Michael Arad's winning design for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum was controversial. It threw out one of the competition's stipulations: the master plan had called for the voids left by the towers to be overhung by surrounding buildings but Arad chose instead to surround them with an artificial forest. The project's cost threatened to exceed $900 million. There have been disagreements about whether the rank as well as the names of rescue workers who lost their lives should be recorded on the memorial. More recently, an argument flared up over whether the design should include a 17-foot steel cross made from two girders that were found thus arranged in the wreckage. The girders had been embraced as a symbol by Christian groups following the attack, but atheist groups and other denominations were predictably less keen.If these points of friction sound fairly mild, imagine how things might have been if a Muslim had somehow won the competition. Imagine if his proposal was found to reference Quranic descriptions of paradise. There would have been quite a fuss, wouldn't there? It would have been like the Ground Zero Mosque thing, only worse, wouldn't it? This is the conclusion a moment's reflection furnishes, and it is corroborated in The Submission, the bustling debut novel by Amy Waldman, a former chief at the New York Times South Asia bureau, now a correspondent for The Atlantic.
In Waldman's not enormously alternative history of the post-9/11 era, the memorial competition requires submissions to be anonymous. That's how Mo ("as in '-hammad'", quips the blurb) Khan, a Muslimish American with Indian parents, slips through the net. It's 2003. The prize panel comprises society types, establishment artists and one glamorous widow there to represent the wishes of the grieving families, just like on the real competition jury. The widow, Claire Harwell, latches on to Khan's design - a walled garden divided into quarters by canals "shining like crossed swords", with an assortment of real and steel trees filling in the squares. She uses all the moral authority of her bereavement to shame the other jurors into backing her selection. Only when the vote has gone through is Mohammad's identity revealed, to the shock of the panel.They try to sit on the result, but someone leaks it to the press, and from there an assortment of hypnotic talk-show hosts and bloggers stir up outrage at the possibility that a Muslim might design a monument to the American victims of Islamist terror. These are inexorable forces: one of Waldman's more developed minor characters is a terrier-like journalist who seems to exist solely to dramatise the tabloids' "secular lust" for scandal. Thus the title is revealed as a triple entendre, connoting submission to the machinations of fate along with more obvious plays on Mo's competition entry and the meaning of the word "Islam". Amid a faithful simulation of the city getting hot under the collar about Muslims all over again - scurrilous Post headlines, right-on parties with Rosie O'Donnell and Sean Penn, stern New Yorker editorials that strike Mo "like being called shifty by a roomful of people he had thought were his friends" - the major protagonists spend the rest of the novel agonising over what it is they Really Stand For.
Claire convinces herself early on that her dead husband, a handsomely funded and liberally inclined soul, would have backed Mo to the hilt; she also has the "gilded blankness" of the rest of her life to postpone, which adds a note of arbitrariness to her stand. Paul Rubin, a retired investment banker now chairing the jury, attempts to balance his instinct for political trimming with his respect for process. Towards the other end of the social spectrum, an aimless cut-up named Sean Gallagher mourns the death of his brother and works out his own feelings of inadequacy by stirring up an anti-Islamic rabble.
From / The National