Thinking past assumptions…

In a post 9/11 world, opinions and judgments are heavily influenced by the media. Our bias and assumptions about others are often predetermined by those media representations that put Islam and the Muslim community under scrutiny and suspicion. In Tabish Khair’s new novel ‘How to Fight Islamic Terror from the Missionary Position’, issues like these are addressed to the extent where the reader is confronted with their own prejudices concerning certain individuals, especially those of particular religious groups. When we were lucky enough to have Khair join us for a class, we were able to ask him questions about why he had chosen to write on this subject. He spoke about how religious groups can be isolated and how prejudice can infuse societies so that certain people are made to feel like outsiders or ‘the other’. For example, Khair addressed the idea that when George Bush was president of the United States, he ended his speeches with ‘God Save America’, instantly dismissing those living in America that are of other religions and suggesting that God that would not save America’s enemies.
The novel itself combines serious issues and a sexual innuendo to create a good read that addresses contemporary problems with humour. The male-orientated nature of the text comes hand in hand with a lad-like perspective, which echoes that of Sam Selvon’s ‘The Lonely Londoners’. Centered on the lives of the unnamed narrator, Karim and Ravi, the text deals with personal relationships (many of which fail) and various human encounters along with issues that surround the treatment of Islam. However, Khair’s text is not your ordinary account of three single men living together. In fact, the ease of reading the text allows you to fall into a trap. The constant references to ‘in hindsight’ and the brilliant build up of what is to come at the end of the novel finally reveals more about the reader than the text itself. Khair’s technique encourages the reader to believe that something terrible has happened and that someone – a muslim – is guilty. In fact, this is not the case. Through the brilliance of the plot, Khair is able to reveal the prejudices of the reader merely through an unexpectedly human ending that re-positions the book in relation to the theme of stereotyping and categorizing certain religious groups. If what we look for in this text is someone to blame and a character to suffer from his or her guilt, then powerfully when we close the book we know that the person to blame for bad judgements is essentially us.
Khair confronts the undeniable problem of Islamophobia that is not only present in countries with high populations of Muslims, but also in Scandinavian countries like Denmark where the novel is set. He challenges the assumptions that are forced upon us through the media and ultimately makes us think about our own guilt for labeling or categorizing complex communities. Khair’s text is a thoroughly enjoyable story that is hard to put down, but what can be taken from this text is the way in which we think and the dangers of easy media-led assumptions.

Megan Humphreys

Being open to controversy and to changing your mind…

‘Fitna’ is a 2008 short film exploring the idea of the Islamification of the world, Europe and specifically The Netherlands. The film contends that The Koran incites Muslims to hate and kill unbelievers, that global dominance and control is the ultimate goal of the Muslim community. It also considers that Islamic extremism is a misnomer in that Islam itself is an extreme religion. It juxtaposes selected excerpts from suras (chapters) of The Koran with images and footage of Islamic terror from around the globe. The film has been highly controversial and has sparked outrage and protest in the Muslim community. Al-Qaeda called for the death of its writer, Geert Wilders – a Dutch parliamentarian and founder and leader of The Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid), the fourth largest political party in The Netherlands.
I think this is an important film because it is controversial. It has inspired me to think more deeply about my prejudices and my ignorance and the wider realities affecting people who move in very different circles to me. Islam has become an increasingly controversial religion in recent years and this film links with Tabish Khair’s novel ‘How to Fight Islamist Terror From the Missionary Position’. Khair’s characters live in a web of suspicion and pre-emptive judgement and, as one critic pointed out, the book reads you in uncovering this shared tendency. To a certain extent this film read me back to myself the more I considered it. I was actually very convinced by the arguments in ‘Fitna’ for some time, but with closer critical and conversational analysis I unveiled my own ignorance of The Koran and Islam itself. The combination of ignorance and arrogance is a dangerous one but the murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo Van Gogh in The Netherlands must be considered when trying to understand the motivations of Wilders.
What this film doesn’t address is the hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world who live peaceful lives. It assumes that some fanatical elements equals many and doesn’t consider interpretative readings of The Koran. The Koran was written in the 7th century when war was being waged and so the incitations to violence against the infidels should perhaps be read in light of this. Whether or not the assertions of Wilder are true, that Islam is essentially a murderous ideology, the persecution of a people is an absurd response, and persecution seems to be what Wilders is calling for. He has said that he doesn’t hate Muslims, he hates Islam. Perhaps in his mind Islam is an unfortunate aspect of being a Muslim, but how he differentiates the two is not addressed.
The films relates to this module because it explores ideas of injustice, specifically female genital mutilation, the denunciation of liberalism and democracy, the subjugation of women, the execution of homosexuals, honour killings and anti-semitism. These issues came up in some of the books we read and our thinking about the idea of justice and how we are to tackle such issues from a theoretical perspective? Yet we condemning these issues should not mean condemning all muslims or Islam.
Questions of planetary co-existence, social justice and harmony are at the forefront of my mind as I write this blog entry. Answers are much slower to come.

Shane Sexton

Watch ‘Fitna’ here:

Media thinking and democracy post 9/11

Issues of race – particularly in a post-9/11 world – are the core of Tabish Khair’s “How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position”. Whilst my dissertation – ‘Representations of 9/11 in Children’s Literature’ – is primarily concerned with things that aren’t so relevant to the Writing Global Justice, there are a few things that overlap with our concerns when reading texts like How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position.
One of my chief concerns is the way we might formulate even basic arguments around this issue. For example, calling it “9/11”, or “September 11th” is accepting a pre-determined narrative of the events – shaped in large part by Western media. All of the terms we take for granted when discussing any politically engaged event are already encoded with their own meaning. Referring to it as “9/11” carries a suggestion that the event has some sort of omnipresence, or universality. Nobody refers to Pearl Harbour, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, JFK’s assassination or the moon landing by its date, and yet they’re all of similar significance.
Here however, is an interesting complication. When describing ‘the events’ in press conferences after 9/11, President Bush referred to them as “a terrible national shock”, and a “national tragedy”. Whilst the attack did physically occur in America, you can certainly form a different narrative around the events if you consider that it was the World trade centre that was attacked, foreign nationals were killed indiscriminately from Americans, and that there was significant international economic impact and confusion following the attacks. Further, the media’s initial response didn’t converge on America as a victim so much as on an affront to humanity – the fact that the majority of casualties were American didn’t really bother the media for a short while and instead it was spoken of as though it were a tsunami or an earthquake. Reports would say that lots of people died, or perhaps more provocatively, they were killed, but it certainly wasn’t the case that “Defenceless Americans were Murdered”. This attitude would change but it’s interesting to see how our later construction of the events as an attack have shifted the victims into martyrs, to legitimise the vilification of people, a faith and nations.
This is further compounded by other common phrases – particularly the description of the buildings as the “Twin Towers”. You have to wonder why making them sound alive, like siblings, twins even, has prevailed over the more accurate name ‘World Trade Centre’. It seems to me that it’s probably because this further layers victimhood onto the events. It’s also a little concerning that the extremely popular phrase “The war on terror” gives political access to a very wide base of activities. All nations, in some way or another, willingly or not, either harbour or promote terrorism. If we didn’t, then we wouldn’t need an internal security service. It is a side-effect of freedoms, or a cheap way for states to contract out grievances with less fear than direct confrontation. NATO troops can be deployed under this vague guise to more-or-less any non-G20 or non-NATO nation. When we were considering going into Syria, or even giving aid, the arguments for and against tried to spin the presence of terrorist organisations as causes for concern. “The war on terror” was starting to be bandied about until the Commons struck down the opportunity for war.
The branding of hostile non-state actors as terrorists also negates their opportunity for legitimate political discourse. The term is applied to a range of groups, regardless of their political objectives. Osama bin Laden only admitted al-Qaeda’s involvement in 2004, but I seriously doubt many people could cite his reasons for the attacks in the first place (US troops in Saudi Arabia, US sanctions against Iraq, US support of Israel). I’m not trying to say that his actions or views were correct, but it’s certainly deeply hypocritical that we say we are defending democracy and freedom yet give no platform for alternative perspectives.
We’ve spoken a number of times in this module about plural integration into societies and the means of inclusion and exclusion, but as the global society expands, it seems to be more and more the case that only the 20th Century powers are heard, and other participants are subordinated. Some states have institutionalised corruption and so sometimes the state does not adhere to the will of the people – like how the Romanian government is giving special mining licences to ‘donors’ in formerly protected mountain ranges -, and sometimes the people do not adhere to the will of the state, like the ‘freedom fighters’ in Syria, or how Amazon doesn’t really pay any tax in the UK. Despite being conscious of this, the institutions of global ‘democracy’ do not officially recognise it. Corrupt, bought, governments are given a seat at the UN whilst North Korean citizens are left in silence. Asda hire more people than the population of the fifty lowest populated countries combined and it’s not until you get over halfway down the list of nations that countries start to have populations larger than their employee list. It’s a bit off topic but a big-scale example of how poorly both minorities and majorities are represented.
It’s easy to say that minorities are never seen, but of course, the other side of the coin is how in a crisis, minorities are often the only thing in the spotlight.

Alex Watson