German journalist’s political thriller on extremism and Islamophobia in the West

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Feb 20, 2013.

Islamabad – As Sumaya reads the hate mail received by her boss, Lutfi Latif, the newly elected member of the German parliament, she thinks whether she would say something similarly hateful if she was filled with rage.

She reads the anonymous messages, accentuated by occasional Arabic terms, attacking Latif’s moderate Islamic ideology. She imagines the writers to be radical Muslims in their mid-30s, with black beards the length of a fist, angrily typing away on their computers.

She tries not judge, instead decides to be analytical.

Then she comes across another letter. It is another scathing attack on Latif’s principles, but unlike the first anonymous messages, this one is signed by a Neo-Nazi group. She wonders why the press had only mentioned that Latif was receiving death threats from Muslim radicals.

Sumaya and Latif are two central characters of German journalist Yassin Musharbash’s novel “Radikal” and the rise of Islamophobia in Europe is an important theme in his book.

Musharbash thinks between Sept 11 and the present, the debate against Islam is slowly being pushed to reach a universal status.

“Islamophobic minorities are trying to make it a universal problem,” Musharbash said, at a presentation of his novel “Radikal” at the German Embassy in Islamabad on Monday. “They are trying to create a way that makes Islam look like the opposite of what the West looks like and this is what I am more concerned about.”

Musharbash, of German and Jordanian ancestry, currently works as a reporter for the Die Zeit, a German national weekly newspaper. He was visiting Islamabad at the end of his trip to Pakistan to attend the recently concluded Karachi Literature Festival (KLF).

He said the core of the problem is not “that terrorism is being tagged to being Muslim but being Muslim is being tagged with being problematic.” So just because someone is a Muslim, they are considered to be against human rights among other things, he said.

His book is a political thriller that deals directly with radicalism, terrorism and Islamophobia while also discussing the identity issues of migrant Germans. It was published in 2011 and is not available in English yet.

Musharbash read three passages in English especially translated by the Goethe Institute.

Sumaya, the German student of Palestinian descent, works for the Egyptian-born German citizen Latif — the wise, charismatic politician who wants to reframe the debate on Islam in Germany.

But Latif’s views are not acceptable to both radical Muslims and the Ne0-Nazi Islamophobe groups in Germany.

When he is fatally wounded in a bomb attack at a TV studio in Berlin, the Al Qaeda network is widely held responsible for his death. But Sumaya and Latif’s security advisor, Samson, are unconvinced and their skepticism leads them to find the real perpetrators of the attack.

The readers are kept guessing whether it was Al Qaeda who targeted Latif or a fictitious Islamophobic terror network in Germany which makes for a suspenseful ending.

Musharbash said he wanted Latif to be an ideal, a Muslim politician he would like Germany to have.

“I wanted him to be a symbol for everything that could be good which is exactly why he is being targeted,” Musharbash explained Latif’s character. “Maybe it would be a good idea for some people to become like him.”

While Latif is the super figure in Musharbash’s book, it is naïve and warm hearted Sumaya who tries to make sense of the threats Latif receives and the people behind those threats. In another passage, she reflects on her Palestinians “unlived” life in his homeland and her own quest for answers to her true identity.

Musharbash’s professional craft is reflected in one remarkably descriptive passage where a journalist character in the book navigates the aftermath of the bomb attack, trying to suppress the emotional trauma by focusing on her professional duties.

The killing of the moderate Muslim leader and the description of the bomb attack are extremely relevant to Pakistan where progressive religious scholar Dr Farooq Khan was killed by the Taliban in 2010 and where around 200 Hazaras were killed in two gruesome episodes of sectarian violence within a month.

It was Musharbash’s first visit to Pakistan. At the KLF, he represented German literature at a similar reading session and also spoke at the “Pakistan through Foreign Eyes”.

He said the KLF might not completely representative of Pakistan but during his five-day stay in the country he has noticed a “critical mass of very smart, very educated, very articulate” Pakistanis who are eager to talk about the country’s current situation.

“I didn’t expect that, to that extent, and I enjoyed it tremendously,” Musharbash said. “So even if part of what I saw…may have been unrepresentative, it is still there and I am very happy I got to see it.”

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