New book Jihadi Jane follows two girls into world of ISIS and radical Islam

Tabish Khair's new book — Jihadi Jane — follows two Yorkshire girls into the world of ISIS and radical Islam

Author Tabish Khair wrote the first draft for Jihadi Jane in about a year — fast by his standards. "It was a book that demanded to be written," he says.

Author Tabish Kher
Author Tabish Kher

Jihadi Jane is a novel set against the Syrian crisis, played out by two friends Ameena and Jamilla who leave their lives in Yorkshire to join ISIS. The name of the novel comes from the nickname adopted by Colleen Renee LaRose who was convicted in 2011, the American Islamic radical who attempted to kill the Swedish cartoonist for drawing cartoons about prophet Mohammed.

Jamilla is an orthodox Muslim woman, left out of religious rites such as accompanying her father to the mosque. She compensates by knowing the Quran and Arabic better than her brother. Her childhood friend Ameena comes from a more liberal Indian-Muslim background and goes through the typical trials of a Westernised teenagere — her parents divorce, she smokes, wears short skirts and experiences heartbreak. Jamilla’s radicalisation could be to ingratiate herself to a force that leaves her out, Ameena’s interest in the headscarf starts first to infuriate her mother.

"The two women who join the so-called jihad have different personal and intellectual motivations," explains the 50-year-old former journalist. "I am sure there may be other motivations too: protest, righteous anger, alienation, sexist notions of a woman’s role, warped reading of religion, sheer stupidity. People are never totally alike. Not even Islamists." Khair is an associate professor of English at the Aarhus University and, apart from keeping up with the political news, he read travel writing by authors such as Wilfred Thesiger and Robert Tewdwr Moss "who travelled in those regions before the current crisis". Though the indoctrination in the book relates to radical Islam, the methods are common to other kinds of militant radicalism. "Whether it is fascism, militant communism, or any other kind of extremism, including that of the Hindutva fringe. Finally, all indoctrination depends on a very selective way of looking at history, real and imagined grievances, xenophobia, a belief in quick and hence violent solutions, and the inability to live with difference."

Khair grew up in Gaya in Bihar and his father’s dispensary was vandalised by a religious mob, following an article Khair wrote. The incident did not have the desired effect and he went on write books with tantalising names such as How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position, published in 2014.

"Part of the problem is that many religious Muslims fool themselves into believing that Islamist terror organisations are being ‘misreported’ or that they have been created by the ‘West’. They do not see how their own orthodoxy has been warped into the inhuman violence of such organisations. By the time well-meaning religious Muslim women discover this, it might be too late for them — as we know has happened to Jihadi brides who tried to escape and were executed." Such a movement by any other name would be just as foul. "Radical and extremist Islamism will pose a threat for many years to come, but one also needs to put it in context: less than three per cent of Muslims in the world are estimated to support it. This percentage is probably the same in the case of neo-Nazism and white supremacist movements," he says, adding, "I am sure around three per cent of all Hindus can be shown as supporting the extremist fringe. Islamist extremism calls for sustained opposition and vigilance. The biggest that there is much religious policing of thought and behaviour even in normal Muslim societies."

The truth he uncovered while writing the book, he put in words for one of his characters: Evil arises when a person believes that only what he considers purely good has the right to exist.

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