The other day a reader asked me why “The Caliphate” is set in Canada. Why not in the United States—since I’m an American? This is a good question, and one worth answering here.
First a bit of background, for readers unfamiliar with the story. “The Caliphate” is a short story set in the near future, in the Canadian province of Ontario. After a prolonged battle with Canadian authorities, an Islamist group called “Harb” (“war” in Arabic) has smuggled nuclear weapons into Toronto and set up a miniature Islamist state in and around the city.
This is the background of the tale. The main plot concerns a conflict between Marty and Phil, two young Canadian men who react differently to the new status quo. Marty is a willing, if cynical, collaborator. Phil begins the story as an acquiescent collaborator; but he later finds that he cannot stand back and allow his own corner of Western civilization to be destroyed by savages.
But back to the reader’s question: Why is “The Caliphate” set in Canada?
The basic idea of this story occurred to me back in 2007 (though several years would pass before it would fully take shape on paper.) This was more than half a decade after 9/11. The initial outrage over the terrorist attacks had long faded in the mainstream media, and was giving way to hand-wringing about the dangers of “Islamophobia.” Patriotism was out; political correctness and cultural relativism were in.
At the same time, a fresh wave of Islamist extremism was beginning to rear its ugly head in Europe. In 2004 and 2005, bombings in London and Madrid resulted in numerous deaths. America was not the only target of Islamic extremism. Any liberal Western democracy was a potential target.
And we were behaving like targets. When the Pope visited Turkey in 2006, he was burned in effigy in the streets of Istanbul. How did the Pope respond? He apologized for making a brief and innocuous reference to an ancient Byzantine text. Around the same time, Muslim extremists in various European countries rioted and incited violence because of…a newspaper cartoon. Rather than boldly standing up for free speech and Western democratic values, the newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, issued an apology.
Throughout the West, the pattern was always the same: Muslim extremists trampled on civil liberties and indulged in orgies of violence and destruction. The West responded with apologies. And more apologies.
It became clear to me that what was going on was not just a battle between America and al-Qaeda. This was a battle between the free, liberal, democratic culture of the entire Western world, and a group of amoral barbarians who wanted to drag us all down into their medieval version of hell.
On the battlefield, the West was responding forcefully. Law enforcement agencies and military organizations in America, the United Kingdom and Europe did the work they needed to do. But our intellectual institutions—our media, our universities, our political leadership—were hampered by the straitjacket of political correctness. No matter what atrocity Muslim extremists committed, the press and the liberal university professors would always concoct a long-winded explanation of why it was actually America’s (or Western civilization’s) fault. The doctrine of radical cultural relativism was dominant in American institutions; but the situation was even worse in the UK and the Netherlands. I saw that this was not just an American problem—but also a European and Canadian problem.
I therefore decided that “The Caliphate” should not be set in the United States. Had the story been set in the U.S., it would have become a specifically “American” story. I wanted “The Caliphate” to be a story about the fight to preserve not only America—but Western civilization as a free, liberal, and rational cultural sphere.
I chose Canada as the particular setting for several reasons. First of all, I have spent some time in Toronto and Mississauga, so I was confident that I could accurately write about this area. I also chose Canada because Canada is the non-American country that is most like the United States (though some Canadian readers might disagree). A story set in Canada, I believed, would appeal to an American readership, while still maintaining the depiction of a larger, worldwide struggle for freedom and Western values.
For me, the central conflict of “The Caliphate” can be summed up in an exchange between Marty and Phil. After the Islamists execute two Christians in Mississauga, the simmering hostility between Marty and Phil erupts into a violent confrontation. (Note the final two paragraphs of this excerpt, which I have bolded below.)
“No, Marty. Collaborating with Harb and murdering the Donovans was insane.”
“Don’t you see?” Marty said. “We had no choice but to go along. Harb was going to execute the Donovans one way or another. You couldn’t have saved them. If I hadn’t stopped you, Ali would have had you killed and then killed the Donovans too.”
“Marty, sometimes saving your own neck isn’t the most important consideration. There are some things that you shouldn’t be a party to, no matter what.”
“You don’t get it, do you Phil? Have you read the news recently? There were Harb uprisings in London and Paris last week. It’s Toronto and Amsterdam all over again. Ali tells me that they’ve got a lot of sleepers in New York and Los Angeles, too. The United States is going to be next.”
“So you think they’re going to take over the world, huh?”
“I don’t know, Phil. I really don’t. What I can tell you is this: They believe in their value system, as warped as it is. And they’re willing to fight for it. They’re not ashamed of who they are. That’s their advantage.”
“And what does that say about us, Marty? Are we ashamed of who we are? Are we willing to stand up for our values? Or are we going to roll over and tell ourselves that an Islamic society is just the next phase of our history?”
The West, in short (and not only the U.S.), needs to stop apologizing to extremists. That is the real message of “The Caliphate,” and the reason for its Canadian setting.