Destroyed lives in the world of ISIS

Sunday 19/03/2017
Cover of Tabish Khair’s Just Another Jihadi Jane.

New intelligence analysis shows that British jihadi women and children returning from Syria and Iraq pose a threat to the United Kingdom. This is the first time that intelligence documents disclosed such a danger and it comes at a time when the expected defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Mosul will send even more jihadis back home.
These women and children can escape charges for terror offences if they persuade British authorities they were pressured into travelling to Syria or Iraq by husbands or parents. Just Another Jihadi Jane, a novel by Tabish Khair, explores what makes women vulnerable to such pressures and the conse­quences of succumbing to them.
Khair was born and educated in the small town of Bihar, India, and his previous books have been shortlisted nine times for prestigious prizes in five coun­tries.
His latest novel tells of two British-born teenage girls of South Asian descent who at the start seem so different: Jamila is quiet, religious and academically bright but Ameena covers her insecurity with fake confidence. After being rejected by a popular boy at school, Ameena develops a serious interest in militant Islam, communicates with an online jihadist recruiter and convinces Jamila to travel with her to Syria.
At first, Jamila’s character seems balanced compared to Ameena and her beliefs are not extreme. “I keep this scarf wrapped around my hair,” Jamila says, “because of men’s interest in me. It is not because of my faith any more. I still believe in God, don’t misunderstand me but I do not think God is a fashion designer. He observes people’s hearts, not their clothes.”
However, when Jamila analy­ses a poem given to her in class, she writes an essay full of anger about the depravity of Western­ers who live against the will of God and who will be punished for it.
Jamila compares her teacher’s passion for poetry to her passion for religion: “I used to find her ludicrous. I don’t know why, now. I mean, she was fanatical about her poetry, but then I was fanatical about my religion… She was an extreme admirer of her Romantic notion of poetry, in the same way that Wahhabis are extremist admirers of their notion of Islam.”
Jamila observes Ameena’s obsession with militant Islam grow as the conflict in Syria worsens. Ameena joins Jamila at her mosque group, which makes Jamila question if she was the rea­son for Ameena’s radicalisation.
She asks the reader: “Are you sure it was the mosque that radicalised Ameena? Why Ameena, out of a thousand or more? Was it only the mosque? Was it only my, and my father’s and brother’s Islam? Or was it also Ameena’s parents’ divorce? Was it that ghostly hurt and anger lurking in Ameena’s lucid eyes? Was it her long lost love for Alex? Was it the way her friends snubbed her? Was it her mother’s strong disapproval of the Islamic headscarf?”
Jamila wonders if all Muslims really do have the same ideas, if she had anything in common with a Somalian who refuses to read anything but the Quran or an Algerian who is still angry over French atrocities or a Palestin­ian who believes the lies about a two-state solution.
At another point of the book, Jamila talks about the hardship of living as a Muslim in the West: “It builds up a core of bitterness in you. On one hand, you cannot really be part of everything that might empower you as a person, give you the options you want; on the other, you do not want to be part of all this — the parties, the flirting, the option to grab a sand­wich without checking whether it is pork or beef, halal or not, the simple ability to walk down the street without feeling like you are an alien from Mars and sometimes being treated like one!”
The extreme militancy of ISIS is revealed in the novel when the girls are in Syria. Quality of life is not what they imagined as necessities become scarce and money is used to reward jihadi fighters if they marry. Attractive girls are encouraged to marry and unattractive ones are brainwashed to be suicide bombers.
Tabish Khair’s compelling formation of the two characters shows the vulnerability of being sucked into a world of anger and destruction and, with these jihadi brides and their children returning home, the need to under­stand their mentality and experiences if we hope to make it for them to inte­grate safely back into society.