Tabish Khair, poet, novelist and critic has written various books, including the poetry collections, Where Parallel Lines Meet and Man of Glass and the novels, The Bus Stopped, Filming, The Thing About Thugs and How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position. In town to talk about his latest fictional offering – Jihadi Jane at the Kolkata Literary Meet 2017, Tabish Khair took some time out to talk to Pratiti Ganatra.
This month, Kindle Magazine takes a look at this supposed link between Islam and Terrorism. Recent terror attacks have once again opened a can of worms, rearing their ugly heads in every conversation, most, eager to paint radical and mainstream Islam with the same broad brush strokes, while others still debate the inadequacy of the idea of ‘Islamist Terror’. What do you think of the coining of this term?
But do you think it is a clash of ignorance or truly a clash of civilisations?
No, it is not a clash of civilisations because there are no pure, separate civilisations until they are constructed. It is an attempt by some people – people on all sides actually – to create that kind of clash. There are certain Hindus who like to think theirs is a very composite, isolated civilisation. There are people in the West who would like to think of their Western European civilisation as very isolated and concrete. And then there are Muslims who would like to think something similar. But all the civilisations have never been that isolated – they have always inter-penetrated each other. The point is to remember this and not allow those people to use these civilisations to some kind of an inevitable clash.
Of course, what they are engaging with, does have some kind of value for them, otherwise they would not be there. Then they take it, and they simplify it, reduce it. They make it only their kind of answer.
You also wrote somewhere, that, “For instance, a good story is not just a narrative. It does not simply take us from point A to point Z, with perhaps an easy moral appended. Religious fundamentalists who see stories only in those terms end up destroying the essence of their religions.” Do you think these fundamentalists are destroying the essence of Islam? And how?Totally. All fundamentalists destroy the essence of whatever they are talking about. Of course, what they are engaging with, does have some kind of value for them, otherwise they would not be there. Then they take it, and they simplify it, reduce it. They make it only their kind of answer. So people can do this with religion, people can do this with politics. I mean certain aspects of Communism ended up destroying certain very interesting aspects of Marxism.
How much of this is just information overload though? I mean this happened earlier as well, but now with easy accessibility to all sorts of information, especially with the Internet, is this sort of thing being blown out of proportion? Isn’t the Internet sort of aiding and abetting the fundamentalist cause?
That again is a very difficult question to answer and I can only guess. I feel that information overload is only an issue with people like you and me, who actually try to go to all these different sources. The problem with fundamentalism is not that people have too much information, especially Internet-based information; the problem is that people choose only the information that suits them, which is why people who believe in conspiracy theories can always prove their theories by looking at only those facts to prove it, and they won’t look at other facts. This is happening not just among the Muslims – Christian fundamentalists are also doing something similar; Republicans are doing it in the USA…
In India, the Hindu fundamentalists are also doing the same thing.
Yes, exactly some sections here are also doing it. And in fact, that is the problem with the Internet. It does not force you to engage with ‘the other’. You can do it if you choose, but you can also shut out the other and only engage with those like you. That leads to fundamentalism.
Tell us a little bit about the idea behind your novel – Jihadi Jane?See, my last novel – How To Fight Islamist Terror From A Missionary Position was very male; it was also the kind of novel which was funny. And despite the title, it was basically a novel about how prejudiced we are when it comes to religious Muslims, and this prejudice is not just from non-Muslims but even irreligious Muslims can be prejudiced about religious Muslims. So my last book explored those set of issues. This novel is more about the prejudices of Muslims about religious Muslims and it is about women. I think I had to cover both these elements – prejudices about religious Muslims and the prejudices of religious Muslims. And I think I have probably done it – so now I wont write another novel on Islamism for a while.
And this was going to be my next question that your work has dealt with issues of racism and prejudices and xenophobia. Are these themes something that you consciously decide to focus on, or do they work their way into the story?
No, no. I cannot force myself to write a novel. I mean, I can probably force myself to write an essay but even then it wont really be good if I have to force myself. I really do believe that you need to be driven to write well, especially a novel – it takes so much time. If you don’t have something impelling you, you will get bored. And if you get bored, the reader will get bored.
Honestly, as someone who earns his living as an academic, a study about these issues would simplify it. I think fiction enables a great engagement of complexities and layers and it allows the readers to enter these layers and maybe introduce their own layers.
But these are complex issues, how did you decide that you want to write about them through fiction?
I decided to write fiction, because I thought that the issues are so complex that they can only be written about through fiction. Any sort of study will simplify it. Honestly, as someone who earns his living as an academic, a study about these issues would simplify it. I think fiction enables a great engagement of complexities and layers and it allows the readers to enter these layers and maybe introduce their own layers. But the reason why I wrote about these topics is that obviously like most of the other Muslims – be it religious or irreligious or even half-religious, I am disturbed by what is happening. I am disturbed at so many levels – I am disturbed as a Muslim, I am disturbed as someone who grew up in a Muslim family, I am disturbed as someone who has a completely different memory of his Muslim heritage, I am disturbed as an Indian, I am disturbed as an immigrant in Denmark, I am disturbed as the father of children who are growing up in this world, and I am disturbed as a human being.
How To Fight Islamist Terror From The Missionary Position and Jihadi Jane are written in contemporary times, as compared to some of your other works. Is it easier or more difficult to write about things happening right now?
Writing the past is more difficult, definitely. These two novels were much easier to write because I was dealing with experiences from all around me. I didn’t have to think as much of these experiences, because most of them – either I had experienced them myself or then others around me had experienced them.
You talk about this through your characters in Jihadi Jane, but just can you talk a bit about this whole idea of educated youth living in the West suddenly falling prey to the ideas of Islamic fundamentalists?There are various reasons and you have to actually take up every individual case and see what prompted each of these to get influenced. But there are some general and broad patterns, and so I can only talk of those general patterns. But bear in mind that these general patterns have to combine with individual reasons before anything can happen.
One of the patterns is the great ignorance that non-Muslim cultures especially in the West have of their own Muslim heritage. The European Enlightenment is partly the consequence of Arab philosophy and the engagement with it, and through it Greek and Roman philosophy. Another side to this is also the great ignorance that Muslims have of the influence of non-Muslim cultures on them. There is really a lot of ignorance on both sides.
Then again, some of it is also political. Say the immigrants, being asked to or expected to behave in a certain way and in that case it is young Muslim immigrants reacting to their host culture. Some of these immigrants do come from poorer backgrounds so they have that problem that young kids, especially boys from poorer backgrounds have. Some of these Jihadis from Europe have had semi-criminal backgrounds. So there is a kind of counter-culture element there.
But it is not America’s job to solve the problem in Syria or Iraq. It is the job of the Syrians and the Iraqis. It is not the job of America from stopping Muslims from killing other Muslims. It is the job of Muslims themselves as human beings – not just as Muslims but also as human beings.
Some of it is also their inability to engage with their own cultures, their own contradictions, and their own problems. For instance, the ease with which America is blamed. Of course America has had their fingers in a lot of pies – but it is a super power, that is what makes it a super power. But it is not America’s job to solve the problem in Syria or Iraq. It is the job of the Syrians and the Iraqis. It is not the job of America from stopping Muslims from killing other Muslims. It is the job of Muslims themselves as human beings – not just as Muslims but also as human beings. The ease with which Muslims confuse Jews with Israel, with the Israeli government, with Zionism… that is outright prejudice too. I am a strong critic of the Israeli government and I don’t like Zionism. But Jews are another matter. Even Israelis are another matter. So there is a failure on all these sides.
They live off each other; they feed off each other. And this is true for all sorts of extremist positions whether it is in the West or whether it is in the Middle East or whether it is in India these extremely opposed groups feed off each other.
What about this whole rising Islamophobia in the West? Does this sort of help in increasing the divide between the cultures?
Of course. See in some ways, the best that happened to what I would call the ‘White Right’ after the rise of Hitler was the rise of Islamists. It justified all their agendas. It enabled them to say and do so many things that they would not have done otherwise. And the best thing that has happened to the Islamists is also the ‘White Right’ and their leaders. The more persecution, the more number of young people will join these reactionary groups. They live off each other; they feed off each other. And this is true for all sorts of extremist positions whether it is in the West or whether it is in the Middle East or whether it is in India these extremely opposed groups feed off each other.
With the rise of the Right all over the world, who are using this anti-Islam and anti-immigrant agenda as one of their key policies, where do we go from here?Part of the problem is that or in fact I would say the real problem today is global capital, which is totally out of control. No national government can control it, they can only try to appease it. They try and keep global capital happy, or they are in some serious trouble. The way you keep global capital happy is by taxing your citizens, when banks fail you then put that money into banks, or corporations. You keep global capital happy by finding new investment opportunities for it on its own terms, by weakening the social structure or by moving the social capital and turning it into financial capital. And these things are all being done by national governments everywhere. And so this frustrates the citizens. At the same time, the national governments also have no way of controlling financial capital. All they can talk about is who is entering the country and who is not entering the country, whether it is good to have immigrants or whether it is bad to have immigrants.
But both the positions make no difference, because they are still talking about human beings, and not the real problem – that is the global and financial capital that is affecting everyone – citizens and foreigners and immigrants. Until we start doing that, there is no solution.
This is just a way to divert from the real issues…
Totally and this is because they don’t have the tools to grapple with the real problems. If you are a decent person like Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, who is a decent, moral, upright politician, you try to argue that well we need to be nice to refugees and the German economy can use new, fresh workers. If you are a morally dissolute person like Donald Trump, you say something that is the opposite. But both the positions make no difference, because they are still talking about human beings, and not the real problem – that is the global and financial capital that is affecting everyone – citizens and foreigners and immigrants. Until we start doing that, there is no solution.
Even Marxists fail because when they talk of capital, they talk of industrial capital – but the working class is dead, and this is not because it doesn’t exist but because it isn’t a class anymore. It does not have any class-consciousness. It wont be allowed to have any class-consciousness because finance capital has taken over industrial capital. Industrial capital is a supplicant to finance capital, which Trump will prove now. He will do a complete crackdown on industrial capital but will not touch finance capital.
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