A Chronicle of Radicalisation

Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire

Bloomsbury Circus, 264pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781408886779

reviewed by Michael Duffy

Home Fire has already found itself on the Man Booker longlist, an accolade that highlights the immediacy and poignancy of its representation of radicalisation, the Islamic State, and the place of Islam in the British political and media landscape. Until now, Kamila Shamsie’s fiction has largely maintained an historical focus, narrating Pakistan’s history through the experiences of women, children and families impacted by momentous events of South Asian sovereignty such as colonial rule, the Partition of India and the Secession of Bangladesh. While these works of historical fiction offer engaging lenses through which to read both British Muslim identities and contemporary developments in Pakistani politics, Home Fire offers something more. In rendering Sophocles’ Antigone into a contemporary context, Shamsie offers a commentary on citizenship and the nation-state that is formulated around its revocation and loss.

The narrative is based around the engagement of Aneeka Pasha and Eamonn Lone, British-Pakistani renderings of Antigone and Haemonn. Their relationship brings together two families with much at stake in the rhetorical ‘war on terror’ and the Islamic State. Eamonn’s father, Karamat, is the hardline British Home Secretary who, after the death of Aneeka’s radicalised twin brother Parvaiz (Polynices) in Turkey, embarks upon a policy of humiliation by refusing to allow the return of the teenager’s body to London for burial. This decision, fuelled by government leaks, reckless Islamophobic journalism and the difficulties of travel for British Muslims at a time of heightened security, leads to the exile of the whole Pasha family and the eventual deaths of Aneeka and Eamonn.

Home Fire is focalised alternately through its major characters: those described above and Parvaiz and Aneeka’s older sister, PhD student Isma. Each of the characters has a section of the novel named after them and is the major focus of the chapters contained within. Through the intertextual relationship with the classical familial drama of Antigone, the characters’ struggles are elevated to the level of the state. Karamat Lone sums up this literary conceit in the final section of the novel, thinking ‘Fathers and sons, sons and fathers. An Asian family drama dragged into Parliament.’ These five characters have different approaches to Islam and their Pakistani heritage, and Shamsie’s shifts in style and tone do well to reflect this as the focalisation changes.

The novel opens with the all-too-common narration of detention and interrogation by UK anti-terror agents as Isma departs London to begin her studies in Massachusetts. After a lengthy period of pre-departure questioning causes Isma to miss her flight, we read about her eventual arrival in Boston:

She had spent the whole journey worrying about the interrogation awaiting her in Boston, certain they would detain her or put her on a plane back to London. But the immigration official had asked only where she was going to study, said something she didn’t follow but tried to look interested in regarding the university basketball team, and waved her through.

This passage highlights the very British nature of the novel. Isma expects to encounter the kind of draconian American border agents described in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), but Boston’s airport is much more accepting than Heathrow, in her own home of London. This grounded presentation of racial profiling and otherness is joined by others: Aneeka’s wry talk about ‘googling while Muslim’, and inflammatory tabloid stories about the family later in the novel. Isma’s academic life also engages with ideas of British citizenship and terror. Recalling a debate in an undergraduate class, she notes that British terror suspects are ‘rhetorically being made unBritish.’ Isma states: ‘Even when the word “British” was used it was always “British of Pakistani descent” or “British Muslim” or […] “British passport-holders.”’ These observations, made about Britain’s 7/7 terrorists, pre-empt the public stripping of the Pashas’ British identity after Parvaiz’s radicalisation.

Parvaiz, a green grocer’s assistant in diverse North West London, is by far the most secular Muslim in his family. After his two Hijab-wearing sisters move away for university, Parvaiz is left unable to afford the family home, and its sale distances him from his family, leaving him reticent and further emerged in his hobby of recording ambient sound. At this critical juncture in his life, he meets the brooding and charismatic Farooq, an IS recruiter who offers stories of his father’s heroics as a Jihadi in the 1990s, and a brand of Islam built on the promise of a reclaimable masculinity. Farooq’s rhetoric is strikingly similar to that of “red pill” communities that have gained traction in alt-right forum spaces online. According to Farooq, Parvaiz’s loss of his family home is proof of ‘an emasculated version of Islam […] which wants to keep us all compliant.’ Parvaiz is told that ‘by Allah’s law, you, not your women, dispose of your property.’

It is an appealing crutch for a disaffected teen who, like most IS recruits, did not previously have much of a relationship with his faith. That Farooq preys on vulnerabilities neither exceptional nor specific to Islam makes the process of radicalisation worryingly relatable, and perhaps more harrowing as a result. This feeling occurs again when two characters in Raqqa – part of the valuable ‘media arm’ Parvaiz has travelled to join – discuss their attempts to recruit ‘jihadi brides’ with a nonchalance and youthfulness that makes the process seem like Tinder dating: ‘I’m talking to a girl in France,’ an IS cameraman tells Parvaiz on his first day in Syria. ‘She’s almost ready to come over.’

Home Fire contributes to the discourse of Peter Kosminsky’s Channel 4 drama The State – which has gained attention for its realistic representation of IS recruitment – while paying more attention to the adaptable and multifaceted rhetoric underpinning radicalisation. Like The State, the novel describes the ‘arc of disillusionment’ awaiting European Muslims who are promised a utopian religious state. Significantly, much like German journalist Jürgen Todenhöfer’s writings on the Islamic State after his time within its borders, Shamsie points presents IS as a state with the beginnings of a system of law and taxation, with borders and employment across industries, from warfare to filmmaking. For Farooq and Parvaiz, the hope for the Caliphate is that it can offer a real state to its subjects, but its brutality – particularly that revealed in a passage about an encounter between the hisba, or morality police, and an unveiled Muslim teenager from London – renders it clearly dystopian to the reader.

The novel’s questioning of citizenship and statelessness – initiated in Isma’s theorisations in the university lecture hall and traced through Karamat Lone’s policy of citizenship revocation – becomes less and less abstract in Parvaiz’s narrative. An interesting tension arises in the narrative between the nation-states of the West, whose identities seem predicated on the exclusion of radicalised youths, and of the Caliphate, which is desperate to lure that group into their territory and offer them a very different kind of citizenship. Another interesting tension is the contrast between the highly individualised narrative of Parvaiz’s radicalisation and the frenetic, fast-paced succession of newspaper articles, conversations and meetings comprising Aneeka’s section, a presentation highly invested in departicularisation. By removing context and causality, this journalism perpetuates a tired clash-of-civilisations narrative that leads, inevitably, to bricks through the family’s windows. In classic tabloid fashion Parvaiz and Aneeka become ‘Pervy’ and ‘Knickers’ Pasha, their sex lives (real or imagined) offered as fatal internal incongruences in their perceived ideologies, rendering these wholly irrational and unworthy of either debate or critical attention.

It goes without saying that the ideology of the Islamic State and its actions in Europe are reprehensible and repugnant to Muslims across the world. Home Fire points out that the process of radicalisation of young, impressionable men and women, and the resulting victimisation of their families, is equally so. Like in Antigone, the climax of the novel focuses on the burial of an enemy of the state, but it is the making of this enemy, both in rhetoric and practice, that forms its core.