By Claire Chambers
What does it mean to be a writer of Muslim heritage in the UK today? Is there such a thing as ‘Muslim fiction’? If so, is it cultural background or belief that makes writing (or identity) Muslim?
My book, British Muslim Fictions: Interviews with Contemporary Writers (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), is the first in a two-part book project, which seeks answers to these complex questions. It is a collection of conversations with writers who live or work in Britain and have an intimate relationship with Islam, whether they are religious, cultural, or even – paradoxically – atheist Muslims, and whether South Asian, Arab, African, or European.
Over thirteen interviews, I talked to Anglophone writers including Aamer Hussein, Fadia Faqir, Hanif Kureishi, Leila Aboulela, Abdulrazak Gurnah, and PULSE’s own Robin Yassin-Kassab. This is a group of writers who are highly diverse but, like a loosely connected and often discordant family, they have much in common, through their connections both to Islam and the United Kingdom. As well as discussing their literary techniques and the impact that their Muslim heritage has had on them, I became increasingly persuaded that this body of writing shares certain preoccupations (relating to gender, class, the war on terror, al-Andalus, the Rushdie Affair, and a cosmopolitan outlook), and is some of the most important and politically engaged fiction of recent years.
As you can tell from my name, I am not from a Muslim background myself, although I was fortunate enough to grow up in Leeds in West Yorkshire, surrounded by many South Asian Muslim friends. As clichéd as it may sound, my worldview has also been crucially shaped by my gap year, 1993-94, which I spent teaching English in Peshawar, Pakistan, at the age of eighteen. I went on to specialize in South Asian literature in English as a postgraduate student, and continue to fuel my interest by return visits to the Indian subcontinent and by working with diasporic communities.
A turning point for me came when news of the 7/7 London bombers’ identity broke in 2005. I was in Canada at the time and people kept asking about my city of Leeds, from where it emerged that three of the four bombers also came. Despite my intimate relationship with many British Pakistanis, my friends tended to be from a middle-class background and so I’d been unaware that in a place like Beeston in South Leeds there existed such politicized rage among a tiny minority of Muslims. It ought to go without saying that I and all the interviewees would condemn as horrific the violent, nihilistic path the bombers chose. Yet a desire better to understand the range of issues facing Muslims in the UK led me to embark on this research project, which is shaped by my roots in and routes out of the north of England.
Some of the interviewed authors have written about hardline Muslims who may (or may not) be violent. For example, Mohsin Hamid, the author of probably the most famous of these texts, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, argues in my interview that ‘we’re left with […] a gaping hole where spirituality used to be […] and a new politics that’s calling itself religion’. However, one key finding is that terrorism tends not to be the most pressing concern amongst writers of Muslim heritage, especially in the current political context of heavy-handed surveillance initiatives such as Prevent 2, and vociferous, often Islamophobic debate about integration and lack of community cohesion.
This is not to suggest that the writers are not self-critical; indeed, many of my interviewees were extremely outspoken about abuses directed from some dominant Muslim groups and figures towards minority groups, especially women. I am also no cheerleader for the idea of a unified global Muslim community, or ummah, and know that exaggeration of this concept can lead to the very real tensions between different Muslim groups within an equally divided Britain being underestimated. However, the chosen approach has the advantage of bringing together writers from the ‘Muslim world’ to shed light on each other. British Arabs, Africans, and Asians are discussed together, because of their shared religious heritage, without overlooking their vast contextual differences.
The book begins with an in-depth introduction, in which I outline the controversies surrounding ‘Muslim writing’ and contextualize the writers against their various cultural backgrounds. Some commentators are uncomfortable with the idea of using religious identity as a way of categorizing literature, but I suggest that in today’s literary marketplace there is no avoiding literary typologies and that, so long as it provides access to a constellation of varied writing rather than confining authors to a generic and ‘ethnic’ ghetto, the category of Muslim writing is as useful as any other. I also describe the inception and development of fiction in English by writers of Muslim heritage, paying particular attention to the controversy over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988, and to the events of 9/11 and beyond. Despite Rushdie’s polite refusal to be interviewed, and his statement at the height of the Satanic Verses Affair that he is ‘not a Muslim’, the interviews shed new light on his perception among other writers of Muslim heritage.
What have I learnt from these interviews? Like many people influenced by the mostly negative stereotyping of Muslims in the media, I started by making airy generalizations about Islam, but my engagement with these heterogeneous authors means that I am now more likely to speak of Muslims or ‘people of Muslim heritage’. Muslims in Britain have of course found themselves centre of media attention and political concern in recent years. In my view, it is important to look at this group, but without pigeonholing individuals or according greater importance than is warranted to the religious or civilizational aspects of their Muslim identity. Yet I have had my mind opened to Islam too: the poetry of the Qur’an; Muslim dissent, scepticism, and even heresy of earlier centuries; Wahhabism, Sufi practices, cultural ‘accretions’.
Speaking briefly of my own feelings after conducting these interviews, I have learnt a great deal not only about the lives of Muslims in the West today, but also about the writer’s craft and his or her political role in society. The writers who left the strongest impressions on me interview situations were often the most politically assertive, as in the eloquent but often damning indictments of life in Britain by Tariq Ali, Fadia Faqir, Nadeem Aslam, and Zahid Hussain. Yet authors such as Tahmima Anam, Kamila Shamsie, and Aamer Hussein in their different ways made points that may have been more measured but are equally compelling. Hanif Kureishi’s young son added spice to the debate with a brief but spirited intervention, undermining some of his father’s claims!
By the time I was putting the finishing touches to the book, the Arab Spring was in full motion. These political convulsions surprised many commentators in the West, accustomed as they are to Orientalist discourse about Arabs and Muslims as backward and prone to authoritarianism. Yet the interviews reveal an entirely divergent image of Muslims as progressive, politically informed, and independently minded. As Ahdaf Soueif wrote to me (nearly a year before the Egyptian revolution and fall of Mubarak) in a comment that is startlingly resonant today, ‘Islam started as a revolutionary, dissident, progressive, egalitarian, and global idea and movement, and it continues to hold all these potentials within it’.