Jihadi Jane by Tabish Khair, published by Penguin, 2016
The name Jihadi Jane would remind readers of Colleen LaRose. It was her nomme de guerre. A few years back, having sworn her allegiance to the Islamic State, Collen conspired to kill the artist, Lars Vilks who had drawn the infamous cartoons of the prophet, Muhammad (PBUH). But Tabish Khair’s new novel Jihadi Jane is not about Collen, but women who like Collen choose the ISIS above everything else in their lives. Women joining terrorist organizations are not a new phenomenon; they have previously been part of the Sri Lankan Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Provisional Irish Republican Army. But people have found it difficult to wrap their heads around the fact that since 2014 more than a 1,000 Western women have migrated to the Middle East to join the ISIS, primarily to be Jihadi Brides.
Khair’s narrative is in first person and he adopts a conversational style to communicate with his readers. The narrator is Jameela, a former Jihadi Jane, who escapes from becoming a jihadi bride or a jihadi bomb. She tells the story of her life in Britain and then her experience in Syria after escaping from home with her friend Ameena to serve the Islamic State.
The strength of Khair’s text lies in it never becoming too preachy or pedantic. Rather he keeps the account racy, using the right amount of suspense and pauses to keep the readers asking for more. Ameena recounts:
“I must have fallen asleep. When I woke up it was dark and we were in the countryside… I thought that I was in a bus going through some part of England…Then full consciousness sank in, and I realized—probably for the first time—the immensity of my act.”
The murder of the British MP Jo Cox led to an outrage among the Britons who are apparently not used to such violence. The murder threatened Britain’s sanitized and inclusive image. But Khair shows how the insidious racism and Othering of the Britons contribute to people moving to the other side, “…all of it is under constant assault by ordinary life in the West… It builds up a core of bitterness in you… Sometimes I felt I would do anything to be free of all this, to be myself without being considered a monster or a curiosity.”
Through the eventual disillusionment of the two protagonists, Khair also exposes the hollowness of the jihad that the soldiers of Allah are waging against the Mushriks and the Takfiris. The blood thirstiness and the indiscriminate and savage killings make Ameena realize, “goodness has to live with the pettiness and dullness of evil. Goodness has to live with the possibility of evil, not eradicate it… But when goodness wants to become pure and alone, that is when it turns evil, truly evil…Evil itself.”
Khair’s other female characters are also of interest. There is Hejiya who uses the Internet to inspire and recruit brides for the fighters, symbolizing the deception that lies at the core of the Caliphate. Then there is Umm Layth or the mother of tigers who has sacrificed her sons for the Caliphate. She symbolizes the blind faith of the people in the ISIS, who live by the mantra that Allah and men know the best. Through Dilnaz and Sera, the Kurdish soldiers, Khair draws attention to the fact that Kurdistan and Kurds, who are being bombed by both the ISIS militants and Turkey, are the only people who have managed to stand up to the militants.
This novel grows in significance in the recent spate in terror attacks across the world. People have come to become more and more interested in the backgrounds of the attackers and their mental conditions. Khair’s Jihadi Jane must be read for its attempt to give the readers a glimpse into the minds of the delusional and the disillusioned.
– Shafia Parveen