Radical Islamism and Frank Herbert’s Dune:

WARNING: This post contains spoilers for Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune.

Frank Herbert’s Dune is one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time. And, as famed sci fi writer Orson Scott Card points out, there are many parallels between the plot of Dune and the rise of radical Islamism in the real world:

There was considerable irony in Dune’s use of Arabic culture and language as the explicit basis of the “Fremen,” the desert dwellers who become the source of Paul Atreides power and, when he unleashes them, the scourge of the universe.

Herbert traces the roots of Fremen culture from world to world, and makes it clear that, while the specifics of Islamic belief are never laid out, the customs and culture of these people have been Muslim all along . . .

The emotional core of the novel, then, comes from a T.E. Lawrence-like character, Paul Atreides, coming to dwell with and learning to live as an Arab Muslim, until he is able to lead them to victorious battle.

Paul, being a non-Muslim, treats the idea of jihad as an abhorrent one; he long tries to resist the blood and horror of such a thing, though by the end of the book he has given up and realizes that the jihad will happen and cannot be prevented or even controlled…..

[A] Muslim would not read this book the same way I did. To an Arab Muslim, the Arabic words and names would leap off the page; the Fremen characters would be the ones an Arab reader would most identify with…..

And when, at the end of the book, the Arab jihad is triumphant, this reader — [if like] Osama or another of his ideology — would not only feel great emotional satisfaction, he would have the blueprint for his own future.

Because the Fremen in Dune triumph, not just because of the force of their arms or their courage in battle, but because they control the only source of the “Spice,” a substance only created in the complex desert ecology of Arrakis, the planet they control. Without Spice the starships cannot navigate, and interstellar trade would grind to a halt.

The whole economy of the interstellar empire is dependent on and therefore under the ultimate control of the Fremen. Anything the offworlders do to them will hurt the offworlders far more than it hurts the Fremen. The parallel with oil is obvious…..

Remember that Herbert wrote Dune in the 1960s, before the first oil embargo, before any Islamist government was ever formed.

Whether Dune had any causal influence on the rise of Al Qaeda, Herbert certainly did a superb job of predicting the rise and the power of such an ideology. I would be surprised if there were not, among the followers of Osama bin Laden, at least a few readers of Dune for whom this book feels like their future, their identity, their dream.

In other words, Herbert got it horribly right.

Unlike Card, I highly doubt that Dune played any role in influencing Osama Bin Laden or his followers. However, Card is right to note the striking parallels between the jihad in Dune and the later rise of radical Islamism in our world. The parallels are imperfect (e.g. – Dune is the only source of “the Spice,” while in our world there are many non-Arab oil producers). But they are there nonetheless.

This leads me to another interesting aspect of Dune: at first reading, many readers (myself included) fail to pick up on the fact that the victory of Paul and the Fremen is a tragedy, not a happy ending. Although they succeed in overthrowing the evil Harkonnens and the corrupt Empire, it is only at the cost of unleashing a religious war that will kill billions. The point is made more clear in the later (and inferior) sequel Dune Messiah (where Herbert notes that Paul’s victory has resulted in the slaughter of many more innocent people than the Holocaust). But it is evident on a close reading of Dune itself as well.

The mistake is understandable. Paul and his Fremen allies are brave and sympathetic, while their enemies have few if any virtues. Nonetheless, the Fremen victory ultimately creates far more evil than it prevents. The danger of religious fanaticism and hero worship was in fact one of the themes that Herbert sought to emphasize in Dune. These days, when I reread Dune, I can’t help but sympathize just a little with the Emperor, or even the Baron Harkonnen:).

UPDATE: There is one other interesting parallel between the Fremen religion in Dune and the ideology of radical Islamism. While the Fremen think of their religion as god-given, in actuality much of its content was deliberately manipulated by the Bene Gesserit (a powerful political organization in the Dune Universe) for their own purposes. Similarly, as I discussed here, many elements of the radical Islamist ideology can be traced back to European fascist origins, and their rise was partly facilitated by the propaganda efforts of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in the 1930s and 40s.