How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position by Tabish Khair; book review

 

Who wouldn’t be struck by a title like this, with its mix of fundamentalism and sniggering sexual reference? Surely, it can only lead to all-title-and-no-trousers disappointment. No, not at all. In fact, the title is nowhere near as irreverent, intelligent, and explosive as the slowly detonated bomb of a story inside.

The three central characters are familiar-enough though too individualised to be clichéd. Two are Asian lads behaving badly: progressive; promiscuous (one middle-class Muslim, one super-privileged, wannabe Muslim); both players. They move in with an unreconstituted Muslim who drives a taxi and takes the Koran at its divine word. The three are  united, despite these differences, as outsiders living in Denmark (where the award-winning author, Tabish Khair, teaches), all equally subject to the roiling political debate on immigration. Breivik’s attack has  happened in Norway, and the knee-jerk assumption that it was the Islamists is still sending ripples of suspicion across Scandinavia.

Character feeds plot: there has been an ‘Islamist’ incident, the narration implies at the start, and immediately we imagine something large-scale and horrifying. The reader is continually teased, and the bearded taxi driver is incriminated but only in elusive asides; we won’t know the sad, unexpected twist until the final few pages. This book – 190 pages which force themselves to be read in one sitting – is a fine example of how much impact a short novel can have. It occupies a space somewhere between the funny, the sad and satirical. Narrative tone aims for blitheness but it is too intelligent to skim the surface and ridicule its easy-to-ridicule characters. It goes deeper to show us the men’s humanities. Its language is plain, ‘‘laddish’’ at times, but it can’t help but turn into pensive lyricism, even in its puerile jibing. 

What it dramatises is how Muslims are  judged, and more interestingly, how one kind of Muslim judges another, and how this judgement can be deeply complex, and condemnatory. It may only be mid-February but I suspect this will be among my most memorable reads of 2014.

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