Caught between Islamist terrorism on one hand and “war on terror”, or Islamophobia, on the other, what do Muslims do If you happen to possess the literary class of Pakistan’s Mohsin Hamid or our very own Tabish Khair, you know.
Caught between Islamist terrorism on one hand and “war on terror”, or Islamophobia, on the other, what do Muslims do If you happen to possess the literary class of Pakistan’s Mohsin Hamid or our very own Tabish Khair, you know. Create a fiction in such engaging prose that the world is forced to take notice. This is what Hamid did with his international bestseller, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, in 2007. Now, Khair’s brilliant new novel, How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position, shows similar promise. If America’s 9/11 was the backdrop for Hamid, for Khair it’s the Danish cartoons controversy. The setting this time is Aarhus city in Denmark. The central characters are three men you’ll remember for a long, long time. There’s Ravi, a bachelor from India on a PhD mission at the Aarhus University where his good friend, the recently divorced, unnamed Pakistani narrator (sutradhar) in the novel teaches English literature. Their joint hunt for an apartment to share per chance leads them to an elderly Karim “Bhai”, a Delhiite who years ago graduated in Islamic Jurisprudence in Cairo but ended up as a taxi driver at Aarhus. Ravi is flamboyant, irreverent; a rib-tickler. His drinking buddy, the Pakistani narrator, has lost faith in a religion “culled mostly from a book written in obscure Arabic dialect no one spoke any longer”. In sharp contrast, the devout Karim Bhai is a “fundamentalist” who never misses his namaaz, runs Quran classes in his apartment every Friday, abhors homosexuality and always says “Allah Hafiz”, never “Khuda Hafiz” (Thanks to petrodollar-promoted religious bigotry by Saudi Arabia in recent decades, the sub-continent’s Muslims have given up their traditional farewell greeting). Curiously at first and ominously as the plot thickens, he often receives “mysterious calls” and is frequently away from home for “mysterious reasons”. From Ravi, always expect the unexpected. To the Pakistani’s great annoyance, in Karim Bhai’s company his “all-rules-barred” Brahmin mate gets interested in Islam, starts attending Quranic classes, doing namaaz. In the process Ravi gains a fresh historical insight. As he tells his “bloody Paki” friend, “Now I understand why you f_______ mullahs came over and colonised us. It was not the gunpowder and the cannons. It was the namaaz. While we were sitting on our backsides, jingling bells at our gods, you were working out five times a day. The namaaz is the gym of Islam; that’s why they hate it so much in the West”. Furious with his “wannabe fundu” friend so effortlessly taking to Karim Bhai’s “Allah Hafiz”, the Pakistani tries explaining to Ravi how the Muslim switch from Khuda Hafiz to Allah Hafiz symbolises the attempted fundamentalist takeover of Islam. Ravi has a simple answer: “Hardly an issue for me, bastard.” Much to Karim Bhai’s shock and bewilderment, the word bastard is a term of affection between the chums. Ravi’s tangy explanation: “It is a term of honour in Immaculate Conception circles!” Though from “enemy countries”, both had studied at Jesuit-run schools. Banters over faith, life and love during the day, pub-crawling and women-hunting together come evening. Here is Indo-Pak amity, Hindu-Muslim intimacy, at its hilarious best. Now that the reader is fully hooked, here comes a sudden twist in the tale. Out of the blue, Denmark is hit by the “Islamist Axe Plot”. A Somali man is arrested for the attempted murder of a Danish cartoonist with an axe. You might wonder how much terror anyone can spread with an axe. You can keep wondering but the Danish media is awash with news and views of Al Qaeda and Islamist terror. The Somali, it turns out, was a regular at the Quranic classes at Karim Bhai’s apartment. The latter, incidentally, is “mysteriously missing” yet again. Bombarded with relentless calls from the media, the Pakistani convinces Ravi it’s better they went to the police and spilled the beans before the police came looking for them. The otherwise reluctant Ravi accompanies his friend to the police station. Karim Bhai “resurfaces” and is detained for interrogation. Thankfully, the Danish police do not think of options like the Guantanamo Bay. Karim Bhai is home in next to no time, no charges against him. While in custody, he is visited by a Danish family, his neighbours, who never have a moment’s doubt about his innocence. Through the account of these neighbours who have known Karim for years, we come to see the pious man in an altogether new light: beyond his fundamentalist facade, here is a harmless, compassionate man. Among other things, the “Islamist Axe Plot” destroys the engaging arrangement at an apartment in Aarhus. For the Pakistani and for Ravi it’s impossible now to return to face Karim Bhai. While Ravi had never shared the Pakistani’s mistrust of Karim’s narrow religiosity, the Pakistani is left with a hole in his soul. Khair’s novel deals with a serious subject and its message is important: a lazy, laidback approach — Islamophobia or even a moderate Muslim’s blurring of the divide between the fundamentalist and the terrorist because of surface similarities — is no way to fight terrorism. The message may be serious but the skill and subtlety with which it is delivered, wrapped with so much fun and irreverence, is outstanding. Go get your copy, now.
Javed Anand is co-editor of Communalism Combat and general secretary, Muslims for Secular Democracy