Countering the narrative of being a Muslim in the West: on Ausma Zehanat Khan’s crime writing

This is the second in a monthly series on crime writers from around the world. It was originally published on Scroll.in. Read more about Ausma and her new novel in the Khattak/Getty series here.

Canadian writer Ausma Zehanat Khan

Imagine being a Muslim in today’s environment of hate and scapegoating, to hear rhetoric that demonises your entire community, to see the head of your country defer to majoritarian narratives, to have to measure your actions carefully in everyday life so that others cannot doubt your loyalties. You begin to question small incidents: did the man run you off the road because you wore a hijab? Are your children being bullied at school because they are Muslim? Is your state creating new laws that specifically target your community?

As divisive politics based around race and religion become the new normal, in these bleak times shines Detective Esa Khattak, the protagonist of Ausma Zehanat Khan’s crime fiction series. A second-generation Canadian Muslim, Khattak heads the Community Policing Section in Toronto, a programme that appoints officers from ethnic minorities to address Toronto’s cosmopolitanism. Its mandate, according to Khattak in The Unquiet Dead, the first book in the series, “was couched in generic terms: ‘sensitivity training for police services, community support, and an alternative viewpoint in cases involving minorities, particularly Muslim minorities.’”

A ‘good’ Muslim

Khattak is essentially the “good” Muslim: someone who adheres to western society’s laws, and is willing to uphold it. As expected, other Muslim immigrants do not take this very well. “Every mosque in the city will shut its doors to you. You’ll become a pariah, a resident spy…You don’t spy on those you call your own, brother,” a friend warns him before he joins the security forces.

As Khattak tackles the cases that come to him — a Serbian war criminal, a homegrown terror plot, the Syrian refugee crisis, and Iran’s treatment of dissidents — he questions his religious identity, and whether it can sit besides his commitment to the laws of the state he represents. “I spent a lot of time thinking of who Esa is as an individual, as well as what he represents as a practising Muslim born and raised in the West, navigating his identity under increasingly difficult conditions,” Khan explained over email.

Khattak’s self-doubts are contrasted by his deputy Rachel Getty, a hockey-playing policewoman who has her own demons to fight. Getty, unlike Khattak, is comfortable in her own skin; there is a clarity to her understanding of justice, and of what she is doing. One could argue it is because she is white, and the privileges afforded by race in her society allows her to negotiate her terrain better than Khattak. But there is a determination to her that comes from her troubles at home. “The cops were supposed to help kids like her and Zach (Rachel’s brother). They weren’t supposed to look the other way when one of their own used his fists on his kid. She wasn’t going to be that kind of cop,” she acknowledges to herself.

Read how two detectives are the perfect protagonists for our troubled times here

Rooted in reality

The Khattak/Getty series comes as a beacon of hope amid the prevailing narrative of the other. “As a crime writer, I’m trying to tell stories that illuminate our common humanity, stories that demystify who Muslims are, what they believe and how they live,” Khan said. While right-wing populism demonises minorities and Muslims in particular, her writing breaks down this rhetoric. “In writing crime fiction that centres on identity — and how identity is a determinative factor in so many human rights abuses — I’m asking my readers to think about two things. Beginnings. And endings. It never begins with genocide, so it’s important to consider the trajectory of hate — not just its rhetoric, but its incremental, creeping policies. And then to ask, what is the endgame?”

The series’ focus on justice and human rights comes from its creator, who holds a PhD in international human rights law. Khan practised immigration law in Toronto, and besides the Khattak/Getty series, she has also written the Khorasan Archives fantasy series. Talking about the difference between writing crime and fantasy, Khan explained: “With crime fiction, I adhere closely to real issues and events, so my research is painstaking and exact, and I fact-check and interview experts extensively before I build a story around those events…With fantasy, I have a little more freedom with my world-building, which gives me greater liberty to draw out the themes I explore. I still rely on historical material, but I can bring out certain truths without having to depend as heavily on realism.”

Being Muslim in the West

Originally from Canada, Khan now lives in the US. Born to Pathan parents who lived in Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh, Khan’s mother moved to Gujranwala after the Partition, while her father moved to Karachi in 1955, then to Peshawar. “I lived in Pakistan for a year when I was little, and then up until my twenties, my family visited Pakistan often,” she said. “My grandfather took my father on his travels in the area, so my father often spoke of Kanpur, Bareilly, Lucknow and Delhi. We still have family in India, but my parents never returned to India after Partition.”

For Khan, crime writing is the “perfect vehicle” to explore the themes she writes about: “the exploration of identity and belonging, and how in turn, perceptions of identity result in exclusion and marginalisation, at the personal, societal and state levels.” Khan is not “visibly identifiable” as a practising Muslim woman, and yet, “every single day there’s an incident…Casually racist remarks that people pass in my presence when they don’t know I’m Muslim. Abuse […] on social media. Children in my family or community being bullied at school…”

Triggers come from the most unexpected of places; when she received a crime fiction award in the mail, her mother thought it was a death threat. The award resembled a figurine with a noose around its neck. “You simply can’t shut out the demonising rhetoric — it’s everywhere,” she said. As the rhetoric of hate grows, Khan and her husband, a political sciences professor, have had to acclimatise. “We minimise our Muslim identity in public, especially when we travel. From the research material we keep on our laptops, to the information on our phones, to the books we carry to read — we second-guess everything.”

One of the common arguments among Islamophobes is how Muslims are resistant to change within. Incidents of fundamentalism are held up as a mirror to those who argue otherwise, but this reductionist view does not take into consideration the political context. “For most of the 20th century, fundamentalism was a limited phenomenon whose influence expanded as a direct result of the failure of post-colonial secular nationalism and Western policy toward the Muslim world,” Khan said. Any calls for a reformation within a religious tradition like Islam must also understand that “progress is measured over decades, if not centuries”.

Further, post-colonial authoritarianism in the Muslim world stifled the moderate voices within Islam. As Khattak acknowledges, “There was the damage they did to themselves, lost in the fog of an all-pervasive ignorance. Of history — their own history, their scripture, their traditions, their prophetic example — taken, twisted, besmirched, betrayed. The kinder and wiser voices silenced. The still, small voice unheard.”

Not just a character

Within fiction, there are few genres that allow for the exploration of moral ambiguities as crime writing does. The old whodunits are passe; the best crime writing today attempts to understand the human condition, and the circumstances that lead to questionable moral judgments. For Khan, this results in a rich vein of exploring what her characters are capable of. “The crime novel is an excellent vehicle for exploring our notions of justice and measuring those against the imperfections of human nature,” she said.

In creating Khattak, Khan has also created an archetype of the modern Muslim man, the antithesis of the right wing’s demonised Muslim male. “I’m very careful with Esa because I understand his significance not only as a character but also as a symbol,” she said. Khattak is the composite of the Muslim men Khan grew up around. There is a particularly revealing moment in one of the books as Khattak gets down to pray that tells us more about the Islam she wants her readers to know about. “The first prayer he had learned to pray with his father, the last also, his father’s green eyes glancing back over his shoulder, the gentle, confiding smile, the warm words of reassurance, the hands that had held him so tenderly, all these years…And after ending each dua, the first thing his father said was the same, ‘How light we both feel! Can you feel the peace of it, Esa?’”

It is these dichotomies Khan wants us to navigate in the series: showcasing the gentler, the more common face of Islam vis-a-vis the right wing’s slotting of Muslims as the other. Perhaps we need the reason, non-binary worldview, and compassion of Esa Khattak to help us overcome this turbulent age of anger. “My hope is that if we address each other’s humanity with a thoroughness of knowing, we may be able to move beyond our misperceptions and fears,” Khan said.

This essay was originally published in Scroll.in. Read about other crime writers around the world here.

Consulting Editor @ Writers' Side Literary Agency. Writes mostly on books & publishing, and Nepali history. More at amishmulmi.wordpress.com