Islamophobia and the Post 9/11 Paradox of Familiarity: Reading Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire
Nasmeem F. Akhtar is Assistant Professor at the Department of English, Dibrugarh University, Dibrugarh, Assam.
This paper is an attempt to study Kamila Shamsie’s novel, Home Fire (2017) in order to explore the tension between society, family and faith in the modern world, i.e. the world against the backdrop of post 9/11 Islamophobia. This paper seeks to examine the strategies used to represent the contemporary drama of religious prejudice and personal conflict, one, in which meanings are articulated, distributed and negotiated. The paper is governed by the hypothesis that it is the public, to be more precise, the political that is always personal. It seeks to contend that conflicts between civic law and a deeper, more humane sense of what is ‘right’ have always been contested and that tensions between family and the state is always problematic.
Keywords: Islamophobia, 9/11, Kamila Shamsie.
Home Fire, the seventh of Kamila Shamsie’s novels is a contemporary retelling of Sophocles’ 5th century B.C tragedy, Antigone the plot of which revolves around a sister who buries her dead brother against the will of the King of Thebes, whose refusal to grant funeral rites angers the gods and sets into motion a catastrophic series of events. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Home Fire is the story of three orphaned British Muslim siblings: Isma – a doctoral student at an American university, serious and pragmatic, is the eldest child and surrogate parent to 19 year old twins, Aneeka studying Law in London, and Parvaiz, a “handsome Londoner who loves his sister” (117).
They are the grown children of a loving mother and a ‘jihadi’, Adil Pasha, who abandoned his family to fight in Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan and died after being captured by American forces in 2001 en route to Guantanamo after a stay at Bagram. So, in the words of the eldest sibling, Isma, he was “most consistent in the role of absentee father” (47).
The novel is set in 2014-15 and spans across Britain, a part in America and finally Karachi. If we look into the political scenario, it was in 2014 that under the then Home Secretary Theresa May, the British Government expanded its power to revoke the citizenship of naturalized citizens suspected of terrorism. Previously, only those with dual nationality were at risk even after those who with a less official claim to another homeland could be denaturalized. The state, in other words, sought rights that could, under conceivable circumstances, render its citizens stateless. A few weeks before May called for that authority, and a few weeks after, the home secretary sent vans across London bearing billboards that instructed illegal immigrants “Citizens of Nowhere” as May would categorise them, to ‘Go Home or Face Arrest’. It was in 2014 that the Islamic State in Raqqa declared their Caliphate. Also, after having spent six uncertain years living in London on two different types of visas, amid shifting immigration laws and rising anti-immigrant sentiment, Kamila Shamsie was granted with British Citizenship in October, 2013.
The September 11 episode and the war on terror significantly affected Muslim minorities in the West. While on the one hand, September 11 and the war on terror have led to an unprecedented intensity of interest in Islam and in things Islamic, on the other, Islamophobia seems to have spread like a malaise in educational institutions, law enforcement, the workplace, and the US legal system and from there on to the entire West. Of course, there is no denying the fact that the phenomenon of Islamophobia which indicates a general prejudice and hatred of Islam and the Muslims was already quite rampant in the West long before September 11. In fact, even before the Western coinage of the term ‘Islamophobia’ in the early 1980’s the phenomenon as implied by the term was already a part of the Western intellectual and social scene that may be viewed as a manifestation of the Western response to Islam and the Islamic world. But September 11 had led to the creation of new negative images of Islam and Muslims in the minds of the Western public. It became more frequent for Islam – the religion, its holy book and its prophet – to be publicly ridiculed and hated. It propagated the notion that Muslim violence has its origins in the Qur’an and in the teachings and practices of the Prophet. These negative stereotyping and ridiculing of Islam become all the more disturbing when they come from the respectable class of religious preachers and church leaders. The September 11 2001 attacks on the symbols of American wealth and power are considered to be Muslim reactions against American-aided Israeli humiliation of the Palestinians and against other forms of “American tyranny” in various parts of the Islamic world. Then there came the American-led counter-reaction, namely the global war on terror.
In 9-11: Was There an Alternative (2011), a collection of essays by and interviews with Noam Chomsky contextualises the Sepetmber 11 attacks and traces the genesis of American intervention in the Middle East, and throughout Latin America, as also in Indonesia, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. Alongwith the historical background, the writer also posits a warning against America’s over dependence on military rhetoric and violence as a response to the attacks, while at the same time stating the obvious that laying resort to violence to address violence would only aggravate the situation and lead to more mayhem and bloodshed. In one of the essays titled “Not Since the War of 1812”, the writer contests the nomenclature of ‘war’ against an anonymous enemy. Along some similar strands of thought, shortly after September 11, 2001, Gayatri Spivak wrote a response, “Terror: Speech after September 9/11”, where she examines the very nature of America’s war on terror:
The ‘‘war’’ on the Taliban, repeatedly declared on media by representatives of the United States government from the president on down, was only a war in the general sense. Not having been declared by act of Congress, it could not assume that proper name...The US is fighting an abstract enemy: terrorism. Definitions in Government handbooks, or UN documents, explain little. The war is part of an alibi every imperialism has given itself, a civilizing mission carried to the extreme, as it always must be. It is a war on terrorism reduced at home to due process, to a criminal case: US v. Zacarias Moussaoui, aka ‘‘Shaqil,’’aka ‘‘Abu Khalid al Sahrawi,’’ with the nineteen dead hijackers named as unindicted co-conspirators in the indictment. (82)
Thereby she goes to hold the media responsible for fanning the government’s strategy of instilling in the minds of the citizens that the corrective action lies primarily in bringing the perpetrators to book rather than initiating a military intervention with the country of origin . Rather, according to Spivak, public criticism and opinion should warn against all such futile attempts as punishment, legal upon individuals, or military and economic upon states and collectivities so far as lasting epistemic change is concerned (83-4). Spivak attempts to “represent the confrontation in September as the destruction of a temple—world trade and military power—with which a state is associated... And it helped that the buildings were tall, a fact not unconnected with the representation of power” (91). While working on a definition of “terror” through an explanation of Kant’s concept of the sublime, she harps on another fetishized response to terror, which puts terror within quotation marks in an attempt to “commodify”, “relexicalize” and “museumize” it (85). Spivak refers to Chomsky’s argument that bin Laden cared nothing for economic imperialism in our terminology but rather for the metaphors of Islam. She explains: “That “Muslims” explain things in terms of “Islam” and “Americans” in terms of “freedom” begins then to make a different kind of sense. The fragility of both under stress can then move perhaps, toward understanding” (88).
Hence, following the 9/11 attacks, researchers have been increasingly engaged with the effects of anti-Muslim sentiment, rhetoric, and attitudes on the everyday experiences of belonging, citizenship, and safety among American Muslims. This wide body of literature more vastly on the American Muslim experience has captured a range of ethnographic, case study, and empirical data on the effects of anti-Muslim discrimination. Having said that, it is worthy of note that recent perspectives also shed light on the resilience and coping strategies of Muslim communities in the face of anti-Muslim discrimination, which is an area to be researched and engaged with.
In the book, Homeland Insecurity: the Arab American and Muslim American Experience after 9/11 (2009), Louise A. Cainkar, sociologist at Marquette University, provides significant insight into both the immediate and long-term impacts of 9/11 on Arab communities living in the US. Based on ethnographic observation, in-depth interviewing, and oral histories of respondents in the Chicago area between 2002-2005, the book examines how Arabs and Muslims have been subject to racial discrimination and othering in the decades leading up to the 9/11 attacks. As the accounts reported in this book demonstrate, stereotypical discourses and social processes of Arab and Muslim exclusion in the US were internalized by respondents in the wake of the attacks. While expressing fear and insecurity in everyday spaces , the accounts delve on the negative effects of internment, surveillance, ethnic profiling events, and legislation on the everyday lives of American citizens of Arab ancestry. In another section of the book however, the writer also explains the different ways like social and political activism, and fostering alliances with the non-Arab and non-Muslim groups, through which the community mobilized productively to address the different challenges in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Over and above, this book critically engages with how 9/11 continued the social and political marginalization of Muslim Arab Americans that was previously established by government and media institutions to justify profiling.
In Islamophobia in the West: Measuring and Explaining Individual Attitudes (2013), a collection of book chapters, editor Marc Helbling draws on a wide range of survey data across various Western contexts to theorize Islamophobia and to identify patterns in how Islamophobia is characterized in the West. Starting with an exploration of the ways and means as to how Islamophobia might be measured using various surveys, the second section of the books deals with the scope of Islamophobia by reflecting on public debates, attitudes, and reactions in four Western contexts, namely the UK, Norway, Sweden, and Spain. An attempt to understand the origins and effects of Islamophobia, and also the impact of the 9/11 attacks on public opinion and parliamentary debates reveals that negative public attitudes and perceptions towards Muslims and Arabs existed across all national contexts long before the 9/11 attacks.
In fact, Altaf Husain and Stephenie Howard, both from Howard University’s School of Social Work, in their article, ”Religious Microaggressions: A Case Study of Muslim Americans”(2017) , refer to four main phases in the history of anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States: (i) the late 1800s to World War II; (ii) World War II to the Iranian Revolution; (iii) the Iranian Revolution to September 10, 2001; and (iv) post-September 11, 2001 to 2015. The article identifies four main themes of these religious microaggressions which include (a) the assumption of an idea of homogeneity across different religions,(b) alienation of Muslims in their own country, (c) the pathology of Islam as a religion, and, (iv)stereotypical casting of Muslims as terrorists. It emphasises on the need for social work practitioners to not only confront their own biases toward Muslims, but also be prepared to assist those facing anti-Muslim racism.
Accordingly, post 9/11 and post Bush’s declaration of the War on Terror, there came to be generated a new attitude towards Islam and Muslims in the West, which hads its impact on literature as well. The years from 2001 to 2007 saw an unprecedented rise in the production of narratives, fictional as well as non-fictional, which concentrated on the theme of post 9/11 Islamophobia. Notable among the works of fiction may be cited Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown (2006), John Updike’s Terrorist (2006), Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2006), Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (2004), Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke (2001) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), Yasmin Khadra’s The Attack (2006) and John Delilo’s Falling Man (2007). Almost all these works concentrate on such issues like the origin of Islamophobia, its domestic and global consequences, the ‘othering’ of the Muslim as violent and savage, and on fears and insecurities of the minority Muslim community in the West. Also almost all the novels that have been referred to here and many others seem to adopt a supportive stance towards the dominant discourse, with the exception of Yasmin Khadra’s work which seems to be maintaining a neutral position so far allegiance to the dominant discourse is concerned. In this context, it would be of interest to refer to the growth of a rich body of post 9/11fictional narratives from established writers from Pakistan.
There has also been a growing interest in and demand for Anglophone Pakistani fiction, which, targeted at an English speaking readership engages with representations of Pakistan in particular and Islam in the ‘Western’ media. Novels such as The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) by Mohsin Hamid, The Wasted Vigil (2008) by Nadeem Aslam, Burnt Shadows (2009) by Kamila Shamsie, Home Boy (2009) by H.M. Naqvi, The Geometry of God (2009) by Uzma Aslam Khan, and more obliquely A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008) by Mohammed Hanif to name a prominent few are in fact products of and a reaction against capitalist Anglo-centric globalisation. Scholar Daniel O’ Gorman in his article, “‘Planetarity’ and Pakistani Post-9/11 Fiction” (2012) refers to Gayatri Spivak’s call for a merger between Comparative Literature and Area Studies as cited in her text Death of a Discipline (2003) to facilitate the critical tools necessary to foster progressive approaches to the idea of the ‘global’ which according to Spivak is too closely tied to neoliberal discourse. According to Spivak, ‘planetarity’ indicates a sense of the planet that draws both on literary and geographical studies to ‘overwrite the globe’ in such a way that protects the radical alterity of indigenous voices and ways of life (Spivak 2003:72). Gorman locates in the texts referred to an attempt to ‘uproot’ and ‘translate’ themselves from the specificities of their localised histories and that despite the fact that they are not anti-globalist texts, they consciously challenge their own explanatory modes thereby taking an anti-historicist stance.
In his seminal work ”Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life” (1998), Giorgio Agamben examines an obscure figure of Roman law that poses fundamental questions about the nature of law and power in general. Under the laws of the Roman Empire, a man who committed a certain kind of crime was banned from society and all of his rights as a citizen were revoked. Homo sacer was therefore excluded from law itself, while being included at the same time. Agamben proposes that since time immemorial,it has always been the prerogative of laws to define “bare life” — zoe, as opposed to bios, that is 'qualified life' — by making this exclusive operation, while at the same time gaining power over it by making it the subject of political control. Also, Agamben's State of Exception (2005) probes into how the issue of suspension of laws within a state of emergency or crisis can become a prolonged state of being. He is particularly critical of the United States' response to 11 September 2001, and its instrumentalization as a permanent condition that legitimizes a “state of exception” as the dominant paradigm for governing in contemporary politics. He warns against a “generalization of the state of exception” through laws like the USA PATRIOT Act, which calls for a permanent installment of martial law and emergency powers. While discussing the nature of Muslim identity and exploring the roles of immigration, class, gender and national identity and the impact of the 9/11 attacks, editors Rehana Ahmed, Peter Morey and AminaYaqin aptly observe in Culture, Diaspora and Modernity in Muslim Writing(2012) that the aftermath of the September 11 attacks almost shattered the ‘utopian’ notion of the British Muslims that they are now ‘recognised’ as British citizens. They are of the opinion that ‘Muslim writing’ constantly grapple with such questions as to how one reconciles the impulses of the individual with the demands of the community, or for that matter, how one belongs to or alienates from a community.
In fact, the very first section of the novel Home Fire sets apace the question of citizenship as Isma is seen enduring an airport interrogation at Heathrow, en route to Massachusetts, where she will pursue her Ph.D. It is in her homeland, London, not an airport in America where she is taken in for secondary interrogation. Despite the fact that she has no criminal conviction, she has to face interrogation for nearly two hours even when that amounts to her missing the flight. She’s having to answer questions on “Shias, homosexuals, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites”(5) and most crucially, a question like, “Do you consider yourself British?’ to which she replies, “I am British...I’ve lived here all my life”. She meant there was no other country of which she could feel herself a part (5).
Isma’s cousin in Karachi is also seen excoriating his cousin Aneeka, of British nationality:
[D]id you or your bhenchod brother stop to think about those of us with passports that look like toilet paper to the rest of the world, who spend their whole lives being so careful we don’t give anyone a reason to reject our visa applications. Don’t stand next to this guy, don’t follow that guy on Twitter, don’t download that Noam Chomsky book. (209)
As has been rightly expressed, Muslims around the world in liberal democracies seem to have got used to different kinds of surveillance so much so that the writer a British Muslim of Pakistani descent, very openly claims that she did not have to do any research for such incidents in the plot like the interrogation officer ‘examining her browser history’ (6), at Heathrow airport. So, the text bears a joke about the unique considerations of GWM “googling while Muslim” (65). For the Pasha siblings such subjection to scepticism, suspicion, doubt seem to be a way of life owing to their father’s ‘jihadi’ linkage.
All these in a way also echo the writer’s very cautious moves while researching for material about ISIS in Raqqah for Home Fire, very much aware of the element of surveillance prevalent in liberal democracies. Despite her claim to fame as a writer and a novelist, Shamsie says that she was almost prepared for her defence just in case she encounters anyone asking her as to why she was interested in these matters. So Aneeka expresses before Eamonn “...that among the things this country will let you achieve if you’re Muslim is torture, rendition, detention without trial, airport interrogation, spies in your mosques, teachers reporting your children to the authorities for wanting a world without British injustice... (90-1)
But at the same time the novel seems to be urging upon the need to explore the strategies which the ISIS employs to is draw young mostly teenage boys like the nineteen year old Parvaiz into such extreme radicalisation. It is mentioned at one point that the young Parvaiz, “who had begun to idolise thee father who fought with Britain’s enemies” (201).Farooq in fact, plays on the young Parvaiz’s yearning for his father and narrates to him stories about “the great warrior Abu Parvaiz...Superhero” (125), stories which were narrated by “Ahmed from the fabric shop. It was Ahmed, “who had convinced Parvaiz’s father to come along with him to Bosnia in 1995(134-5)”. Going to the war front is somehow linked with manliness and is identified with the process of a young boy’s maturity into ‘manhood’ the manhood which deems itself superior to women. So as history recoils itself Parvaiz, flees to join the media arm of the Islamic State in Raqqa, Syria. Adil Pasha, aka Abu Parvaiz, was a jihadi, in the 1990s, a time when the word didn’t have the kind of weight and resonance it has now. But, it goes back to why a British Muslim or an American Muslim of Parvaiz’s age feels at odds with the state. Because there is this other history of Guantenamo, of the gory tales and visuals of ‘Bagram abuse’(140), which makes Parvaiz “feel the wrongness of it all, the falseness of his life” (149).
Second, from what is understood from the novel, the ISIS propaganda is much more sophisticated that one thinks it to be. This is perhaps because of the really significant difference between ISIS and other terrorist groups—ISIS really wanted a state. Farooq very skilfully presents a picture of a state qualified by a sense of belonging, nation building, lack of racism and other ideals of a welfare state much like the one Britain was, according to Farooq: “when it understood that a welfare state was something you built up instead of tearing down, when it saw migrants as people to be welcomed, not turned away” (144). Further:
To help him understand [the] larger responsibilities, Farooq talked to him of history: the terror with which the world of Christendom had watched the ascent of Islam, the thousand years of Muslim supremacy, which was eventually squandered by eunuch-like Ottomans and Mughals, who lost sight of the moral path and then the bloodlust with which the Christians had avenged themselves for their centuries of humiliation: imperialism, with its racist underpinnings of a ‘civilising mission’ (129).
In order to justify acts of terror, Farooq even refers to models of European history, the French Revolution:
The cradle, the bedrock, the foundation of Enlightenment and liberalism and democracy and all the things that make the West so smugly superior to the rest of the world...Liberty, Equality.Fraternity... where would those ideals be without the Reign of Terror that nurtured and protected them with blood, eliminationg all enemies...that threatened the new Utopia... (147).
Farooq is not without hope, though that the terror would finally end: “Eventually the terror ends, having served its purpose of protecting a new—a revolutionary state of affairs that is besieged by enemies who are terrified of its moral power.” (147)
This comes in sharp contrast to the picture of an all-inclusive state of which the Home Secretary, Karamat Lone presents in the speech in his alma mater—
There is nothing this country won’t allow you to achieve—Olympic medals, captaincy of the cricket team, pop stardom, reality TV crowns... You are, we are, British. Britain accepts this. So do most of you. But for those of you who are in doubt about it, let me say this: don’t set yourselves apart in the way you dress, the way you think, the outdated codes of behaviour you cling to, the ideologies to which you attach your loyalties. Because if you do, you will be treated differently—not because of racism, though that does still exist, but because you insist on your difference from everyone else in this multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multitudinous United Kingdom. And look at all you miss out on because of it. (88)
Parvaiz very soon understands that “he was wrong. He was brainwashed but now he understands, and he wants to come back.”(108). “But he was the terrorist son of a terrorist father...He didn’t know how to break out of these currents of history, how to shake free of the demons he had attached to his own heels” (171). On the other hand, “Mr British Values. Mr Strong on Security. Mr Striding Away from Muslimness” (52) , the Home Secretary, Karamat Lone with “an Irish spelling to disguise a Muslim name—Ayman became Eamonn,... an Irish –American wife ...as another indicator of this integrationist posing...)” (16) admits that he “grew up a believing Muslim. Didn’t harm anyone but myself with it” (107). He confesses before his son: ‘...I’m the one who never wanted you to know what it feels like to have doors closed in your face. To have to fight your way in”. In a way, both the fathers, Adil Pasha and Karamat Lone seem to represent two types of Englishmen, which the novel refers to: ‘Englishman Who Stood at the Counter for All Eternity[and] an Englishman Who Gets Lost Going Upstairs’ (16) . Karamat Lone,
the Home Secretary was being lionised for his truth-telling, his passion, the fearlessness with which he was willing to take on both the anti-migrant attitudes of his own party and the isolationist culture of the community he’d grown up in. (88)
In a bid to gain popular support, he “revoked the citizenship of all dual nationals who have left Britain to join our enemies”. He firmly asserts that “Pervys Pasha’s body will be repatriated to his home nation, Pakistan”, because they “will not let those who turn against the soil of Britain in their lifetime sully that very soil in death” (188). This decision of his actually further divides the society into two groups: one to which belongs Isma, who is in a state of helplessness torn between the love for Parvaiz and her sister Aneeka, her “only family” fully aware of the position they are in, and the other to which belong, British citizens like Gladys who is all out against the Home Secretary: “Shame on you, Mr. Home Secretary...! Give us our boy to bury, give his mother the company of her son in the grave”. (191). Most importantly, to this second group belongs Karamat Lone’s Irish American wife, to whom Lone turns out to be a “self important” and an “arrogant idiot. (252-3), and who rebukes him: “I’m talking about a nineteen-year old, rotting in the sun while his sister watches, out of her mind with grief. He’s dead already; can’t you leave him alone?” (252). In the article, “ Can the Subaltern Body Speak? Deconstructing the Racial Figures and Discourses of “Terrorism” Rachel Rosebaum from the University of Arizona refers to Jennifer Roth-Gordon’s arguements that, “whiteness is always relative, imagined, produced, and insecure” (Roth-Gordon 2017, 98).
Accordingly, in the case of racially coding the terrorist’s body in America, we can take this argument to say that citizenship is necessarily insecure because the production of whiteness is imagined and relative. Rosebaum goes on to argue that the meanings of whiteness in the United States currently exclude Muslim bodies, further evidenced by the possibility of introducing “MENA” (Middle Eastern or North African) as a new category on the U.S. Census . Hence citizenship cannot be taken for granted: one can attain and prove citizenship/whiteness, but this can also be disproved.
In a global context of Middle Eastern people being excluded from the categories of whiteness in the United States and Europe Rachel Rosebaum tries to interpret theways in which figures and discourses of terrorism work to reimagine and re-entrench racial hierarchy in our society. Furthermore, these discourses train people into particular understandings of which bodies are valuable--especially which dead bodies are valuable. Hence the writer constantly reiterates the necessity to “deconstruct the definitions and uses of “terrorism” and “terrorist” in order to denaturalize the body of the terrorist as being only Muslim and non-white and the only victims of terrorism as white or Euro-American”(40). Rosebaum conlues by saying, “We must measure the silences surrounding the “subaltern body” both in life and in death, opening up spaces to illuminate other injustices and instances of violence that are muted by similar processes of categorization and dehumanization”(48).
Coming to the crisis in Home Fire,hurled between the two worlds of grief and rage is Aneeka who begins an affair initially of convenience to facilitate the return of Parvaiz to London but which later became one of love, with Eamonn. For Isma, Parvaiz has made his bed, Aneeka believes he can still be redeemed. In the real sense of the term, Home Fire is about personal loss and devastation, of personal love and hope. But since it comes to involve public figures and public events, they become public spectacles. Thus the personal grief comes to us via amplifications and at times, perversions. So what grips our interest till the last page is the way history stomps its boots into the lives of families. Aneeka, “with her law-student brain, who knew everything about her rights and nothing of the fragility of her place in the world” ... (6) fails to comprehend as to how the law of the state can take on the personal tragedies of its officially recognised subjects.
So, the novel in fact grapples with various questions related to citizenship: What does it mean to be citizen of a state? Can you be divorced from the state, or first of all who has the right to divorce –is it you or the state? In reality, the state can punish you, imprison you but cannot say that you are not one of them. Given the present day state of right wing diplomacies, this entire rhetoric of citizenship ultimately boils down to one thing: the issue of citizenship of a state is contingent upon a person’s ability to conform to the set law of the land, even if that mattered bringing personal choices, ideologies and preferences to a state of compromise. It is again an imaginary construct as much as Rushdie’s concept of “homelands” is an imaginary one, when “a state of exception” becomes the only reality.
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