I never expected to be getting into a political cataclysm when I started this harmless blog about my writing, but today I find that only grasping the nettle works in relation to addressing my ongoing writing life. In the light of current political, social and media debate about the recent events in Paris, I find myself more and more disturbed by the continuing rhetoric and representation of Islam.
I am not a Muslim. But I wrote, and published, a novel about Islam. I spent seven years writing this novel, as a means of exploring how women make (and stick to) inexplicable choices. I wanted to explore the idea of faith, and of how this can result in people making decisions that seem simply ludicrous to the outside world. To me this was the story of any woman who sees her fate laid out for her. In my novel, Inshallah, my character Amanda converts to Islam and marries the man who has got her pregnant. She believes this is the ‘right’ thing to do, that she is being shown what to do with her life. It is clear that she feels a higher power is guiding her to making these decisions. As one of my reviewers puts it, she leaves one emotional wasteland of a life for another, but makes this decision believing that she is following some kind of divine direction. She believes she is doing the right thing. During this time she is challenged in almost every way a woman can be challenged, but her faith remains constant. I aimed to represent Islam as a faith like other faiths, one which is full of beauty and spiritual wisdom. I took great pains to distinguish between Islam and Arabic culture, which are different, and to emphasise the cultural elements of her life that restricted Amanda, as distinct from her religious faith. I also took pains to emphasise that the abusive husband is just that – abusive, unhinged, violent and out of control – and that this had nothing to do with his religion. In fact, it is clear that he is not a person of faith.
During the process of researching the book, I discovered many things. I found that the Koran is beautifully written, with many powerful passages about life and the world. Reading sections of it often moved me deeply. I could understand so many people finding grace within its pages. I talked to Muslim people, and explored their faith and their perspectives, and again, found beauty, peace, eloquence, passion, and in many cases, a commitment to living a spiritual life that I did not find in my more secularly-oriented friends. I felt, by the end of writing Inshallah, that I had learned, and grown, through this journey, much as Amanda did. I could only claim a small increase in understanding, a tiny insight into a vast world of religion, but it brought about a new kind of respect for people of this faith.
And then the world turned, and the news began to show the atrocities of people using Islam as a supposed justification for acts of violence and terrorism, and my new-found insight was shaken. Now, almost six months after my novel was published, I wonder at my audacity in undertaking such a task. I see no real relationship between the religion I saw in the Koran, and in the words, hearts and faith of the Muslims I talk to, and the current public opinion on Islam. I see violence and murder and upheaval and uncertainty, and I realise that there are two kinds of religion. There is the personal faith of the individual, and there is the wider institution of religion which can be subverted for political ends, means and outcomes. Just as in the Middle Ages, when the whole of Britain was bled dry to fund the Crusades into the Holy Land, in the name of religion, we see a division between people, and their rights to live as individuals, and quasi-religious/political movements which use religion to oppress people.
As a writer, the events in recent days sadden me as well as filling me with outrage, anger, and grief at the impact on individuals, families, communities and nations. It angers me that once again extremism has destroyed so many things – lives, security, peace, and the sense of freedom which is a prerequisite for a Western lifestyle. There are many things wrong with our own political and social systems, and as a writer I can challenge these and raise questions – as writers have done for centuries. I can’t imagine a world in which I cannot exercise that particular freedom securely.