The template for this work of creative nonfiction was set in the 1960’s and 1970’s by the original “gonzo” journalist, Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson’s achievement (some detest his work) was to recognize that the process of getting the story was often more interesting than the story itself. Thus, in The Hell’s Angels (1966), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972), Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973), The Great Shark Hunt (1979), and many other works, Thompson creates the “Hunter S. Thompson” persona, a bad-boy kamikazi journalist: drug-eater, globe-trotter, gun- lover, alcoholic crazy. For many, Thompson is a “twisted” latter-day Holden Caulfield, evoker of a sensibility and Zeitgeist appropriate to a brutal, corporatized, big-government world. That Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip immortalized this character in the person of “Uncle Duke” only deepened the gonzo mentality in a new generation.
In Jon Ronson’s case, the object of investigation is not horse racing, Harley-Davidson rollers, Big Sur scenes of ecstasy and New Age philosophy, professional football, Haight-Ashbury, corrupt banana republics, or LSD theologians. In many ways he stalks the cultural opposites of these: preachers, mullahs, and utopians who call for an Islamic Britain, a Christian America, a white civilization, or a society free from the control of globalists, the United Nations, and the Elders of Zion. Purification and repristinization are the themes here. So that readers will not have to do this themselves, Ronson throws himself into situations where the most extreme extremists operate. While he finds a great many scary things, on the whole his “infiltration” of such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan, Al Muhajiroun (a British jihad group), Aryan Nations, and Ian Paisley’s organization in Northern Ireland produces an exposé of their comic and absurd sides. Though some of the book appeared first as articles in The Guardian Weekend Magazine, Them has a distinct plot line, centering on Ronson’s picaresque journey to a modern heart-of-dark- green-ness, the site of the Bilderberg Group’s “grotesque” rituals in a forest not far from Santa Rosa, California.
Ronson’s method is revealed in the way he orders his thirteen profiles, studies, and “adventures.” The long first piece, “A Semi-Detached Ayatollah,” deals with the outlandish Omar Bakri Mohammed, a Saudi follower of Osama bin Laden, who declares holy war on Britain at the same time that he is receiving welfare payments and applying for citizenship. With an insatiable appetite for publicity, Omar allows Ronson to observe him close up, as he gathers funds (in six large novelty Coca-Cola collection bottles) for Hezbollah and Hamas; explains in Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park his “post-Jihad vision for the U.K.”; denounces Christmas decorations, homosexuals, store-window dummies, and pictures of women’s legs on pantyhose packaging; and organizes for a huge rally of Muslims, one that he knows will not succeed but whose failure he can blame on the government.
Ronson is culturally Jewish, something he finally reveals to Omar Bakri in an unlikely setting: a Jihad Training Camp in Sussex. The Arab’s response is interesting. “I am not offended that you are a Jew,” he offers. “We are all Semites. If you were Israeli, if you were a Zionist, that is a different matter. But what offends me is that you hide it. You assimilate. That you have no pride.” When Ronson objects, Omar responds: “Assimilation . . . . Integration. That is the worst thing of all. Be a Jew!” They remain “friends,” even after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which Omar publically lauded. Before that, however, Omar’s telephone number appeared on a poster whose text included the words: “The final hour will not come until the Muslims kill the Jews.” When Ronson challenges him about this, Omar claims that the posters are another attempt to frame him. He also remarks on how funny he found a recent article Ronson had written about him. The reader cannot help recalling the fact that when Omar is tired or nervous he watches the Disney movie The Lion King (1994), hardly a product of Islamic culture. This is, at the very least, a very postmodern mullah.
Them’s conclusions are all present in this comic, if threatening portrait. The extremists Ronson encounters are concerned with cultural purity, but not when they have to practice it themselves; wholly unperturbed by logical contradiction; blissfully impervious to evidence that challenges their worldview; keen on cashing in on their notoriety; and delighted in the way their conspiratorial interpretation of things simplifies the world for them while also making it more interesting.
Chapter 2, “Running Through...
(The entire section is 1987 words.)