I was a student in the United Kingdom when The Satanic Verses – the controversial novel by Salman Rushdie – created pandemonium across the globe. Images of the book being burnt were flashed across the television screens. My British Muslim friends were divided – some passionate about the issue of blasphemy, others unconcerned or detached from the divide. However, this moment marked a moment of imagination of a “new Islam.” Author Sadia Abbas has delineated this construction of the “violent” versus the “civilised” (Western world) in a new book entitled: At Freedom’s Limit: Islam and the Postcolonial Predicament (Fordham University Press). With the “defeat” of Communism and move to “liberate” Kuwait in 1991, a new kind of sensibility was brewing. The September 11 attacks a decade later cemented this construction and today the Muslim, especially in the West is a loaded term open to multiple interpretations; and a new imagination of Islam rules the public mind.
It is in this context that a recent novel Dear Infidel by Tamim Sadikali is an important work of fiction emanating from the United Kingdom where new Islam is also under heavy scrutiny. Sadikali, an authentic voice from the “hood” has both the panache and punch to weave a story around issues of “British Muslim” identity and how it is informed by race, ethnicity, dilemmas of assimilation. Dear Infidel is a story of disparate lives of young Brits negotiating multiple identities in a post-9/11 world.
The canvas of the novel reminds one of a miniature where a family assembled for a Muslim festival of Eid-ul-Fitr (the end of fasting month) becomes the metaphor for a community. The setting is a typical desi home in northwest London at the end of 2004, more than year after the Iraq War and a little before the ghastly 7/7 bombings that shook London and the UK.
The protagonists are four cousins – two pairs of brothers – with varying temperaments, personal demons and political outlooks. Aadam, a professional success story is haunted by the war on terror; and his wife Nazneen is a liberated British Pakistani (and ends us as the most clear-headed character of the novel). Then there is the well-to-do Pasha, who lives with his English girlfriend; he is irreligious but embedded in the cultural identity. The other two archetypal characters are Salman, most religious among these blokes and keen to drum religious education into his kids; and the neurotic Imtiaz, hooked to porn, relatively disengaged with the world.
These are well-crafted characters. Sadikali’s brings out their personal histories and traumas of the “present” in a most readable manner. Dear Infidel adds to fiction that focuses on second-generation immigrant culture. This is a hybrid culture where leek and potato soup is consumed with a Pakistani meal, religious debates are reverential as well as flippant, cricket is central to discussions, and characters are comfortable with a seemingly curious mix of Bollywood and British TV references.
From the decor of the homes to the seething tensions between generations and individualistic siblings, the setting is all too familiar. What is apparent to some, however, gets lost in the mainstream media discourses. The diversity within the British Muslim community – and here it is just one family – is mind-boggling.
There are more than 2.71 million (2011 Census) Muslims in Britain comprising 4.8 per cent of the total population. Nearly half of this number was born in the UK. The largest Muslim community in UK comes from Pakistan. It is estimated that nearly 1.2 million Britons have a connection with Pakistan. The second-generation migrants of Pakistani origin have made their mark in politics and society. Yet, the community lags behind others.
“Bangladeshis born in Britain are also more likely than their Pakistani counterparts to socialise with people of a different ethnicity” a report from The Economist notes. Most of the Pakistani community comes from the rural Mirpur Valley in Kashmir that started to arrive in the UK during 1960s. Bangladeshis are later migrants. Half of them reside in London. Only one one-fifth of Pakistanis live in London. “Cultural conservatism,” cousin marriage and of late links to radical ideas from Pakistan are more commonly reported. More worryingly many younger Muslims are exposed to the extremist groups within the UK allowed by the UK to operate in the country.
The divides are deepening. For instance a recent survey showed that 52 per cent of non-Muslim respondents said Islam was incompatible with the British society. Conversely, the Muslims believe that suspicion of them and their religion has increased in recent years as security services have acted on concerns about growing radicalisation of the Muslim community. The Muslim communities also question the British state’s handling of the Muslims as they want to penetrate into the radical groups for information. A good number of British-Pakistanis live in segregated areas thereby adding to the inward-looking attitudes.
What Sadikali does bring out is how the events such as Iraq War and 9/11 impact these characters and their cultural universe, of which the Islamic faith is one part. For instance, when Aadam watches an Iraq War update, his curt boss says: “We don’t pay you to be preoccupied with the war on terror, understand?” Salman is heckled while wearing salwar-kameez with a leather jacket. At work he has been called “Osama.” These are everyday realities that British Muslims have to face and most of them have little or no involvement with the radicals.
The Iraq bombing and the tragic deaths of civilians, which we know better now, are an underlying theme of the novel. But this warscape is not miles away; it penetrates the sensibilities of the Londoners who are straddling their multiple identities.
The idea of loyalty to the land then emerges as an issue. It is also somewhat similar to what the Muslims in India are questioned about by some extremists. And not too different from what the Pakistani Hindus have to go through. “Am I British or am I not?” is an existential question that one of the characters raises rather poignantly.
The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the hundreds of European Muslims joining it has once again sharpened the divides. The British Prime Minister David Cameron recently made a contentious speech on Islamic extremism, which elicited many responses. One response was from a British Muslim woman who wrote: “Despite being born in Manchester, growing up here and being a proud Mancunian… For the first time in 37 years I feel as though I don’t belong. And yes, I am Muslim. Just a British Muslim.”
Not unlike the feisty British Muslim woman who challenged her PM, the strongest character from Dear Infidel is Nazneen. She marries Aadam after a complicated relationship with a white man. She is not a nihilist and has the rationalist Muslim voice that finds no issues with the British-Western-non-Muslim identity. Nazneen is a textbook case of an “integrated” British Muslim.
The Indian community in Britain has been termed as a better performing group in terms of “integration and economic advancement.” Do they have to go through a test of proving themselves as loyal Britons? Or worse, are they all clubbed as an extremist, or near-extremist group? The protagonists of Dear Infidel struggle to answer some of those questions. More importantly, they are in a conversation with themselves especially what Muslims worldwide (including those in the Western countries) need to hold.