something grander, thus doing an injustice to both sides of the argument. Neither of these men would be my friends. They both represent moral failures.
In the end, however, a good book should make us feel and should make us think. Tim Parise does both in “In the Name of God the Merciful, God the Compassionate.” This alone sets this novel apart from much contemporary literature. This alone encourages me to believe that Parise is just going to get better and better as he lives his life and sees the world is less theoretical terms.
This review is based on a copy purchased by the reviewer independent of any review copies offered.
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,
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