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

Canadian writer Ausma Zehanat Khan

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.

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?”

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.”

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.

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Amish Raj Mulmi

Amish Raj Mulmi

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