Salahuddin Khan is no stranger to how it feels to be an outsider. He was born in Pakistan to refugee Indian parents and grew up in England where his father found work. Having followed his dreams of moving to America, Khan knows first hand what it’s like to wake up each day as a Muslim in America, and how that’s changed both in the U.S. and internationally since 9/11.
"While it remains very much a dark national tragedy, 9/11 must be seen in the wider sense as a truly international catastrophe that launched a tsunami of life-disrupting dislocations reaching across the entire world. It’s for that reason I like to focus on the 9/11 experience through mainstream, non-extremist, Muslim eyes from the time the attacks were unfolding through to the present day," Salahuddin said.
Salahuddin Khan is the host of a talk show about Muslim issues on Radio Islam. He has also appeared on many radio and TV programs, and his opinion pieces have been published in The Huffington Post online and in The San Francisco Chronicle print edition.
His multiple-award-winning debut novel brings the foreign perspective to light. Sikander, which broke the top 100 reviewer rankings for historical fiction on Amazon, is the sweeping tale of a young Pakistani man's life pre-and post- 9/11 and gives a rare glimpse of a non-radical mainstream Muslim's experience of the West.
Salahuddin talked to us about his novel, what it's like to be a Muslim in post 9/11 America, and making a life in Chicago.
Tell us about your book “Sikander.” How did you decide to write this book and what can people expect when they open it up?
Sikander was about as unplanned an endeavor as one could possibly imagine. There was no, “retiring to the country to write the great American novel” sense to it. It was simply the convergence of an idea, many years of pre- and post- 9/11 sentiments about the lenses through which the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds perceive each other, and the availability of the time to do it. A day before beginning to write the novel, I had no idea I would be doing anything of the sort. The trigger for it was, of all things, re-watching the movie, Les Misérables.The story presents a powerful and universally valid study of conflict. In this case, between someone on the wrong side of the law but the right side of human decency and the exact opposite in his nemesis. This is coupled with nature vs nurture theories about human character, and the twist of the reversal of power roles. All of these themes fell into place for an idea for something of a modern parallel with the prejudices set in an Islam versus non-Islam context. Even the prison context has Guantanamo as its parallel in Sikander.
What people can expect is hopefully an engaging story which through the conflict of the Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation in the mid-1980s, provides for an accelerated coming-of-age for its title character, Sikander. Beyond that and at several levels, it examines the nature and consequences of misunderstanding, as well as the fragile fence between humanity and inhumanity that we all seem capable of breaching. It gives the lie to the illusion of substance projected by what we call civilization. Finally, it offers a glimpse into how freedoms can be eroded in well-meant but slippery and irreversible ways fueled by our fears which grant permission to our government to take away our liberties.
This story feels very real and powerful. Did you draw on your own experiences to craft the story?
I’m delighted you drew the power and reality from it that I wanted! As an immigrant growing up in England and subsequently an adult immigrant in the United States, I’ve never truly belonged to the community I’ve lived among. Flipped the other way, it’s meant a certain detachment which in turn has made me more of an observer of others than a true participant. I think I’ve brought those observer’s insights into the characters I’ve created and in that sense, they’re from my experiences. The actual events aren’t those that I’ve personally experienced.
It’s quite common for three-dimensional characters to write themselves. Did that happen to you with any of your characters in “Sikander”? Do you identify strongly with any of the characters?
Oh, very much so to your first observation. Interestingly, the way this occurred was by my using a “milestones” approach to the story. There were certain places and times by which things had to happen. I did note that the milestones were densely packed at the beginning where there had been little character development but as the story unfolded, not only did the milestones become further apart but also the story “disobeyed” me by taking its own course. And, yes, the characters began deciding what should happen and how they’d react. It helped that this was historical fiction so there was plenty of rich material regarding events that could drive character reaction. As for characters I identify with, I’d say that Sikander’s personality is a little more ideal than mine but we’re in the same rationalist space. Sikander’s mentor, Abdul Latif, is also something of a self-reflection.
You describe yourself as a mainstream Muslim. What exactly does that mean and how does that differ from what the media perpetuates as Muslim?
My purpose in using mainstream is to recognize it as an “unloaded” word, by contrast with “moderate” which is set against a level-of-extremism yardstick by which it can somehow be measured, and that’s a function of those doing the measuring. Right now, the word “moderate” reflects some need for reassurance on the part of non-Muslims which prejudices any objective attempt at mutual understanding.
The media has run itself into such a timebound, spacebound frenzied existence that substance has to be squeezed in between the advertising that funds them. The rich diet of media choice has trained its consumers to lose attention span and in the bid to get anything across, the media has found a ready answer in abbreviation. In this urge to abbreviate, all we can be left with is stereotype and caricature on account of the “time-efficiency” with which the image can be conveyed. It matters less that the image is truthful and more that it resonates and in that sense we have a vicious cycle, fueled of course, by the attention-grabbing high-profile acts of an extremist few, which keeps the resonant image in place. I note the strong reaction by some right-wing groups to the portrayal of the ordinary, “just-like-us” Muslims in the TLC reality show, All American Muslim. It was at the center of an ad sponsor controversy, because these groups alleged that the show was subversively trying to deny the existence of extremists in Islam. The stereotype is so cherished that any more balanced truth becomes a threat.
After 9-11 we understand Muslims in the Chicago area - and the rest of America for that matter - didn’t entirely feel as though they belonged anymore. Were you affected by this as well?
Yes, but in complex - and in many cases - “slow-burn” ways. Most tangibly at US Immigration whenever I returned from overseas trips. Subsequently, I’ve felt like the Muslim story is being told by non-Muslims in ways that have little to do with agenda and more to do with a hunger for filling a confused void which both informed inquiry and opportunism can each seek to satiate.
How has this changed in recent years?
Pre-9/11 Muslims were seen as a curiosity, people with different customs and in some cases, pretty austere ones. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was turmoil in the perception of Muslims. The image was confused and in a real way, in American culture, there was a polarizing effect of those equating understanding Muslims and Islam to “explaining and condoning terrorist acts” and those who through nervousness and/or curiosity wanted to learn more. As time has moved on, I think these perspectives have each found greater clarity. The former group have now fleshed out their worldview and grounded it in a sort of Muslim DNA. The religion has for them an in-built predisposition toward intolerance, killing, and a hankering for world supremacy. Indeed, many Muslims recall such images and feelings from their own distorted sense of history. The second group has investigated Islam more thoroughly and found it to be much deeper and nuanced than its portrayal would suggest and indeed, in many cases, we’ve seen people in this group embracing Islam. There have actually also been cases where people setting out to discredit the religion have embraced it. Generally however, as the subject of Islam has percolated into the political realm, many aspiring politicians, I won’t dignify them with a label such as “leaders”, have found a rich vein of public fear of Islam that stoking it makes eminent political sense. Notable recent examples have been Peter King, Sharron Angle, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum. Expect more of that in 2012.
Who are some of your favorite authors that have had an influence on your writing?
Well, as you can see from my earlier answers, Victor Hugo has to be among them in his grasp of core human nature. It’s why his story plays so well in every language and culture. Shakespeare, Tom Clancy, Harper Lee, Frank Herbert, Akbar Ahmed, J.K. Rowling, and Tolkein are among the others I would name.
What do you want people to take away from reading “Sikander”?
I want them to reflect on the shared humanity we all have. I want them to pause and examine their own perspectives of Islam and Muslims and to recognize their own possibly mistaken beliefs about the religion and its people. If nothing else, they ought to see it as a highly textured thing and not as a featureless antithetical monolith bent on their destruction. I’d love for them to ask themselves, “How can I find out more?” Of course, I also want them to be entertained and feel sad that the story’s over when it is. If it were a movie, I’d want them feel so affected as to want to watch the credits to the very end.
What can we expect from you in the coming year?
A new edition is coming out in the Spring and I’m also planning an audio book version. A couple of new stories are in the works, one of which may be completed by the end of this year. There are a few rumblings of interest in a Sikander movie but it’s too soon to say.