My Viral Interview for CNN Arabic on my novel “Lords of Misrule”

I’m always intrigued by what attracts people’s attention – and why. This week I did a written interview for CNN Arabic on my new novel, “Lords of Misrule” (or the Arabic title, “Princes of Sedition”). The interview focused on some of the motivations of why people join terrorist organizations, based on my experience and study. It goes into Islamic theology and Tuareg tradition and the history of Muslim Caliphates that have defined wide swaths of North Africa and the Middle East for a millennium. I’m not sure what it was, either the topic or the geographical focus or perhaps the fact that few Americans know enough about this topic – but this interview was picked up from CNN and repeated in dozens of local media outlets, from Morocco to Algeria and Egypt and on. Given the interest generated on the “Arab Street”, I figured I’d share it with you as well in English. Happy reading!
1) Can you summarize in a few words the events of your novel?
“Lords of Misrule” is the story of a young Tuareg from Timbuktu in Mali who becomes radicalized through a series of events outside of his control. Forced to flee his homeland, he moves; first to Tamanrasset and then to Marrakesh where he studies Islamic Law, eventually becoming a Qadi, before he returns to Mali to fight in a Tuareg rebellion. There, in Timbuktu, he discovers reason and a love of tolerance and understanding through some hidden manuscripts from the Timbuktu libraries spirited from Baghdad during the sacking of the House of Wisdom.
2) Who are the heroes and villains of the novel?
Aliuf Ag Albachar is the novel’s protagonist. He’s the youngest son of a clan leader from the high Sahara, by Taoudenni. The novel begins when he is 13 years of age and visiting Timbuktu for the first time and takes him through his life into adulthood. While he is in Timbuktu he meets Salif Dicko, a young half-Bozo half-Fulani boy, and they become friends as they flee misfortune to cross the sands together. But Salif takes another path, deciding to carry out Jihad in the Middle Eastern wars; returning to Timbuktu and becoming Aliuf’s nemesis. The story doesn’t really have “villains” – none of my novels do. Each person is a rational actor, making decisions based upon what they believe will advance their own interests – and often suffering the consequences. But these decisions do cause conflict, as the paths each of the characters take is mutually exclusive of the other; bringing Aliuf and Salif into conflict.
3) How did the idea come to you to write the story? Is it simply inspired by reality or is it a true-life story?
I was living and working in Mali while the conflict was unfolding between the north and the south, as well as during the infiltration of terrorist elements; I was even there during the Radisson attack. I was captivated by the story of Mali. As I read and learned more about Tuareg culture and civilization I was inspired by something so ancient and epic – and how they have lived in such a harsh environment like the Sahara and how their culture adapted and advanced to protect their society. And also, as I worked, I was intrigued by the process of how extremist Salafis infiltrated the Tuareg society through missionary work and other activities until terrorist ideas began to gain a foothold. At the same time, I spent a lot of time researching about Timbuktu, and this took me to learning about the Abbasid and the Umayyad Caliphates – as well as the Almoravids and the Almohads and the various Berber dynasties and the important role of Morocco and Algeria in the story of Islamic civilization. It was fascinating – and I wanted to weave it all together in a story that captured the epic struggles and ancient ideas and brought them back into the discussion about what was happening, that I was watching unfold.
4) How long did it take you to write?
The novel took me three years to write. The first two were spent researching. Reading about the Tuareg culture, where the language came from and their history and civilization. Their relations to their Berber cousins. About Tin Hinan and the stories about their first queen and the empire she strove to build. And I read books on Islamic civilization and law. About the caliphates and how they ebbed and flowed and advanced across the Maghreb and into the Sahara. Language and ideas and the trade routes. Walking through the ancient places in Timbuktu or Djenne and studying a mud building that is 800 years old. After my research, and acknowledging that I really only scratched the surface of so great a history, I began to write. A process that took me another year.
5) Why did you write “Lords of Misrule”?
The struggle to be free is the central motivating factor of human decision-making. Everywhere I have lived and worked I come across so many amazing people fighting to make their worlds a better place for their families, and against such great odds. I write to honor them.
6) Can you tell us little about your work in Mali?
I have worked on social issues for many years. First as a humanitarian aid worker for years in Congo, Pakistan and Central America. Then, more recently on peacebuilding. I was working in Mali supporting the peace process between the rebellion in the north and the government; hoping to put an end to the war.
7) What is the main message of “Lords of Misrule”? And who should read it?
Lords of Misrule delves into how ordinary people can become radicalized, and end up making common cause with terrorism. People are not born extremist, they become so because often that is where life takes them. But this is also a story about how a young man is de-radicalized, how it is possible to escape from the motivating power of hate and violence and become renewed. I wrote the book in English, for audiences in the United States and Europe who often times over-simplify the motivations for terrorism and forget that all people have their own fears and desires and motivations. It is easy for folks from the “west” to forget that even somebody born in Timbuktu has the same desires and emotions and fears. The power of love, the anger at impunity, the great motivator that is faith. All these things we all share – and I wanted people to reflect on this. But also, the book is being translated into Arabic by the Arab Center for Scientific Research in Morocco. Because it also tells the story about how a young man finds a way to see through the hate and discover reason – which helps him free his mind from the terrorists’ ideological straight-jacket.
8) What can you say about radicalization in Sahara and its causes?
There are many reasons that people choose to become terrorists. Sometimes it’s economic, trying to escape desperate poverty. Sometimes it’s out of powerlessness, seeking to find a way to have their voices heard in a world that doesn’t seem to listen to them. Sometimes it’s out of a misplaced religious fervor, believing as we are often told that for us to truly hold our faith we must force others to do so as well. But there is more than that. The modern “world order” that was set in place first with the acknowledgement of the sovereign nation state in the 1600s and then on to that which was established after World War II has never really worked for lots of folks living in poor countries, for example in Africa. What they see is that the elections and the central banks and the foreign assistance and the parliaments are all mechanisms to cement the elites in their power and promote corruption, and which do not allow opportunity for others to climb out of their poverty and their desperation. Islamism is an attempt to remake this world order, much like communism or fascism were. It is an attempt to rewrite the rules and recreate a world order that does not respond to orders from the West (Washington DC, London or Brussels) but instead to leaders who have their own legitimacy, not that which is derived from their association to the west. For this reason it motivates young people, rebellious people who want to “upend the apple cart” in order to create something that works for them. Of course we all know that it doesn’t, and that in this case the “solution” is far worse than the “problem”. But by the time young people learn this, it is too late.
9) How can de-radicalization succeed?
Radicalization is an individual process. A recent report from Quilliam Foundation says that it takes more than 400 hours of individual discussion (usually over an instant messenger platform) to convince somebody to become a jihadist. De-radicalization must also be individual. It is the process of re-awakening people’s minds through the use of reason and thought and understanding and debate. And it is a process which begins with a central tenet, “You have no right over the life of another.” All forms of extremism and terrorism start by convincing people that not only are they right, but that they have the responsibility to force others to act the way they know to be true. But force is never right. Just as you are free to believe what you do, so am I. If you think I’m wrong, you must convince me – and I you. And upon these rules, civilization is built. If we result to violence, not only does the power of our ideas evaporate but we build our societies on blood. And those are places where nobody wants to live – even those who started building them in the first place.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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