CS Bhagya

Writing Portfolio. Mostly.

Tag: Books

Interview: Maajid Nawaz

In an email interview with CS Bhagya, author Maajid Nawaz discusses themes from his book, including fluid identities and Islam in opposition to Islamism.

 

EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW

Tell us what you think is the dichotomy between Islam/Islamism.
Islamism is not Islam. Islam is a faith. Islamism is a modern political ideology that aspires to enforce any given interpretation of Islam over society by law. Islam started roughly 1,400 years ago. The first Islamist group was founded in 1928 in Egypt. Muslim history is full of power struggles seeking to officially establish one sect over another. However, away from sectarian struggles for dominance, the specific theo-political ambition to codify and enshrine the Muslim moral code — Shari’ah — as law using the power of the State was inspired by post-World War I European fascism. In this sense, Islamism is entirely modern, while Islam is ancient. Islam seeks moral guidance and social justice. Islamism seeks moral totalitarianism and social engineering. Islam seeks to enter the heart and govern the soul. Islamism seeks to enter the State and govern the limbs. Islam is one of the greatest religions of this planet. Islamism is the bastard child of colonialism.

Are you challenging Islamist narratives about Islam, Western narratives about Islam, or both?
The opposite of West is not Islam, but East. Western narratives about Islam include Islamist narratives, and non-Islamist narratives; they include Muslim and non-Muslim voices; they include positive and negative stereotypes, all in the ‘West’. Juxtaposing ‘West’ against Islam sounds as strange to my ears as juxtaposing the ‘East’ with Islam would sound to most. In modern times, and due to the rise of the citizenship model, the ‘West’ is merely a geographic location housing all of these opinions and more. In this debate, it’s better to compare competing phenomena of trans-national ideas than it is to compare geographical locations. A Muslim democrat should stand with a non-Muslim democratic to argue against a Muslim and non-Muslim fascist, and so on.

You have been participating in an anti-extremist conversation through your organisations Quilliam and Khudi. How is your book going to extend the conversation?
My autobiography Radical aims to turn ‘understanding extremism’ — hitherto an academic and policy fetish — into a popular story. Through the art of storytelling, in this case a true story, I’m hoping to be able to capture the imagination of the masses and popularise an understanding of what can go so horribly wrong, why it may do so, and how it can also be fixed. I’ve tried to write it in a way that pulls no punches: a mirror against society and against my own mistakes. I’ve tried to end it on a note of optimism and hope that people can see that there is also a positive way forward for us all. Now all that’s left is for us to achieve the positive together.

What sort of responses to Islam do you hope to evoke through your book?
I hope that people realise through reading Radical that the real conversations we need, as globalised citizens in a new age, are not conversations about Islam versus Christianity, or indeed around any religious theme, but around multiple identities, democratic culture, and transnational values. I hope people see that the real struggle is not between Islam and “the rest” but between democratic culture and undemocratic culture. This struggle is often shrouded in pseudo-religious garb, but underneath all the pious rhetoric and righteous indignation is a lust for power, a search for identity and a flawed response to modernity. My key aim is to discredit the modern ideology of Islamism, and to distinguish it from Islam. Once this is done, I hope to be able to help spark a theological reform conversation within Muslim religious circles about interpretation in a modern age.

What motivated you to transform your experiences into a book?
Putting my life story into a book format had been suggested to me as soon as I went public about my criticism of Islamism back in 2007. But something never felt right, and I hesitated for a long time. In a way I was waiting for closure with Egypt. Mubarak is now held in the same prison I was detained in, except of course he wasn’t tortured, thank God. I feel that the ideas I write about— that it is possible to create a democratic alternative to the old Middle-East conundrum of ‘security versus Islamism’ —have been demonstrated with a vengeance. Though the Arab uprisings eventually came to be hijacked by the same old forces, their initial spark came from liberal, young democratic youth, and it is these youth who are firmly the future.

When did you know you were ready to write a book? How difficult was it to find a voice for the book?
I wasn’t ready, but the timing of the Arab uprisings forced me to take the plunge. Initially I was perfectly happy for my co-writer Tom Bromley to interview me, write up the transcripts and order my story into a coherent piece. However, as we moved forward, both Tom and I realised that to truly engage with the culture of a 15-year-old B-Boy, a 20-year-old Islamist revolutionary and a 34-year-old counter-extremism activist isn’t that easy, for obvious reasons. I needed to genuinely revisit each stage of my life. This was a draining and exhaustive process, not to mention dangerous. Returning to traumatic experiences buried deep inside could have ended very differently, but I’m happy that with Radical at least, it seems to have borne fruit.

Upon completion, was the underlying emotion largely one of relief?
I oddly felt sadder than I had before. I had excavated certain memories, wrestled with them and then forced a voice onto them. Since doing so, these memories have started to argue back with me, and they refuse to go back to sleep. I also felt more of a sense of urgency. Writing Radical reminded me of just how much there is to do, and how little time there is to do it in.

Essex, Egypt, London, Pakistan. How have these diverse geographies affected your identity?
After everything that’s happened in my life, I find myself peculiarly comfortable among Essex wide-boys, hip-hop B-Boys, religious Muslims, Islamist agitators, Western policy experts and statesmen, disillusioned Pakistani youth and Arab revolutionaries. My language switches from colloquial Essex slang, grammar school English, the Egyptian vernacular, modern standard Arabic and anglicised Urdu. I feel enriched by my multiple identities: my very British political liberalism, my Pakistani passion, my African-American music influences, my South Asian heritage, my Arab experience and my Muslim culture and religious journey. Now all I need is a personality!

*

This interview appeared in the July 14th issue (no.28) of Tehelka magazine

Twilight woes

To think we’ve come from Bram Stoker’s spine-chilling novel Dracula to this:  not one or two but four whole books on the unbelievably boring escapades of a bunch of reclusive and predictable sissy-vampires good for nothing except, well, sparkling.

The narrator of the Twilight series, one Isabella Swan discovers on moving to sleepy Forks that, for all her clumsiness, she has landed a jackpot in the form of Edward Cullen. He is a century young vampire who can’t help but look at her with his smoldering (or replace with suitable synonym from nearby handy thesaurus, quite like Meyer does, every few paragraphs) topaz eyes which egg her on to embark on a mission to somehow make her way – stumbling, falling face-first or generally making a fool of herself – into his vampire coven.

The series was, literally, dreamed up by author Stephenie Meyer on June 2nd 2003, an unfortunate day for us, when she spawned her very own Mary Sue in the form of Bella, as her protagonist irritatingly insists on being called. Bella progresses doggedly from Twilight to the very imaginatively named New Moon, and later Eclipse and Breaking Dawn stalking the vampire-prince of her dreams. Edward, otherwise engaged in the heroic tasks of “chuckling” or singing lullabies, is constantly entangled in a game of touch-and-go, sometimes lured by thirst for Bella’s blood and other times by love sublime, and tries, albeit unsuccessfully, to dissuade Bella from haunting his life.

Neither are Bella or others in the books very attractive characters, nor are the books brilliantly innovative, which leads to the question: why is the series so damn popular?  In an article in The Guardian, psychologist Dr Cecilia d’ Felice attributes their popularity to the books being a metaphor for “how much we need love and how much we need to be needed. We see our own vulnerabilities in them,” and says Edward’s character works because, “The vampire is elegant and beautiful. They are Vanity Fair monsters, high-end, aspirational monsters.”

Whatever.

Of course, as with most other bestsellers it was inevitable that movies based on the books followed soon after. Robert Pattinson, previously darling-boy Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, was cast as Edward Cullen.

Incidentally, Pattinson’s first opinion of the books was spot on. He said, “When I read it I was convinced Stephenie was convinced she was Bella and it was like it was a book that wasn’t supposed to be published. It was like reading her sexual fantasy, especially when she said it was based on a dream and it was like, ‘Oh I’ve had this dream about this really sexy guy,’ and she just writes this book about it. Like some things about Edward are so specific, I was just convinced, like, ‘This woman is mad. She’s completely mad and she’s in love with her own fictional creation.”

Admirable, and it wouldn’t be wrong to say he was about the only watchable thing in the first movie. But sadly enough, recent photographs of him make you wonder “Who’s this yucky man?” before you realize it is Pattinson himself, sporting a shockingly unattractive blond beard, blinking out from the photos like a bewildered caveman.

Next arrived New Moon – the movie, which, from beginning to end, amounted to little more than a joyful parade of bare male torsos, especially Jacob Black’s. Edward Cullen was completely pushed to a corner, perhaps appropriately so, because in the one scene he did make an entry (shirtless, of course) he appeared so emaciated you couldn’t help but feel his “vegetarian” diet must finally have taken a toll on him.

The books allow for no plot development whatsoever and seem to circle in familiar alleys – both character behavior and event-wise – where conflict materializes rather reluctantly in the form of feeble antagonists like Victoria or the Volturi who seem to largely prefer lingering in the sidelines rather than make full-fledged appearances lest Meyer be confronted with the insuperable challenge of having to write a coherent, sensible and for once powerful climax without resorting to clichés or other excuses.  Not only are the books populated by atrocious characters but also a complementary ensemble of atrocious character-names, topped by the infamous Renesmee Carlie Cullen (nicknamed Nessie, aka The Loch Ness Monster).

The series finally drew to an end with the controversial fourth book Breaking Dawn which ended on a very disappointing note, with something a friend describes as “an anti-climactic non-battle”. Horrifyingly enough, the ambiguous ending has been interpreted by many Twilighters to be an indication of many more books to come. (Woe!)

Apart from being a criminal waste of paper and print ink, the books are a major source of concern because of the image they project onto the minds of teenage girls who are its primary audience: Bella is submissive to the extent of being masochistic and Edward so fiercely possessive he doesn’t allow Bella breathing space. Then there is the feminist angle. Leaving family, friends, and college education to get married? Pregnant at 18? It reinforces every stereotype of femininity women, not just feminists, have fought for decades to surpass. The issue becomes more serious considering at what an impressionable age the average Twilight reader is.

Already Twilight fans have worked themselves to a point of hysteria and refuse to take any criticism against the books, as was evidenced when popular horror-writer Stephen King recently remarked, “Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn”. Responses to this statement varied from being coldly sarcastic (“King is no Gabriel Garcia Marquez so I don’t understand why he gets to say who is a good writer and who is not”) to hostile (“we twilighters should send him tons of hate mail … just to show him how many twilight fans he just pissed off”) and downright silly (“King doesn’t know what a real book was if it hit him in the face. He’s just a bloody guy who is jealous of Edward’s good looks”).

Getting worked up about some books which are not even good in the first place? Wouldn’t it be more sensible to spend our energies on something worthwhile? Frankly, there are tons of better books out there we’d all be doing ourselves a favor by reading.

*

This piece was written for my college magazine sometime around December 2009. Yes, I actually got through all the books before I came to my senses.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Lionel Shriver’s Orange Prize-winning eighth novel We Need to Talk About Kevin deals with the controversial themes of maternal ambivalence, juvenile delinquency and other difficult, generally glossed-over facets of marriage and parenthood.

The book, on the surface, seems an attempt to explore the underlying psychological complexities of a juvenile delinquent, Kevin Khatchadourian, responsible for a horrifying school massacre. The incident finds echoes with the Columbine High School shoot-out involving two high school seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold who killed twelve students and a teacher. Through the course of the story, the book expands its scope to explicate on the anxieties – seemingly commonplace at first glance but of great significance, nevertheless – experienced by couples when confronted with the prospect of having a child.

Kevin’s mother Eva Khatchadourian, through a sequence of letters to her estranged husband Franklin, narrates the events leading up to that momentous day ominously referred to as Thursday when their first-born Kevin brutally murders nine people using  bow and arrows.

Shriver’s incisive writing tracks Eva’s struggle to understand the reasons behind Kevin’s violent outburst. As the narrative progresses, Eva comprehends that Kevin may not have been singularly responsible for the massacre. His entire upbringing – never lacking in any material comforts whatsoever – including Franklin and Eva too, may have played a pivotal role first in shaping Kevin’s personality and later in failing to attend to and correct his faults.

Eva is the quintessential modern woman with a high profile career. Despite being initially unwilling, she decides to have a child – through not entirely unselfish reasons. Kevin turns out to be a problem child right from the day of his birth when he refuses to be breastfed, as if a reaction to Eva’s own reluctant foray into motherhood. Eva finds Kevin relentlessly difficult to handle: he refuses to be potty-trained until six, once rampages through Eva’s study destroying all of her beloved possessions and is cunning enough to conceal his vicious side from his adoring father. Kevin gradually distances Franklin from Eva and gives rise to yet another cause for his mother’s growing resentment towards him. Or so it seems.

But Eva is not completely innocent. She is, by turns, indifferent or downright cruel in her behavior with Kevin. In one touching incident, an ailing Kevin requests Eva to read aloud the story of Robin Hood to him. This incident reveals him to be almost normal, leading to the realization that Eva is a highly unreliable narrator. She may be cleverly molding the story to show herself in a more favorable light, trying to somehow be absolved of any responsibility in Kevin’s murderous spree.

Although Shriver’s slightly awkward prose may take some getting used to, the read is, finally, very rewarding. The book foregrounds every misgiving, fear and apprehension a new parent encounters and impresses on the reader how vulnerable they are after the birth of a child. Through the character of Kevin, who seems to be Eva’s personal nightmare – ceaselessly stifling her growth and freedom – the book gives voice to a harsh and usually taboo aspect of parenthood: some parents may not necessarily love their own children.

The novel addresses the universal, never-ending debate of nature versus nurture. Was Kevin so wholly unlikeable as to merit Eva’s complete negligence? Is it possible for a person to be inherently evil? How much of people’s actions are governed by outside forces and how much by unalterable personal traits?

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a compelling and profound book. It insists we focus our attention to the urgent questions confronting the contemporary society where paradigms of parenthood, femininity and maternal love are continually shifting and portrays how people everywhere endeavour to redeem themselves in the face of pain and tragedy.