Tabish Khair has a knack for picking the most search-engine optimised titles for his books. They tap directly into whatever aspect of Muslim life most morbidly fascinates us at the moment. In 2012, a year after Osama Bin Laden was killed, he published How To Fight Islamist Terror From The Missionary Position; early this year, as Syrian refugees continued to pour into Europe, he released The New Xenophobia; and now, as ISIS has successfully branded itself the nightmare of our times, he explores the lives of its young, first-world recruits in Jihadi Jane. (Some of his academic work have irresistible titles too. Transnational and Postcolonial Vampires, anyone?) While there have been stories delving deep into the phenomenon of disaffected second-generation immigrants finding solace in radical religion, like Hanif Kureishi’s My Son The Fanatic or Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Khair brings in a different perspective, that of relatively privileged women drawn to be jihadi brides.
“Given the pressures on my time, when I start a novel, it has to be about something that grabs me very strongly. Something I cannot help thinking—and hence writing—about,” says Khair, whose day job is associate professor of the English department of Aarhus University in Denmark. Reports of blandly regular women from the UK, US, Australia and other western countries leaving liberal lands to live under strict sharia law on a battlefield is the stuff of tabloid gold. Jihad Jane was, in fact, the online identity of an American woman currently serving time for conspiring to kill a Swedish artist who made drawings of the Prophet Mohammed. But unlike the tabloids, Khair isn’t interested in painting these women as gullible, damaged or repentant.
Jamilla, who comes from a conservative Pakistani family, sees in her rebellious classmate Ameena a confused soul waiting to be saved by faith. A daughter of divorce and a more liberal Indian-Muslim background, Ameena has a fractious relationship with her mother and seeks validation from the men around her. After a bad break-up, she accepts with relief both Jamilla’s friendship and her ultra-orthodox version of Islam. The two girls form this cocoon in suburban Yorkshire, an increasingly radicalised cell sustained on YouTube preachings and a profound sense of alienation.
As Jamilla observes, life under these circumstances is much harder for women: ‘The way an orthodox woman wants to dress […] interact, meet or not meet other people, live, all of it is under constant assault by ordinary life in the West.’ Khair was careful about how he made his narrator sound: “I wanted to avoid a giggly, girly voice, not just because it would not be in keeping with Jamilla’s character but also because male authors tend to give that kind of voice to young female characters.” Khair has made the case in the past that sexism is a form of xenophobia and choosing to tell this story from a female point of view allowed him to illustrate that idea quite subtly. “I believe that orthodox religious societies are basically sexist, and hence particularly liable to succumb to xenophobia. After all, sexism also involves treating women as strangers who are allowed fewer rights and effectively less space to grow in.”
But what spurs Jamilla’s decision to go to Syria is the promise of a different kind of freedom. She wants to be where her beliefs and general appearance are not so grotesquely at variance with the majority; she craves conformity. Ameena’s motives are more idealistic—and more opaque. This inaccessibility to her character is made further pronounced by her Yorkshire dialect: (“A’d noticed yer before; yer wor t’most solemn girl in t’class.”) “This is a dangerous option for me,” says Khair, who hails from Gaya in Bihar and started his career as a journalist with The Times of India. “We know that no ‘dialect’ in a novel is a completely faithful transcript of a spoken dialect; it is a constructed literary language, whether by Mark Twain or Salman Rushdie, based to some extent on what is spoken ‘out there’.”
Ameena only gets more and more inaccessible after the friends arrive in Syria. She marries an ISIS fighter and disappears from view—it’s like her personality is swallowed up by the landscape. Interestingly, it is Jamilla, the submissive one, who retains her identity. Like most socially awkward people, she has an inner life she retreats to when things get grisly outside. Holed up in a home for the orphans, widows and wives of jihadists run by Hejjiye, the charismatic wife of an ISIS commander, Jamilla seeks out news online, resists marriage and makes space for skepticism alongside her piety. It soon becomes clear to both girls that a world under ISIS is no more Islamic and no less craven than the imperfect world outside. How they deal with this revelation is determined by the force of their very different natures.
All fundamentalists are not created equal, says Khair. “Some reach that position from a genuine effort to make sense of the world; I disagree, but sympathise deeply with these. Others employ fundamentalism as a brutal bid for power and dominance; I wonder if such people really have much of an inner life. What attracts me is the doubt, the tension, the yearning and striving that I associate with the first kind of fundamentalist.”
Beyond its ability to foment a kind of holy war in the breasts of its followers, Khair isn’t terribly interested in the fact of ISIS itself. He’d be happy to never read another news report about it. “Of course, it helps ISIS that the media require a regular quota of sensational news, and most of what ISIS calls Islam is just one long bout of performed sensationalism.” It was a milder form of religious censure that ejected the author from Bihar and set him on his current path. In an essay called ‘Daffodils in Gaya’ for The Hindu, he writes, “Around the age of 24, when I wrote one of those world-changing articles that young people write at too-frequent intervals, and a mob of religious Muslims descended on my father’s clinic, I felt the full brunt of the provincialism of my community.” He was sent away to Delhi, from where he later moved to Denmark. Except when he’s touring India or the UK as an author, Khair is ensconced once again in a relatively anonymous, bucolic sort of life. For him, it seems to be the state most conducive to the contemplation of dangerous ideas.
Jihadi Jane (Penguin Random House India) is out now.