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Security personnel put the areas around Mandala White’s office on lockdown as authorities worked to take control of the situation | Mandala White
Security personnel put the areas around Mandala White’s office on lockdown as authorities worked to take control of the situation | Mandala White

It is just over two weeks since a lone terrorist toting semi-automatic weapons and white supremacist ideology strode into Christchurch’s Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre, killing 50 people at prayer. He livestreamed his attack on social media and wrote in advance a manifesto detailing his motives which he emailed to selected New Zealand authorities, minutes before opening fire.

The two of us — friends and literary academics with a specialisation in Muslim writing — experienced the New Zealand terrorist attack from opposite sides of the globe.

One of us, Mandala White, was two blocks from the Al Noor Mosque and so heard the shots and was in lockdown for four hours while the police gained control of what was an uncertain situation. There was confusion from the outset, when locals assumed the gunshots were construction sounds, the possibility of a shooting being utterly divorced from New Zealand’s reality till then. Conflicting information and rumours escalated the terror: shots had been fired from a car, someone had been arrested on the other side of town, men in riot gear with guns roamed the streets, a property far from any shooting site had been cordoned off because they had found car bombs.

Two literary academics make the case for the power of storytelling from Muslim perspectives to disrupt Islamophobic narratives

In a city of just 379,000, everyone knew someone connected to the event. A colleague out walking in the park opposite the mosque saw people running and comforted some of those who were weeping. One man who was killed was a regular customer at a nearby shop. A neighbour’s child went to school with one of the victims. But those connections were to emerge later. In the moment, what gripped bystanders was fear. How many terrorists were there? Where was the next attack going to happen? Were our kids in danger?

The other of us, Claire Chambers, had just returned to Leeds in the United Kingdom after moderating panels at the Lahore Literature Festival, which was attended by many of the most significant writers of Muslim literature. Soon after the Christchurch attacks, a Muslim teenager in Surrey, southern England, was stabbed and badly injured by a man who claimed to be inspired by the bloodshed in New Zealand. More recently, five mosques in Birmingham were vandalised. Tell Mama, a group that counters anti-Muslim hatred, has reported a spike of Islamophobia in Britain since the events in New Zealand. Leeds also is no stranger to the roils of terrorism; in 2005, news came out that three of the four 7/7 London bombers had strong connections with the area of Beeston, a suburb of Leeds.

Against this grim backdrop, we want to discuss the power of language and literature to broadcast ideas of Islamophobia, as well as to combat such hatred. Recent years have seen a tide of rising Islamophobia and simplification. In the British context, the Satanic Verses affair, 9/11 and the above-mentioned London bombings led to a ramping up of prejudice against Muslims.

Radicalisation was proven not to be a uniquely Islamist problem by the 2011 Norway mass murder of 77 people, by the far-right murder of politician Jo Cox shortly before the Brexit referendum in June 2016, and by the Finsbury Park mosque attack in June 2017. In the Christchurch perpetrator’s stated motives, to which we want to give little airtime, he claimed the Norway and Finsbury Park mosque attackers as inspirations. Across the Atlantic, in the United States, President Donald Trump is emboldening racists and white supremacists with his Muslim ban and imprisonment of migrant children in cages. Hatred and radicalised actions are therefore swirling in multiple directions.

Mainstream, often exoticising, interpretations have tended to assume that Muslim literature provides access to a series of truths otherwise missing from Western culture. Both readers and writers are guilty of such simplistic readings.

For instance, Khaled Hosseini, the author of the hugely popular The Kite Runner, provides a glimpse of Afghanistan for readers who are assumed to be as unfamiliar with the country as his protagonist, Amir. After taking Amir through a country where women are stoned, where people live in mud huts and children are dressed in rags, and where Taliban patrols cruise the streets armed with whips and Kalashnikovs, his guide says to him, “That’s the real Afghanistan, Agha sahib. That’s the Afghanistan I know. You? You’ve always been a tourist here, you just didn’t know it.”

Readers have embraced Hosseini’s sympathetic Afghani characters who stand in contrast to such horrors. Former American first lady Laura Bush writes in Time magazine that “Hosseini’s writing has invited many to look beyond the post-9/11 stereotypes about his birth country ... Afghanistan [is] a land of men and women, each with their own hopes and longings for love.” The assumptions of ‘reality’ that attend both the reading and writing of Hosseini’s text elide the representational nature of Muslim literature — and indeed all writing.

If we took this discussion no further, it would be easy to submit to despair. However, we suggest that glimmers of optimism emanate from some other regions of the literary realm where, we argue, language can be used to change the stories Islamophobes tell about Muslims.

Reading and writing can be a corrective for information dissonance. Author Pheng Cheah has argued that world literature is “a type of world-making activity that enables us to imagine a world.” In contrast to the terrorists’ world-destroying ambitions, writing is constructive and makes a world.

Especially important is the translation of literature from other languages into English, French, Spanish and other hegemonic tongues. Not only do these dominant languages benefit from access to less powerful languages and texts, but they in turn enrich those other languages and texts. What is needed are translations that don’t slavishly try to bear books across word by word, but instead capture the original voice and tone, the musicality and the ideas.

A novel such as Taoos Faqat Rang [Peacock is Just Colour] by Neelam Ahmed Bashir is crying out for a sympathetic translation. The novel deals with post-9/11 anti-Muslim prejudice in the US against the protagonist, Pakistani-American Murad. Such a novel would be ideal for helping Americans empathise with the Muslim other in their midst, but unfortunately it is not yet available in English.

In the longlist for the Man Booker International Prize, which was announced on March 12, 11 of the 13 nominated books had been published by independent publishers, suggesting that these are better-placed than the ‘big five’ publishing houses to take risks and develop fruitful translator and writer networks.

Translators need to be treated on a more equal footing with authors and be accorded high-profile status on book jackets. This is because translations have many benefits, encouraging readers to think about foreign languages as well as viewing their own in a new light. It may be no exaggeration to suggest that translations foster global peace by encouraging empathy. More translations are especially required from the ‘Muslim world’, so that Euro-America can see Muslims in all their diversity, complexity and humanity.

The value of such representations lies not in their delivery of truth about Muslim worlds, but in their disruption of readers’ imagined truths and inflexible perspectives. Muslim literature challenges hate not only by presenting alternative stories about Muslims, but by fostering literary encounters that open eyes to the value of lives and focalisations beyond one’s own narrow purview. Such stories also disrupt Islamophobic discourses merely by existing.

The Christchurch terrorist harnessed storytelling devices — both written language, which explained the ‘why’ of what he did, and video, which showed the horrific ‘how’ — as a medium to foster hate. The response in New Zealand has been to silence his voice: it is now a criminal offence to distribute either his video or his written document.

Led by a hijab-clad prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, who has vowed never to utter the terrorist’s name, New Zealand has begun to rewrite its national and international response to terrorism. Tens of thousands of New Zealanders all over the country joined the Muslim community for the Friday call to prayers to commemorate the victims killed one week earlier. Semi-automatic weapons have been banned in a united and unanimous action by the government. Gang members have stood guard outside mosques while their Muslim neighbours pray.

These are the kinds of powerful actions that can come through letting others’ stories touch us and help us to look beyond ourselves. We need not wait for a tragedy to do so. Literature gives us the stories of others whenever we care to listen.

Claire Chambers teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of three books, including Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays

Mandala White holds a PhD in postcolonial literature from the University of Leeds and is an academic manager at American Universities International Programmes, Christchurch, New Zealand

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 31st, 2019