Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Kindness of Enemies

In my recent bid to read more fiction, more female authors, and more writers from the developing world, I just finished The Kindness of Enemies, by Leila Aboulela.  It is an engrossing novel framed by the present-day story of a Sudano-Russian-British university professor, the focus of whose research is a mid-19th-century Dagestani guerrilla leader named Imam Shamil, who led one of the most successful colonial resistance campaigns in history as he tried to keep Dagestan and Chechnya from falling under Russian imperial expansion.  This professor learns that one of her students (her most brilliant) is in fact descended from Shamil, and spends increasing time with this student and his Baghdadi-Persian-Russian-Scottish actress mother.  The student is grappling with the pacifistic Sufism of his mother, which is in fact the same Sufism that underlaid Shamil's successful jihad against Russian imperialism, and which is at the same time despised by (and diametrically opposed to the values of) the 21st-century international jihad movement led by al-Qaeda-type people.  Like young people of all generations, this young man bristles at the injustices rife in the world (while also internalizing some of the materialism and other values that drive these injustices), and is both intrigued and repelled by the brutal absolutist response offered by al Qaeda and friends.  He is picked up by police and questioned for 11 days before being released without charges, which totally turns the young man's world upside-down.

But this is just the frame story.  Most of the book follows Imam Shamil as he makes a last-ditch effort to regain his son, who was kidnapped by the Russians 15 years prior and subsequently raised as a Russian gentleman.  This effort consists in kidnapping a Georgian princess and her family in order to negotiate a prisoner exchange.

So the book follows the story of a few modern-day Britons who are regarded with suspicion by their compatriots because of their Muslim background (not even their faith, as one of the main characters is a totally lapsed Muslim), and this story parallels that of Jamaleldin, the Dagestani youth growing up in the czar's court, and that of Princess Anna, the Georgian captive of Imam Shamil.  Jamaleldin yearns to see his father and brother, and is haunted by snippets of spiritual teachings, everyday sayings, and prayers from his childhood, but at the same time speaks only Russian and French, is an avid consumer of ballet, Chopin, parlor games, and alcohol, as well as an officer in the Russian army.  Anna is Georgian to the core, which means she resents her grandfather's cession of Georgia to Russian domination, and is not altogether sure whether she identifies more with her Russian rescuers or her fiercely independent captors.  Natasha is a secular Briton history professor, but is never entirely accepted by her colleagues or students because she is too black, too linked to Islam, too fat.

My reading of this book comes within a year of my reading a number of titles with different links to it.  LeCarre's Our Game is about a Briton who falls in love with the culture and present-day struggle of the Ingush (a Muslim ethnic group from the Chechnya/Dagestan neck of the woods), while the same author's Single and Single is centered on Georgia and its Mingrelian ethnic group.  I am about to finish Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, a 1980s-era survey of Great Power dynamics from the 1500s through the Cold War, which of course toward its last chapters is now focused on a bipolar world split between the US and the USSR.  The 19th-century Russian territorial expansion is in this book, as well as US and Soviet ambitions in Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, and that whole neck of the woods, not to mention Sudan, which also figures prominently in The Kindness of Enemies.  And Kennedy's book has been made even more interesting by my recent reading of A Concise History of the Middle East, which has a fair amount about the imperial ambitions of various parties in the region, and the indigenous resistance of varying success that this inspired.

In The Kindness of Enemies, Aboulela does a number of things well, but for me perhaps the most useful and fascinating aspect of the book was that it finally let me get my head around the 21st-century jihad movement (or Islamic terrorism, or Islamo-fascism, or whatever other lurid name we want to use).  Obviously I don't ascribe to any of the principles of a group like al-Qaeda or ISIS, but beyond this, because I don't come from a cultural milieu imbued by Islam, I never really understood how it could appeal to anyone.  These groups obviously do a lot of social media and marketing that draws a lot of sympathy from certain people, but their media strategy that is apparently so successful elsewhere falls totally flat on my ears.  I could always understand on an intellectual level that there are lots of injustices in the world, many of them deriving in large part from the past and present misdeeds of the West (to use a loaded geographical designation), and that modern Islamic jihad is being offerred as a potential response to these injustices, a response that could appeal to lots of disaffected people.  But I wasn't one of those disaffected people (I'm a different type of disaffected person!).  I could see the parallels of this discourse with the international Marxism of the 60s and 70s, and even with the (mainly but not always peaceful) Catholic Liberation Theology-inspired movements in Latin America of this same period.  But there was something missing, something that didn't entirely click in order for me to understand how this new incarnation of ideologically-inspired guerrilla terrorism could appeal to so many.

Aboulela's book helps me to close this gap in understanding, simply by painting a situation that is similar to many situations faced by Leftists throughout Latin America during the Cold War.  If you were a Leftist intellectual (or union member, or peasant leader, or student) in Colombia, you might or might not have advocated the use of violence to right the clear injustices in your country or the world in general, and independently of your own personal advocacy of violence, you might or might not have sympathized with or even supported in some tangible way the cause of guerrilla groups like the FARC, El Salvador's FMLN, or admired Communist governments like that of Cuba or China.  But to repressive governments in Cold-War-era Colombia, and even more so to openly murderous governments like that of Argentina or Somoza's Nicaragua, simply holding certain Leftist beliefs was enough to earn a lot of people some pretty bad treatment--imprisonment, questioning, torture, even disappearance.  The gradations that are evident to me, the difference between a professor who studies Communist rebellions in 1840s Germany and an urban terrorist who plants car bombs in populated areas, were moot to a lot of those who sought out and persecuted Leftists.  And because of this, that peaceful professor who was formerly just studying Industrial-Revolution-era social movements may in fact become a hardened militant or even a guerrilla in the mountains if he has been tortured by forces that were painting him as a militant and a criminal anyway.

This situation of Cold War Leftists living under Western-aligned governments seems similar to that of many Muslims today.  Just being Muslim (or "looking" Muslim to outsiders, as might many Arab Christians, South Asian Hindus, atheists from Muslim families, etc.) is enough to earn you a lot of nebulous suspicion from your neighbors and government authorities in many Western countries.  If you have any sympathy for or even an antagonistic interest in political Islam (not even necessarily of the jihadi variety), that might get you an arrest or worse.  This latter point seems to be even more the case in a lot of majority-Muslim countries with repressive governments that try to stamp out political Islam (Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey) or terrorism (Saudi Arabia), many of whom also winkingly tolerate or even actively collude with terrorist groups.  Just as in Cold-War-era Latin America, it is often not a question of anti-democratic Islamic jihad fighting against respectable democratic regimes that uphold the rule of law and human rights.  No, both sides are almost explicitly committed to violating human rights, which means that even a lot of legitimate critics of the status quo can get labeled as terrorist sympathizers.

Anyway, reading a human story of Muslims caught between legitimate grievances and a mix of legitimate and illegitimate responses helped me to better understand what I think must be a pretty common situation for lots of people in the world, and to tie it to a Latin American context that I do understand.  In any case, I hightly recommend The Kindness of Enemies.

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