Fiction in the time of Islamophobia

Ausma Zehanat Khan’s Khattak-Getty series is an antidote to the stereotypical portrayal of Muslims of the West

Updated - January 23, 2019 10:48 am IST

Published - January 23, 2019 12:15 am IST

Ausma Zehanat Khan

Ausma Zehanat Khan

At a time when Islamophobia is at its peak in the West, Pakistani-Canadian novelist Ausma Zehanat Khan has performed great service in countering the stereotype of the Western Muslim as an outsider. A writer of crime fiction, she has done this through her Khattak-Getty series of four novels that are set partly in Canada and partly in different Muslim majority countries, such as Bosnia, Iran and Syria.

The central protagonist of the series is detective Inspector Essa Khattak, a Canadian whose parents migrated to Toronto from Peshawar. Khan does not try to hide Khattak’s internal struggle between his Muslim identity and his loyalty to the Canadian state. Simultaneously, he is depicted as a police officer with a conscience who goes beyond the call of duty when brought face to face with human suffering. His assistant Rachel Getty is similarly portrayed as an efficient policewoman, but one who must contend with personal demons. Getty often appears more hard-headed than her more idealistic superior and her intuition sometimes surpasses Khattak’s instincts for detection.

While critical of negative Western attitudes towards Muslims even when the latter are superb performers in their fields, Khan makes no attempt to gloss over the inherent faults and weaknesses of Muslim societies that she exposes. She especially targets the tyrannical nature of Muslim regimes in West Asia. Her novel A Dangerous Crossing is a severe indictment of the tyrannical Syrian regime as well as of agents of human trafficking masquerading as saviours. Among the Ruins is a stringent denunciation of the mullah-dominated regime in Iran that exposes the workings of its torture chambers and the intrinsic corruption of a dictatorship masquerading in the guise of “righteous” Islamic rule.

Whilst emphasising the positive contributions of Muslim citizens of the West, Khan is not oblivious to the actions of a very small minority of extremists among them that provides justification for Islamophobia in the West. In The Language of Secrets, she tackles this issue and the distorted ideology that provides terrorist cells justification for their violent acts against fellow citizens. She paints a realistic image of the charismatic personality of the leader of one of these cells and the rhetoric and tactics he uses to attract a small number of gullible youth to his cause. Khattak and Getty eventually foil the terrorist plot despite the obstacles placed in their way by superior officers.

Khan’s Khattak-Getty series is a potent antidote to the simplistic and stereotypical portrayal of Muslim citizens of the West that one finds in a section of the Western media and among right-wing public personalities.

The writer is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University

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