Two things happened to me the same day, just the other day. The first was that I sat down with a nice hot cup of "shut the fuck up" and said nothing about it, all day, the day that my hometown held the first-in-the-nation Welcome Home parade for the army that invaded Iraq. The second was that I saw a preview on one of the blogs I read of Matt Ruff's novel that is going to come out on Tuesday, The Mirage, and after reading that, even more so on the day I was stewing over the Iraq War sorry-you-didn't-win "victory" parade, I actually yelled at the screen while stabbing the pre-order button on Amazon, "Shut up and take my money!"
Re-reading the book blurb, I can see already that Matt Ruff didn't do the same bit of world-building that I've been doing in my head ever since 2003; had I the work ethic to type out a book-length novel and the dialog-writing and characterization skills to sell one, I would have written a book much like The Mirage myself. You see, on a regular basis, over and over again since 2003, I've been utterly failing to get people to take seriously the question, "How would you like it if it happened to you?"
Matt Ruff's novel takes place, apparently, in an alternate timeline where the US of A either doesn't exist, or at the very least never mattered to history; it's a backwater place full of savages, has been for a very long time. But somehow the various Islamic states of the middle east formed a United Arab States that became a globe-spanning, democratic, financial and military powerhouse. And in that timeline, on September 11th, 2001, Christian terrorists from north America fly airplanes into the Twin Towers in Baghdad, and the UAS invades north America to round up the anti-Arab terrorists and bring them, and any government officials that shielded or helped them, to justice, and to set up a friendlier, more reliably anti-terrorist, government. The complicating factor ends up being that at least one of the terrorist leaders is from our timeline: he has brought with him a copy of our timeline's New York Times for September 12th, 2001.
Well, even though Matt Ruff says that this isn't just a Mirror Universe, that it isn't just a world where for no explicable reason everybody's the opposite of who they are in our world, that he has a timeline constructed to make it turn out the way it did, that Ruff calls his world superpower the United Arab States tells me that he didn't do his world-building the way I would have. So, for those of you who have the patience to read it, and for my own amusement, here's how I would have done it:
Start in the early 1860s. Foreign governments see the advantage of balkanizing north America and join Great Britain in breaking the Union blockade of the Confederacy; European powers continue to ship money and arms to both sides in order to drag the war on as long as possible. As a result, as refugees from the conflict spread west, they end up setting up several more countries, including a fully independent Republic of Texas and eventually a Kingdom of Desseret. Constant sectarian and territorial wars fritter away what resource and geographic advantages north America has; it never amounts to anything.
As a result, when the Great War breaks out in Europe, various American states either stay out or cancel each other out, and the Great European War drags on even longer. But imagine that the Ottoman Empire drops out earliest. Absent the rise of fascism that came out of the Great Depression, when the Young Turks overthrow the last caliphate, instead of turning to fascism, they anticipate Lt. Mustafa by a decade or more and Turkey becomes a prosperous, anti-sectarian, tolerant, free market capitalist nation. Maybe they even create a parliamentary democracy, still honoring a Caliph who stays out of politics and leaves the governance to (say) a bicameral shura; maybe they find some other way out of having a hereditary absolute monarchy screwing up and dragging the empire into inter-ethnic, inter-sectarian warfare like every previous caliphate did. However they do it, you end up with a permanent, prosperous, stable United Islamic Caliphate, one as ecumenical and tolerant and prosperous as Baghdad under Harun al Rashid or the Moghul Empire or the empire of Mali back when Timbuktu was the richest city in the world, only stable. And they have all the mineral resources of Arabia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey, and all the agricultural wealth of Egypt, and they stand astride the global economy like a Colossus.
Sure, they have some kind of border war or cold war with the Russian Empire on their border. And sure, they have to worry about the various Christian inter-ethnic or inter-sectarian squabbles of Europe spilling over into the Caliphate, not least of which because if there is a cold war, both the Caliphate and the Russian Empire are backing various puppet states and proxy rebellions in Europe. The Caliphate has to worry about Hindu separatists in occupied India, and both Russia and Turkey worry a lot about China, or about the Japanese Empire if they were allowed to conquer China, whatever. But nobody much gives a rat's hindquarters about north America. It's that backwater state where, say, a nominally pro-Empire United States sells the drilling rights to the west Pennsylvania oil fields to the Russians and where the Republic of Texas, afraid of Russian dabbling in North America, sells its oil to the Caliphate. But any time there's any talk of permanent American Union, or even of economic cooperation that could result in Americans setting up their own industrial production (even though "everybody knows" that all Americans are good at is resource extraction and some farming and fighting among themselves), the Empire and the Caliphate and whoever rules east Asia all back one or more ethnic or religious militias in tearing the whole thing down.
So, you live in north America; depending on where you live, you live in one of (let's say) a dozen countries, plus or minus three. You live the way your 19th century ancestors did, without any of the modern 21st century conveniences that the Muslims have, although local rich people do import cars and the cell phone service is improving. Frankly, after a century and a half of mostly constant war, and after a century and a half of the great powers setting up pliant corrupt local dictatorships to keep your wages down and to make sure that the local resources all go overseas, to modern, successful economies that need them, where you live is probably a hellhole, and you've got very little loyalty to the local warlord and even less loyalty to the nearest President or King or Prophet. Maybe, after seeing what successes the Muslim governments have had, you wish you had one, too. Probably not, you are a loyal American. But still, sometimes you wonder, and you probably have heard of at least one story of your local government harassing someone who used their imported cell phone or, if they were privileged, imported laptop computer, to post pro-Islamic propaganda, and when you heard out that pro-Islamic-freedom blogger or micro-blogger got treated, when you find out what the local government did to their family and friends because of it, you at least winced in sympathy.
But on September 11th, a handful of Christian terrorists, convinced that everything that's gone wrong since the Great European War is somehow the Muslims' fault, have hijacked airplanes in the Caliphate and flown them into the Twin Towers in, well, we can use Matt Ruff's example, Baghdad, and into the main military headquarters of the Caliphate in Istanbul, plus one that failed to reach its target and went down somewhere in central Turkey. Then you heard on the news that the current President of the Caliphate, a draft-dodger during the last war between the Caliphate and the Russian Empire, with a personal grudge against Americans, has declared that several American countries, including yours, harbor anti-Arab terrorist networks that are seeking biological and nuclear weapons in order to destroy the Caliphate. You look around you, at local industry, at a local economy still barely out of the 19th century, and you think that's bullshit. But you aren't all that fond of your local government, so you don't know what to do or say when the Muslims bomb the crap out of your local capital ... although, pick at least one friend or family member of yours that lives or works in the largest city in your region, the city that would be your local capital; that person dies in the bombing.
After the Muslims have bombed the crap out of every major city, once you're living in the basement of the ruins of your house or in a tent in a refugee camp where, say, the nearest state or national park to you is now, get used to it. You won't have clean water, working sewage disposal, reliable heat in the winter, or any air conditioning in the summer, not for years, probably not for decades. Maybe where you end up is so rural that you never even see a Caliphate soldier. More likely, most of you live in cities where the Caliphate is still fighting against dead-enders from the previous government. All you know is that about 1 out of ever 50 people you know, that you're related to, or that you remember are dead in some way that can be blamed on the invaders.
And you still hear news, on your cell phone or radio or TV when they work, that at least some senators and governors who are running for President of the United Islamic Caliphate talk openly about how it's not a coincidence that all of the 9/11 conspirators were Christian. You know that many of the Caliphate's politicians, and nearly all of its soldiers, consider Christianity an inherently pro-terrorist religion. The pro-Caliphate puppet government, made up mostly of former drug dealers and tax cheats and ethnic gangsters who welcomed the invaders, swears up and down, as do the Caliphate generals assigned to the task of setting up a stable, anti-terrorist, modern government in your part of America, that they recognize Christianity as an Abrahamic faith, that they know that not all Christians are terrorists. But it sure looks more and more like at least some of them intend to stamp out Christianity and set up an Islamic government.
That's the setting I would have told my story in, if I wanted you to understand why I gritted my teeth and shut the hell up on Welcome Home day for the Americans who invaded Iraq.