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Middle East Studies in Fiction

by Cinnamon Stillwell
May 15, 2008


It isn't often that characters based on the field of Middle East studies show up in current fiction, but the novels of author Daniel Silva are an exception. The last three novels of his series featuring Israeli secret agent/art restorer Gabriel Allon explore the intersection of Middle East studies and international intrigue.

The sixth novel in the series, Prince of Fire, begins with a horrific terrorist attack at the Israeli embassy in Rome, explores the origins of the modern state of Israel, and ends in an archaeological excavation trench in Provence. Figuring throughout is the handsome and mysterious Paul Martineau, an "adjunct professor of archaeology at the prestigious University of Aix-Marseille III." Martineau appears to be a Frenchman of indeterminate origin, but when all is laid bare his lineage extends back to the so-called royalty of Palestinian terrorism. Martineau is, in fact, the mastermind behind not only the Israeli embassy bombing, but a string of Islamic terrorist attacks throughout Europe.

Although Martineau specializes in the "pre-Roman history of Provence," the highly politicized world of Middle East archaeology figures in the novel as well. At an archaeological excavation site in Tel Megiddo, Israel, Allon meets with archaeology professor, and fellow Israeli spy, Eli Lavon to discuss tracking down Martineau. In the process, Lavon expounds upon the nature of his archaeological work:

‘There's a popular school of archaeological thought these days called biblical minimalism. The minimalists believe, among other things, that King Solomon was a mythical figure, something of a Jewish King Arthur. We're trying to prove them wrong.'

‘Did he exist?' [asks Allon]

‘Of course,' said Lavon, ‘and he built a city right here at Megiddo.'

This conversation alludes to the school of thought, best exemplified by the suspect scholarship of Columbia anthropology professor Nadia Abu El-Haj, which seeks to undermine Israel's ancient Jewish foundation despite the wealth of archaeological evidence to the contrary. In this instance, and in many others, Silva has his finger on the pulse of political trends within Middle East studies.

Silva's seventh novel in the series, The Messenger, revolves around a Saudi-funded al-Qaeda terrorist plot aimed at the Vatican and the Pope. The novel opens by introducing the character of Ali Massoudi, a "graduate professor of global governance and social theory at the University of Bremen" and a "great Europhile intellectual and freethinker." He is "Palestinian by birth, Jordanian by passport, and European by upbringing and education." He is both a prominent and controversial figure in what Silva accurately describes as the "incestuous world of Middle Eastern studies." But Massoudi is not what he appears to be. Massoudi is an al-Qaeda recruiter who deploys his credentials as an academic and an alleged moderate to recruit the gullible and the radicalized to join the jihad.

Massoudi's name again arises in the course of Allon's investigation into an assassination attempt on the American president that takes place at the Vatican. It turns out Massoudi had been a scholarly contributor to the fictional Pope's "special commission on improving ties between Islam and the West," and the Pope, trusting (like so many in reality) in the good intentions of those claiming to be interested in "interfaith dialogue," welcomes him to the Vatican. "Improving ties between Islam and the Church was not part of Professor Massoudi's real agenda, Holiness," Allon informs the Pope. Indeed, Massoudi ends up recruiting a Swiss convert to Islam to pose as part of the Vatican's Palace Guard and, eventually, to act as a would-be assassin.

Earlier on in the novel, a brutal and shocking terrorist attack against the Vatican takes place and, there too, the Pope's interfaith commission comes into play. One of the Muslim scholars on the commission is Ibrahim al-Banna, "professor of Islamic jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University in Cairo," an institution the fictional Pope describes as "one of the oldest and most prestigious schools of Islamic theology and law in the world." He was chosen "for his moderate views," a mistake Allon realizes as soon as he hears about the Al-Azhar connection. He describes the university as a "hotbed of Islamic militancy" that has "been thoroughly penetrated by the forces of al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood."

Sure enough, Allon finds Al-Banna missing and a threatening note on his desk addressed to "the Crusaders," singling out the Pope, Americans, and "the Jews" for destruction, and signed by the "Brotherhood of Allah," a fictional Islamic terrorist group. Before fleeing, Al-Banna, "cleared a delegation of three German priests" into the Vatican, a guard tells Allon. "They're not priests," responds Allon, "They're shaheeds. Martyrs." As the fictional Pope later puts it, the "Doors of Death" have been opened for "suicide bombers."

In the eighth novel in the series, The Secret Servant, Silva introduces another Massoudi-like character in the person of Yusuf Ramadan, who he describes as "professor of Near Eastern history from the American University in Cairo, resident scholar at the Institute of Islamic Studies in Paris, and terror mastermind from the Sword of Allah." The Sword of Allah is a fictional Egyptian terrorist group, somewhat similar to the real-life Muslim Brotherhood, which perpetrates a kidnapping plot in London aimed at the daughter of the American ambassador to the Court of St. James's. Ramadan masquerades as a "self-professed political moderate" and naturally, he is "embraced wholeheartedly by the intelligentsia and media of Paris."

Ironically, Ramadan appears on France 2 (French television) just moments after a series of devastating terrorist attacks on European airports he himself helped plan and, as an expert on Islamic terrorism, urges the United States to "open a channel of communication to the Sword of Allah" immediately. In other words, he advises them to negotiate with terrorists. Ramadan is just one of many of Silva's characters who prey on the naivete' of the West to try and perpetrate its destruction.

Acting on the West's behalf in The Secret Servant is "professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam," Solomon Rosner. Rosner, who doubles as an informant for Israeli intelligence, heads up the "Center for European Security Studies" and writes reports, articles, and books on the infiltration of Islamic radicalism into Dutch and European society. For his troubles, Rosner is labeled "hateful" and a "racist" by the Dutch elite and treated as something of an academic outcast. He is also marked for death by "Holland's homegrown Islamic extremists," and it doesn't take long for him to meet an untimely end. Keeping in mind the sort of abuse hurled at academics who dare depart from the politically-correct orthodoxy on radical Islam and the death threats that come with the territory in real life, Rosner's predicament rings true.

Silva's characters are only works of fiction, and one need not conclude that the ranks of Middle East studies are filled with terrorists or that all moderate Muslims are in fact wolves in sheep's clothing. However, his story evokes some real life examples from academe for a simple reason: in reality, influential Middle East studies professors with unsavory ties and questionable sympathies abound.

  • Silva's Ali Moussadi and Yusuf Ramadan characters are reminiscent of Swiss Islam scholar Tariq Ramadan, the grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan El-Banna. Despite being hailed as a Muslim reformer by the Western elite, Ramadan remains a figure whose moderate bona fides are very much in question. The Department of Homeland Security has barred Ramadan from entering the United States based, at least in part, on ties to terrorism. Ramadan recently called for a boycott of the Turin book fair for honoring Israel's 60th anniversary.

  • Columbia University Arab studies professor Rashid Khalidi, recently in the news for his connections to presidential candidate Barack Obama, was a spokesman for the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the 1980s.

  • Three University of South Florida Middle East studies professors, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, Bashir Musa Mohammed Nafi, and Sameeh Hammoudeh, were charged with racketeering and conspiracy to murder in 2003. Afterwards, all three were praised by their fellow Middle East studies faculty members and described as "scholarly" and "highly respected."

  • Professor of Middle Eastern studies and history at New York University Zachary Lockman testified on behalf of Arabic translator Mohamed Yousry, who was on trial for aiding and abetting Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheikh. Lockman called Yousry's conviction in 2005 "ludicrous" and described him as "a very sweet, mild-mannered guy."

  • Rahman's attorney, radical leftist Lynne Stewart, was convicted of similar charges for sneaking messages from the imprisoned sheikh to members of the terrorist group Gama'a al-Islamiyya. Stewart has since become a frequent speaker at conferences on "academic freedom," alongside various Middle East studies professors. California State University, Sacramento sociology professor Ayad Al-Qazzaz once featured Stewart as a guest on his cable television show. To hear Al-Qazzaz tell it, Stewart was "falsely accused of helping terrorists."

  • University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole has spoken at numerous fundraising events for the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), an unindicted co-conspirator in the case against the Hamas-founded Holy Land Foundation.

  • The same is true of John Esposito, who heads the Saudi-funded Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Esposito is known for his vigorous defense of radical Islamists, including former University of South Florida computer science professor Sami Al-Arian, who was convicted in 2006 for supporting Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Speaking at a CAIR fundraiser in 2007, Esposito described Al-Arian as "a very good friend of mine," along with expressing his "solidarity" with both CAIR and the Holy Land Foundation.

  • The fact that Esposito's work is largely subsidized by the Saudi Royal Family is not coincidental. The influence of Saudi and Gulf funding on Middle East studies continues to be a source of great concern. That Silva would include such developments in his plotlines indicates that it is becoming common knowledge.

Considering the number of Middle East studies academics incorporating the language of Islamic terrorism into their work, pushing for negotiation with Islamist groups and fanatical regimes, and offering up apologias for violence and extremism, is it any wonder that a novelist might imagine the very worst? It could just be that Daniel Silva is onto something.

Cinnamon Stillwell is the Northern California Representative for Campus Watch. She can be reached at  

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