The Islamic States of America
By Henry Schuster
Editor's note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism, and efforts to combat them.
The front cover of the novel, which imagines large parts of the U.S. under Islamic rule.
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(CNN) -- The year is 2040. The aircraft carrier Osama bin Laden is anchored just off Seattle. The Super Bowl is being played at Khomeini Stadium.
Imagine the terrorists won. The Islamic States of America covers most of the northern and western United States.
That's the premise of a new novel, "Prayers for the Assassin," by Robert Ferrigno. It's a work of fiction with a provocative starting point and quite a sense of timing.
"What if" novels aren't new. George Orwell's "1984" may be the one you read in school, but Philip Roth's "The Plot against America," which imagined a grim and scary America in the early 1940s where Charles Lindbergh, an admirer of Hitler, had beaten Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the presidency, was a recent bestseller.
Nor is the idea of an Islamic caliphate new. Osama bin Laden is just one of many Muslims who would like to see an Islamic state stretching from Spain across North Africa and all the way through the Muslim world.
Ironically, in Ferrigno's book, there is no caliphate, but at least part of America is under Islamic rule as the result of wholesale religious conversions and some well-timed terrorist attacks.
"Prayers for the Assassin" arrives at a time when the so-called clash of civilizations between Islam and the West -- one of bin Laden's favorite themes -- is once again playing out, this time over those Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed in an unflattering light.
The higher Ferrigno's book climbs on the charts, the more it could place him right into that often violent debate.
A spiritual hunger
Ferrigno says he began the book after watching the attacks on New York and Washington. "I started working on the theme -- what happens if we lose the war on terror -- after 9/11. It seemed obvious that if 19 guys could bring down the World Trade Center, then we are in deep water."
"I tried to imagine a scenario where America could be brought low," he says. He thought that vulnerability might be at the spiritual level where he saw Islam as the alternative.
Ferrigno, who comes from a fundamentalist Christian background that he left as a teenager, says the need for a spiritual connection is important to him and to the book.
"In Islam there is respect for God and authority. I felt this is the real meat of the book. But the hero is on the outside looking in; he envies piety."
The Islamic States of America that Ferrigno describes is at once familiar (you can still get a cup of your favorite blend at Starbucks and the Oscars are an annual ritual) and strange (San Francisco has become an Islamic fundamentalist stronghold).
The tension between the moderate Islamic president and hard-line mullahs is reminiscent of present-day Iran.
Uncovering the truth of just how American got to this point is the central plot line in "Prayers for the Assassin."
Fearing the backlash
"When I first started writing, I thought it would be doctrinaire," Ferrigno says of his book. But he believes that in the end, it is respectful and even envious of Islam, if not the leaders of his imaginary Islamic States.
Religion is a hot-button issue for people, and in a way I think that is good. Religion matters.
-- Robert Ferrigno
But you don't write a book like this and now watch the news about the cartoon riots without some degree of concern for your own personal safety. Author Salman Rushdie was on the receiving end of death threats and fatwas after he wrote a novel, "Satanic Verses," that many of his fellow Muslims believed was blasphemous.
"Do I worry about some nut thinking the book is a slander? Most of the characters are Muslim. I don't feel like this insults any religion. I've gotten some nasty comments because the Christian stronghold is called the Bible Belt.
"Religion is a hot-button issue for people, and in a way I think that is good. Religion matters," Ferrigno says.
On some blogs, he's been criticized not for being anti-Islam but for the opposite. One said he was an "apologist for terrorists."
Ferrigno says he's not worried about any backlash from the book, but he admits his wife didn't want him to write it -- and now that the book is out, they've talked to their children about being more careful.
There was a certain unintentional irony in one early review of "Prayers for the Assassin," which praised the book but then said it contained "a cartoon version of Islam."
Ferrigno has been watching the cartoon riots spread across the Muslim world. While he is respectful of Islam, he believes the riots are being caused by clerics exploiting a controversy where none exists.
"The only hope for the war on terror to be won is for there to be some sort of spiritual continuity. We [in the West] have to have freedom of expression. There's no way we can abide by your strictures, even if the cartoons are insulting. This is part of a liberal democracy," he says.
For the record, Ferrigno says, he has no desire to live under Islamic Sharia law.
Inside Ferrigno's world
Ferrigno's publisher, Scribner, has come up with a clever way to advertise his book. But it's also an interesting way to play the "what if" game.
They have a Web site (http://www.republicworldnews.com/) that is set in the year 2036 and gives you a cyber-taste of life in the Islamic States of America.
It is gimmick to be sure, but worth a visit, if only to make you think.
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