Since 9/11 and the onset of the War on Terror, there has been a surge of literary interest in Islam. Non-Muslim British writers including Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Sebastian Faulks, and now-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson fictionalized the sensational topic of violent extremism.
By contrast, authors of Muslim heritage often examined Islam in subtler ways and from the inside. Until recently, Muslim writers tended to be more interested in everyday life than the aberrant subject of terrorism.
Now two novels have been published by authors from Muslim backgrounds that deal with terror from the standpoint of this complex and violent second decade of the twenty-first century.
Tariq Mehmood and Tabish Khair were both born in South Asia (Mehmood in Pakistan and Khair in India) to Muslim parents. Mehmood came to live in the UK as a child and now resides in Beirut. Khair moved to Denmark as a young adult to start his academic career and is currently an associate professor at Aarhus University. Both have also worked as journalists, Mehmood for the Frontier Post in Peshawar, and Khair for the Times of India. Finally, they are both associated with leftist politics.
As well as sharing some biographical similarities, their novels have certain common features. Both are intelligent thrillers written in the first person that partly unfold in northern England. The settings are Bradford, Shipley, and Manchester in Mehmood's Song of Gulzarina, and an unnamed West Yorkshire city in Khair's Just Another Jihadi Jane. These authors also have sharp ears for local language use, with Khair's characters ambling through ginnels and into back-to-backs and Mehmood precisely capturing the rhythms of Yorkshire and Lancashire speech.
Yet it is impossible to contain such multilingual, well-read, and politically astute fiction within solely British locales. Saleem, the protagonist of Song of Gulzarina, repeatedly returns to his Pakistani home village. During one of Afghanistan's never-ending wars he briefly disappears over the border, where he witnesses a bomb attack. Khair gets behind the headlines to chart the experiences of two 'Jihadi Janes' who end up in Syria working at an orphanage run by IS or Daesh.
As this suggests, both writers keep a close eye on the news and recent history. Mehmood chillingly fictionalizes the 1988 Ojhri Camp disaster, when an Afghan mujahideen ammunition cache exploded in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, killing almost 100 people. Khair draws on the case of four teenage schoolgirls who left their homes in Bethnal Green to go to Syria and marry Daesh fighters. His Yorkshire-born female characters are a little older but, like their real-world London counterparts, they turn a healthy scepticism about news reporting into a naïve view that 'the Western media had exaggerated the villainy of Daesh'.
The novels present unusual jihadis, set askew from the simplistic portrayals of writers like Martin Amis and John Updike. The latter are preoccupied with a clichéd terrorist pathology of young, death-obsessed men with a scientific or engineering mindset. By contrast, Khair's protagonist Jamilla turns to Islam since she feels 'an oddity or monster' in Britain 'because of her faith'. Mehmood presents us with an atheist Pakistani who, as an old man, decides to become a suicide bomber in Britain to avenge a NATO attack that killed his cousin's son back home.
Khair and Mehmood make it clear that racism and Islamophobia contribute significantly to these characters' actions. Khair writes about the many 'who stared, or muttered, or commented' on Jamilla's covered head. Just Another Jihadi Jane also describes other white British people who make a genuine effort to understand the girl's religious worldview. Mehmood is unswerving in his depiction of the racism that existed in Yorkshire mills in the 1970s as well as today's virulent Islamophobia. After 9/11, a neighbour slams the door on Song of Gulzarina's Saleem with the words, 'When are you lot going to bomb us then, eh?' Despite the humiliation he suffers at the hands of many white Britons and his eviscerating hatred for Tony Blair, Saleem maintains a lifelong love for Carol, the daughter of his racist employer.
These points of overlap should not be inflated, for there are also many differences between the two. Mehmood's novel is polemical and full of black humour, while Khair's is quieter and more emollient in tone. Towards the end of Just Another Jihadi Jane, Jamilla announces, 'I have come to live with doubt, to welcome doubt as a condition of life and faith'. By contrast, to stiffen his resolve for the planned suicide attack, Saleem half-remembers the Doors' song 'Riders on the Storm', 'There's a killer on the road, his brain is squirmy like a toad. If you give this man a ride, sweet memory will die'.
Earlier Muslim novels - including others by these two writers − rightly challenged stereotypes and fictionalized quotidian realities. But terror, both state-sponsored and the work of violent extremists, exists and has to be confronted. These are two of the most textured novels I have read about such violence.