Friday, September 3, 2010

A View from Randy Singer's Window - Fatal Convictions

It's a great pleasure to welcome Randy Singer to my Window to discuss his latest book, Fatal Convictions. This book gave me lots to think about, and I was so pleased to be able to ask this incredible author about some of the topics in his latest book! Islam and Christianity placed side by side in the courtroom raises lots of possibilities - and it gives all of us a chance to look at our attitudes and our judgments and whether or not they are fair or biased.

I hope you'll give Randy a warm welcome as we explore a very timely and controversial story. Open your heart and be prepared to receive a blessing!

Where was the idea for Fatal Convictions born?

My idea for the book came when I asked this question: What makes To Kill A Mockingbird the best legal thriller of all time? My answer: Because Atticus Finch performed the highest duty of a lawyer, representing a man he believed was innocent, a man nobody else would defend. Then I asked a related question: What would that look like today? My answer was Fatal Convictions. A Christian lawyer defending a Muslim imam accused of honor killings?

What research was required for you to accurately portray the Muslim faith?

It was very important for me to portray Muslims authentically and accurately in this book. It was also important to show some of the diversity in the Muslim faith.

Thus, the imam whom Alex defends is an ardent reformer (or at least he appears to be). For the nuances of this character, I relied heavily on the Islamic reformers portrayed in Joel Rosenberg’s excellent book Inside the Revolution. But there’s also a main character in Fatal Convictions named Hassan Ibn Talib, who is a committed Islamic radical. To portray Hassan accurately, I spent time with Kamal Saleem, a former Islamic terrorist and probably the most intense man I’ve ever met. With Kamal’s permission, I patterned the childhood, terrorist training and spiritual beliefs of my character after Kamal. In addition to this type of research, I’ve also spent time in Beirut, Lebanon, visiting my daughter who worked there with a ministry organization.

Why did you choose to make Alex Maddison’s faith so anemic and place it squarely in the midst of such strong Muslim leaders?

I’m not sure I would characterize Alex’s faith as “anemic.” I would agree that Alex is less certain about things than his Muslim counterparts. Alex is on a journey, one assuaged by doubts—doubts about his destiny, doubts about what he should do with his life, and doubts about his faith. The two main Muslim characters—Khalid Mobassar (the imam) and Hassan Ibn Talib—are more unwavering in what they believe.

I did this for three reasons. First, Alex is at a different point in his journey than either Khalid or Hassan. Khalid’s defining moment was losing his second son who died while fighting for a terrorist organization. This makes Khalid (the imam) a determined reformer. Hassan’s beliefs as an Islamic radical were cemented during by his own severe trauma (don’t want to give spoilers) and upbringing. Alex, on the other hand, is forging his beliefs through the conflict in this story. This book is really Alex’s story. The challenges here are the greatest challenges he’ll ever face—both to his faith and to his sense of identity. He wavers in the face of those challenges, but ultimately faces them and discovers an identity and faith that is solid.

Second, I did this because I wanted to illustrate the difference between the Christian faith—where we acknowledge we are on a journey and that grace covers our weaknesses and failures—versus the Islamic faith where passion, devotion and duty are the paths to favor with God. If Alex was perfect, or even “stronger” in his faith than his Muslim counterparts, it could send an unintended message that as Christians, the issue is how well we “measure up” to other faiths in our own power. In fact, the issue is just the opposite. We are all saved not by our own merit or strength, but purely by the grace of God through the sacrifice of Christ.

Third, I think it’s more realistic to show Alex (even as a pastor) struggling with doubt than facing these challenges with total conviction. Tim Keller said, “A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about what they believe and why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.”

I think Keller is right and I think I would do a disservice if I constructed Christian characters in my books who were not wrestling with some doubts or fears or other weaknesses. Granted, Alex had more doubts than most pastors, but he kept moving forward in spite of the doubts, which to me is the definition of courage.

Do you think Christians as a whole treat Muslim people with discriminatory attitudes? Why or why not?

I object to the form of the question, Your Honor. (Just kidding, you’re asking tremendously insightful questions). But it is hard for me to characterize “Christians as a whole” and their attitude toward Muslims. One of the points I was trying to make in Fatal Convictions is that not all Muslims are the same. There are reformers and radicals, Shi’ites and Sunnis, etc. Some Christians fail to appreciate these distinctions. But I don’t want to be guilty of the same thing by making assumptions about what Christians “as a whole” might do or think. The Christian faith is wonderfully diverse and multi-faceted, bound together by our core beliefs and faith in Christ. But Christians in India, who are often facing persecution at the hands of Hindus, would have a very different view of Muslims (who are often persecuted along with the Christians) than we have here in the U.S.

Having said all that, I do not think a majority of people here in the U.S. treat Muslims with a discriminatory attitude. Instead, the majority of Americans get it right. A recent Time magazine poll showed that, while a majority of Americans objected to the mosque at Ground Zero, a majority also said it would be okay to build a mosque in their neighborhood. In other words, we aren’t against all mosques, just one being built so close to the place where thousands lost their lives at the hand of Muslim extremists. This doesn’t mean we agree with or embrace the Muslim faith in our neighborhoods, but we do recognize the right of Muslims to build a mosque there just like we would allow a church or synagogue to be built there.

Was there a particular reason none of your Christian characters shared the gospel with your Muslim characters?

Great question. And I know that you’ve read several of my other books and know that sometimes my Christian characters will explicitly share the Gospel (and I incorporate it as part of the story) and sometimes not. I never want it to feel “tacked on” because then it comes across as formulaic or preachy and jerks the reader out of the story. Instead, what I was trying to do in Fatal Convictions was two-fold: (1) illustrate the difference between a religion based on grace and one based on duty; and (2) give an example of a committed advocate (Alex) as a picture of the way Christ advocates for us.

There are many scenes where I explicitly address these themes, but one stands out. You will recall that one chapter contains almost an entire sermon by Alex, when his church is getting ready to fire him because he is representing this Muslim imam. He preaches out of John Chapter 8--the story of Christ defending the woman caught in adultery. The imam’s daughter is at church that day and she discusses the message afterward with Alex. Here are a few excerpts from that message:

“Perhaps this is a reminder to all of us that we should be slow to judge and that every sin—even our own sin—is an affront to a holy God.”

“…we ought to pay careful attention to a story that is so poignant that the early church fathers couldn’t quite embrace its radical message of mercy and forgiveness. Maybe they had forgotten that Christ’s entire message was based on God’s willingness to forgive our sins, not just one time, but for all time. There is no better picture of forgiveness than this story.”

[Alex explains that he thinks the imam is innocent. But then, he says, even if the imam is guilty, he would still represent him.] “Did Christ make you prove your innocence before he died for your sins? If this story about the woman caught in adultery stands for anything, it stands for the proposition that we are never more like Jesus than when we’re defending those persons who have been rejected by everyone else. This is a story about grace. This is a story about forgiveness…”

This novel reveals a great deal about U.S. terrorist tracking policies. The Patriot Act, the Penn Register…I am let to believe these are not fictional creations. Do you feel the U.S. has stepped into the role of “Big Brother” with some of these policies or do terrorist groups like the Hezbollah such policies necessary?

You are absolutely right, these are not fictional creations. My main purpose was to ask readers the very question you just put to me: Does our national security justify the government taking on the role of big brother? I personally believe that some of our anti-terrorist activities paint with too broad of a brush and do not involve the courts early enough in the process. But this is a matter of opinion because it is clearly a balancing act: national security vs. our coveted freedoms. Wouldn’t it be ironic (and sad) if we gave up so much of our freedom that the terrorists’ goals (to destroy our way of life) are accomplished because we voluntarily give up our freedoms in our efforts to protect ourselves?

Do you think the Muslim faith has been “hijacked” by terrorists because of the Quran’s teachings of complete intolerance of “infidels” of other faiths?

I tried to show in Fatal Convictions that the Quran can be interpreted in a number of different ways. Anybody who says there is no support for the radicals in the Quran needs to read the book. But there are also a large number of moderate Muslims who see concepts like Jihad as spiritual struggles rather than a literal call to arms and physical dominion. But what has happened is that radicals get all of the attention, both because they pose a great threat and because they feed media attention. This is not just true of Islam. We see the same thing happen with Christianity. How much press ink has been wasted on Fred Phelps and his small church, just because they are outrageous and do things like protest military funerals with signs that say “Thank God for dead soldiers”?

Khalid Mobassar is portrayed as a sort of peacemaker for the Muslim faith. While the U.S. promotes freedom of religion, do you think the Muslim faith has been unfairly targeted by radical terrorists?

Tough question. I really don’t think the Muslim faith has been unfairly “targeted” by radical terrorists. I think some strands of the Muslim faith breed radical terrorists. There is a big difference. I don’t believe the radicals are political terrorists first who are just looking for a religion where they might find some support and solace. As I tried to illustrate with Hassan in the book, men like him become radical because of the religious instructions they have received under radical imams or sometimes through their own parents. In other words, this distorted view of the Muslim faith molds them into terrorists; their motivation is largely spiritual (in terms of advancing the faith through conquest) rather than political (allegiance to a certain country). This makes them far more dangerous.

Does the U.S. policy of freedom of religion leave the door wide open for terrorist sects of Muslims to enter our country? How do we find a balance between discrimination, fear and ignorance so that this faith is not unfairly targeted?

All of our freedoms make it hard to combat terrorists but this is the price we pay. But you are right, freedom of religion especially plays into this. I mentioned that I interviewed Kamal Saleem for this book. His biography, The Blood of Lambs, provides shocking and fascinating insights about how the Muslim Brotherhood has attempted to infiltrate America and provide a base for defeating the country from within.

Now, on the other hand (there is always an “other hand” with lawyers), we must remember that freedom of religion is only as strong as the protection it affords to the most despised and vulnerable faith. If we allow freedom of religion to erode at the margin, it won’t be long before Christians see our own faith under attack. In some ways, with respect to the freedom to evangelize, it already is.

What is the greatest take-away value you hope readers will find within the pages of Fatal Convictions?

Can I give a few hoped-for take-aways? One, a better understanding of the Islamic faith. Two, a better understanding of why a lawyer might represent a person that the public has already condemned as guilty. And three, the differences between Islam and Christianity.

What are you working on now? A sneak peek at your next project?

My next book is entitled The Last Plea Bargain. In it, I will shine on a light on the wheeling and dealing that dominates our criminal justice system.

Most people don’t realize that 95% of the criminal cases in our country are disposed of by plea bargains. This book asks the question: What if the defendants in a certain jurisdiction banded together and decided not to plea bargain, insisting on a full jury trial for every case? It would overwhelm the system. There wouldn’t be enough prosecutors or public defenders or available court dates. Even the defendants who lost would be able to claim ineffective assistance of counsel or the lack of a speedy trial on appeal.

The Last Plea Bargain is a sequel to False Witness and continues the story of Jamie Brock, a young prosecutor. Because Jamie’s own mother was killed in a violent home invasion, Jamie takes every case personally. Unlike other prosecutors, she refuses to even consider plea bargains. And she has a longstanding personal vendetta against defense attorney Bosworth Tate, the man who represented Jamie’s mother’s killer.

When Tate is arrested for allegedly poisoning his wife, Jamie talks the district attorney into allowing her to handle the case. But when he is confined to jail, Tate rallies the other inmates and they all begin rejected plea bargains. Those who don’t are punished or killed by their fellow inmates. Snitches who cut a plea and get released are killed on the streets. Fear causes other would-be-snitches to clam up. And the criminal justice system grinds to a halt.

There is one way to break the logjam. But for Jamie Brock, it would violate every ideal that has governed her young career. To convict the devil, sometimes you’ve got to cut a deal with a few of his demons.

Or do you?

What have you learned personally about your own faith as you have researched and written in depth about the Muslim faith?

I thank God that my faith doesn’t require me to earn my way to heaven because that is impossible. At the same time, I’ve also been convicted by how devout and passionate many Muslims are about prayer. I need more passion in my own prayer life. And also, I admire how most Muslims care more about following their faith than what others think about them. We can learn from that boldness.

On the other hand, it is tragic that Muslims cannot see the truth about Christ. He wasn’t just a prophet, as they believe, but the very son of God. He was crucified and rose again on the third day. Muslims do not believe that Christ died on the cross and therefore they are blinded to the path of eternal life through faith in Christ. It is heartbreaking to see people committed to trying to follow God miss the one and only path to a personal relationship with Him.

Closing words of encouragement you’d like to share with your readers?

Maybe an appropriate place to end would be with the last two paragraphs from my acknowledgements page:

This book is the story of an advocate who stands up for a client when, from all appearances, the man should be condemned. Come to think of it, that’s the story of my life.

“But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate who pleads our case before the Father. He is Jesus Christ, the one who is truly righteous. He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only for our sins but the sins of all the world.” 1 John 2:1-2.

1 comment:

Mocha with Linda said...

Wonderful interview. Loved this book.