Title: Jihadi Jane; Author: Tabish Khair; Publisher: Penguin Random House India; Pages: 248; Price: Rs 299
We need someone to update American thinker William James’s “The Varieties of Religious Experience” to explain why in the modern, technology-driven world, extremist manifestations of a religion can still draw adherents. And not only barely-literate inhabitants of deprived and oppressed areas but also – and increasingly – educated youth from fairly affluent, assimilated backgrounds in developed societies.
Muslim youth in/from the West are one – though not the sole – example, but with some being involved in the depredations of Al Qaeda and now the Islamic State, they receive most focus. What makes youth enjoying a quality of life many others can only envy become radicalised and fanatical as to cause death and destruction is difficult to determine.
Is it the ability of the recruiters, some personal experience, or something else are questions that journalist-turned-academician and author Tabish Khair deals with in his latest novel about two British Muslim girls’ lives in Yorkshire and further away.
Told from the perspective of Jamila, a conservative but not radical Muslim, it begins with her friendship with Ameena, then different as can be. While Jamila is a headscarf-clad, regular mosque-goer from a close-knit, orthodox family, Ameena, who is from a more modern but divided family (and doesn’t get on much with her mother with whom she lives), wears trendy clothing, smokes, and hangs around with boys.
Their lives change when Ameena, who has turned to religion for solace after being taken up and discarded by the school heartthrob, becomes more overtly religious on being ignored by someone closer (but not discarded her broad norther accent). Meanwhile for Jamila, it is her father’s second (and fatal) heart attack, her brother’s marriage and her family’s intention to get her married off too.
The girls, now living together, slowly retreat into a shell, only in contact with their (only) friends on the Internet of whom, “most of them seemed to be doing something about the (Muslim)issues that exercised us”.
Most significant is Hejjiye, an older but strikingly beautiful Kuwaiti woman, “married to an Arab computer programmer who had quit his job, first to join some Arab political uprising with vaguely democratic aspirations, and then to gradually move towards jihadist groups”. He was “now fighting for the ‘faith’ in Syria, and she was there to support him, which was the job of all women – to help their men fight for the faith”. She also convinces Ameena and Jamila to come and become ‘jihadi brides’.
It is quite a simple trip for them to Turkey and over the border (with the customary bribes to the Turkish border guards) and to the orphanage near the Syria-Iraq border, run by Hejjiye. Ameena achieves her bid to marry a jihadi, Hassan, who however turns to be brutal even to her, while Jamila is slowly repenting her decision to come, given the dreariness and cruelty.
So far, they are away from the fighting but the area soon becomes a warzone with the Kurdish Peshmerga on the verge of overrunning it. Hejjiye and the jihadis strike up a deal for their safe withdrawal in return for freeing two Kurdish women fighters they hold. But Ameena has a diabolic plan – for her and (an oblivious and then unwilling) Jamila to become suicide bombers and attack the Kurds during the handover.
What happens next is what makes this novel a thrilling and gripping read.
Khair not only sketches – and quite vividly – the girls’ (and their families) varying perspective on life in the society they find themselves, and the society they join, not to mention the unacknowledged incongruity those who otherwise repudiate mores and norms of Western (and secular) life in their quest to replicate an “older perfect time” but have no qualms in using modern inventions and technology. Nor are they immune to naked self-interest (especially when it comes to self-preservation), ambition and career-building – as Jamila unflatteringly recounts.
Leave alone the obvious larger political and religious issues Khair raises, equally significant are on the (lack of) cross-cultural understanding and meaning in life (specially in developed societies) but don’t make the mistake of thinking all this only refers to this religion in question.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)