The Twelfth Imam
© 2010 Joel Rosenberg
Who’s up for the Apocalypse? Israel stands ready for a preemptive strike against Iran, whose concealed nuclear program is on the verge of being able to produce warheads. Considering that both Iran’s Supreme Muckety-Muck and president subscribe to a cult within Islam that believes the end and salvation of the world can be brought about only through a war of annihilation against Iran’s foes (namely, Israel and the United States), Tel Aviv just may have cause for concern. Especially seeing as there’s a fellow roaming around the countryside performing miracles and claiming to be the Messiah, ordained by God to restore the Islamic Caliphate and subordinate the entire world to his will.
Such is the setup for Joel Rosenberg’s The Twelfth Imam, a doomsday novel that starts out reading like a political thriller in the vein of Tom Clancy, complete with a CIA operative inserted into Iran with the objective of thwarting the nation’s nuclear ambitions. The book quickly proves to be much more along the lines of Left Behind; this is an apocalyptic novel in its truest sense, because the religious prophecies drive the plot, and not merely as motivation for the characters; instead, supernatural forces and creatures are active elements within the plot, making it light fantasy and…well, somewhat silly. I say silly because while I started reading Left Behind knowing it would have fantastical elements, The Twelfth Imam began with a more sober setup which is derailed by them.
It is perfectly believable to anyone that Iran could be led by religious lunatics, because it is; it is perfectly believable that Israel could be aggressively wary, because it is; it is perfectly believable that a man could claim to be the messiah and create a following for himself, complete with magic tricks and illusions. And the premise is outstandingly interesting: although Christianity is the religion most identified with the concept of messiahs, other religions with an apocalyptic strain believe that a hero – a powerful warrior, a charismatic leader, a righteous judge – will rise and lead the forces of good to a final triumph over evil, and establish a paradise on Earth. The Jews call this figure the moschiah; the Muslims, the Mahdi. Christians believe that Jesus will be this figure when he returns, but a minority (the Left Behind readers) believe that fake messiah, the Antichrist, will emerge as a popular and powerful figure, and create a world empire of scum and villainy. The Twelfth Imam combines two views of the messiah: the Mahdi has come, but he’s coming in the role of the antichrist, the villain.
Done well, readers could have been treated to the story of ‘good’ characters who put their trust in a leader promising and apparently delivering great things, who are later agonized when his intentions prove to be malevolent, and who undergo crises of confidence — like The Good German. Alas, Rosenberg instead uses this premise to demonize Islam, complete with his Mahdi offering the same deal to Iran’s supreme muckety-muck as Satan offered to Jesus during his 40-day fast in the wilderness. Worship me, and the world is yours. There are no sympathetic Muslims here: the devout are without exception utterly slavish stereotypes, vowing and delivering violence against non-Muslims. In one scene, a Muslim father drives his kids across town and cheerfully quizzes them on how the Koran instructs them to hate Jews and delight in slaughter. (Then he drops them off so they can become human minesweepers. Dad of the year, he’s not.) There are a few characters the reader can identify with from Iran or Iraq, but they’re not devout and in the course of the novel will be bejesused when Jesus himself shows up to covert them and start giving them advice on life.
This is the part where I started giggling, where the tenseness of the spy novel became a farce. Rosenberg has managed to write quite a few novels without being schooled on the meaning of Deus ex machina, apparently: Here the fantasy elements take the plot off the rails by physically picking them up and plonking them down wherever: once Jesus shows up (repeating the Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus bit line for line in a random conversion), he makes a habit of rescuing the main characters from conflict. Need something? Oh, good, Jesus just told that guy in the supermarket to give it to you. Flying down the highway with the mahdi’s state apparatus looking for you? Jesus is your GPS: turn left, now, to avoid capture. Unfortunately, the novel becomes increasingly ridiculous as it wears on: at one point, the Mahdi summons the leaders of Islamic countries and groups together and proclaims the caliphate, at which point they happily drop down in fealty. Forget the hostility between Iranians and Arabs, between Hezbollah and Hamas, between Shiites and Sunnis: all that is trivial compared to the power of a man in black robe who shouts generic jihadist phrases.
Ultimately this isn’t a spy thriller or a story of political intrigue: it’s Left Behind for a new generation, meant to broadcast a particular view of the world to a mass audience, and it’s just as narrow-minded, partisan, arrogant, and fearmongering. It stands apart for having a far more interesting premise and being somewhat better done than the Jenkins-LaHaye novels. It still manages to be entertaining, for all tis weaknesses, because the back cover refers to Rush Limbaugh as a “leader”.
For what it’s worth, I’ve also read the sequel, The Tehran Initiative, which is mildly better but still has absurd situations like Satan worrying if his cellphone is secure. Yes, really.