So often it's cast as "us against them," a battle of cultures, West versus East, or even a "crusade," with all that word's loaded implications. For several reasons, Tahar Djaout's novel The Last Summer of Reason demonstrates the error of using such thinking when it comes to radical Islamists. In fact, it shows that the impact of and battle against fundamentalism is far from us versus them.
The Last Summer of Reason examines life from the viewpoint of Boualem Yekker, a bookseller in a republic modeled after Djaut's Algeria. Taliban-like fundamentalists called the "Vigilant Brotherhood" now control the government and the state. "Some men, citing divine will and legitimacy, decided to shape the world in the image of their dream and their madness," Boualem says. "Many citizens discovered that God could reveal a grisly face." The V.B.s have renamed the republic "the Community in the Faith." Its members "act as if they are in a new kind of western at which they play at collecting as many scalps of heathens and offenders of the laws of God as possible." Weather reports disappear because "how can one argue and quibble over patterns known only to God?"
Despite the resemblance to the Taliban, Djaout was writing amidst a civil war in the early 1990s between Algeria's military government and radical Islamists. He was murdered by an Islamic fundamentalist group in 1993. The unedited manuscript of The Last Summer of Reason was found among his papers after his death. It was published without editorial change, leaving modern readers to wonder if he would have elaborated on the tale rather than leave it as a slim, almost vignette-like phillipic.
First published posthumously in French, the language in which it was written, in 1999, the book made its first U.S. appearance in January 2001. While it, of course, drew more attention with the advent of September 11, 2001, the book demonstrates the serious concern that existed among secular or mainstream Muslims about radical Islamists more than a decade ago. Yet it also shows seeming prescience on Djaout's part. Although the Taliban did not take control of the Afghan government until three years after Djaout's death, the book resounds more now because of them. He even describes V.B. members manning roadblocks as being "rigged out like Afghan warriors" and that some of the clothing worn by V.B. members being called "Afghans," reflecting that the mujahideen forces battling the Soviets in Afghanistan were grabbing the attention of the Muslim world.
The Last Summer of Reason unquestionably tends toward polemics at times. Still, Djaout's skills as a poet, novelist and journalist give us a pitiable yet endearing character who sees and experiences firsthand a variety of the ramifications of fundamentalist government - restrictions on women, conversion of the education system into a vehicle to inculcate the young, the societal peer pressure to agree or at least conform, and a description of a demonstration that seems to take you in with the crowds.