Monday, September 5, 2016

Addressing Xenophobia through writing

Tabish Khair
Picture by Christopher Tommen
Tabish Khair’s books are on most bestseller lists: and it isn’t any surprise why. Besides his eloquence and gripping narratives, the themes he addresses hit home hard. Here is an interview with him, on his work, his writing and his views that shape his writing.

Take us through your childhood, your work, your family, your education - all to the extent that you believe informs what you do currently, and why you do it.
I was born in a Muslim middle class family in the small town of Gaya in Bihar, basically a family of doctors and engineers. I was educated in the local Nazareth Academy, and the local Gaya College and finally, for my MA, in the local Magadh University. Early on, I had realised that I had to write, and I started publishing, mostly poems, when I was in high school. My first serious publications were in the poetry page edited by Jayanta Mahapatra in The Telegraph. Later I won a national book competition, organised by Rupa and Co (Delhi), and had my first collection of poems published by them as a consequence. Then I moved to Delhi, mostly because a group of Islamists got angry at me in Gaya, where I started working as a journalist for The Times of India. After a few years I decided that I needed more time to read, write and think and that I had met enough murderers and politicians to last me a lifetime, and hence I ended up doing a PhD from Copenhagen University.

What got you into writing? What inspired the choice of topics and themes in your writing?
Well, as I said, I have to write. It is not a choice; it is more of a compulsion. It is what gives me the greatest feeling of completion, of being alive, of meaningfulness and sense – the only thing that compares to it (and it came much later, obviously) is the experience of being a parent. My themes and topics have to do with life. I am known as a literary writer, maybe even a cerebral one, but I am not driven by ideas and abstract words – I am driven by life and its experiences. I am interested in ideas to the extent that they are an essential part of human life.

Let's talk about Jihadi Jane. How did the idea come about?
I was born and brought up in believing Muslim circles, but at least my immediate family was unwilling to let mullahs and bigots tell them what to do, think, or wear. We were not ‘westernised progressives’ either: for instance, my father did not want even his sons to wear (tight) jeans! Coming from those backgrounds, I could not ignore what is happening. I could not just dismiss religion and religious people, as I know that the former can provide much solace and the latter can be good too. On the other hand, I could not ignore the evil that is done in the name of religion – often by people who see themselves as genuinely religious.

What went into the research you did on the subject? There's so much information out there on the ISIS and what's happening with the ISIS, but the authenticity of it all seems a bit unclear. How did you grapple with it?
It is not a study of ISIS, but rather a novel about two young women – from Asian families but born and brought up in England – who are attracted to ISIS and its notions of ‘jihad.’ These two women are very different from each other. And yet, they end up running off to Syria and Iraq to join the so-called jihad. That is what I was interested in, and I could draw upon a lot of religious people (some fundamentalist, some not) I have known, and my own observation of Muslims being attracted to Wahhabism, or being angry and frustrated at their inability to save other Muslims from persecution. So, yes, I did read about ISIS etc. – and autobiographies of Muslims who joined and left fundamentalism as well as ideological tracts by Islamists – but finally there was enough around me, in life, for me to draw upon. If there hadn’t been, I would not have written this novel – or completed it. The book is to be published in the UK and USA (Aug / Sept, respectively) as Just another Jihadi Jane.


As a person who views women and men as equal, and supports the principles of gender equality, you're also probably encountering terribly misinformed ideas like those of Trump (that Muslim women are oppressed and don't speak, for instance). What are some of your challenges as you reassert the ideas of equality through your work?
This is a very difficult question. When Trump, with his huge male ego and his trophy wives, makes a statement like that, he is essentialising and generalising in one direction. He is lying to himself or others. But when religious Muslims deny that there are some tendencies in many Muslim societies, supported by certain interpretations of Islam, that allow men to decide over women, and circumscribe the living space available to women, then they are also lying to themselves or others. Honestly, I feel that all the biggest socio-political challenges today – ranging from Trump to radical Hindutva and Islamism – are at their core sexist reactions: these, in different ways, are basically attempts by largely sexist men to continue dominating their families and societies, or to express anger at their inability to do so as much as they could in the past.

Would you like to elaborate on the line ‘But when religious Muslims deny that there are some tendencies in many Muslim societies, supported by certain interpretations of Islam, that allow men to decide over women, and circumscribe the living space available to women, then they are also lying to themselves or others.’? Perhaps if you could share a few examples that can help readers relate contextually?
There are too many examples, sadly. Let us take an obvious one: the hijab. A year ago, I met a well-known Palestinian poet, an intelligent Muslim woman dressed in what people would call ‘fashionable Western clothes’, who started decrying France for banning the veil. Note, she was not veiled at all, but she felt she had to take up this matter as a critique of the West. ‘Why don’t they ban the bikini too? It is just as demeaning for women. The veil is just a personal choice too,’ she said. Even though I am against bans that prevent women from going out and working or gaining an education, I had to point out that she was not being honest. Even if we overlook the technicality that the ban in France is not aimed only at Islam but at all religious symbols in public spaces, one has to point out that neither France nor any other ‘Western’ nation imposes the bikini on women. (Though, unfortunately, not all in the West understand this difference: witness the idiotic Burkini ban proposed in Cannes!) Still, you can walk down a beach fully clothed if you wish, and many people do. But some Muslim states impose the veil on women – and even secular Muslim societies often put compulsive pressure on their women to be veiled. So, alas, the veil is not a personal choice in these spaces. Until it becomes so, one cannot compare it to the bikini. At the moment, it is basically a limitation of the living space of women – imposed politically and by force. It is time to stop reacting to the West to such an extent that we keep lying to ourselves!

How difficult or how easy was it to write about a Jihadi Jane, as opposed to a Jihadi John? What role do you think radicalization continues to play in the lives of young Muslim women? Do you think they are doubly vulnerable now with the ISIS?
I would not be interested in writing about a Jihadi John – basically for the reasons given above. Jihadi Janes are a different matter: more complex, more torn, not just an ideological bully but also the victim of circumstances and ideas. And yes, women, in different ways, have been vulnerable in all male-dominated societies, and they still stay vulnerable. ISIS is just an extreme example. The only way to create a fair society is to give all human beings – including women – equal rights, without any excuse or sub-clause.

Ameena and Jamilla come from two totally different perspectives, and their lives dovetail with the most surprising of turns one can imagine. What went into your thought process to speak from the minds of both these girls?
It was important not to portray these women as automatons or zombies. I had to show that these women are driven by different reasons, that they think about their choices, that they are not just ‘brain-washed’ or ‘dumb’. This was important to me, partly because I know that it is true and partly because I was a man writing about women. This explains the differences between Ameena and Jamilla, and the dovetailing of their lives.

Let's talk about "How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position" - it was an exceptionally interesting book. What inspired that? - Islamophobia appears to be one of your recurrent themes - perhaps broadened into Xenophobia. Do you believe that we can shift mindsets when it comes to these issues?
How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position was a more funny novel on religious prejudices – especially the prejudices that exist in Western and secular circles about religious Muslims. And yes, my Oxford study, The New Xenophobia is an exploration of xenophobia in general – which includes anti-Semitism, Islamophobia etc. But no, I am not just interested in Islamophobia – or in prejudices. My earlier novels, The Bus Stopped, Filming, and The Thing About Thugs, were about different issues and set in different spaces. What all these books do share is a concern with how people react to each other, how they shape themselves and others, how they lie to themselves or to others, how they manage to live despite obstructions, etc. – but then that is what most novels look at in any case. As far as Islamism is concerned, I feel I have now said everything I had to say about it. My next books are going to be about different issues.