Your first Atlantic story was about the way American courts were prosecuting Islamic extremists ("Prophetic Justice," October 2006). It was a very different type of story than the ones you wrote immediately after the attacks.
By that time, I had spent more than three years in South Asia, based there as a bureau chief for The New York Times. I covered a lot of stories, but inevitably, many of them were about the fallout from the attacks. Spending so much time in Muslim societies overseas, I gained a much deeper understanding of the complexity of the religion. I knew it was just like any other religion, with many, many strands and sects and fissures.
Then I came back in 2005 and was very interested in how the War on Terror was being conducted. I didn't feel that there was a great grasp here of Islam's complexity. I became really intrigued by this idea of Islam on trial -- essentially, of experts trying to parse what the faith advocated, what was called for by the religion. How were they interpreting certain aspects, certain sayings, certain practices?
I also wanted to explore this idea of preventative prosecution. The courts were trying to identify which people were dangerous before they actually did something. In theory, that's a great concept. In practice, given all our protections for free speech, I think it gets much murkier. In the end, I was fairly disturbed by a lot of what I saw. Some of the expert testimonies on Islam seemed more confusing than accurate.
Do you think our courts have changed their approach much since you wrote that story?
No, but I think there is slightly more discussion of whether this is the right way to track down danger in our midst. The case I wrote about in that article -- Hamid Hayat in California -- involved informants going into mosques, looking around for people who were expressing certain sentiments or willing to undertake certain acts. We've had a lot of similar cases since then.
Were some of these people dangerous? Absolutely. But you wonder whether the informant actually had the effect of stirring things up. If he had not gone into the mosque, would the whole scenario have even unfolded in the same way? And some of the informants themselves have slightly dubious backgrounds. There can be a fine line between genuine prevention and entrapment. How do we draw that line when most Americans aren't even aware of it?
Your most recent Atlantic story is a fiction piece, an excerpt from your new book, The Submission. How did you decide to tackle the subject of 9/11 in a novel after exploring it as a journalist for so many years?
The idea for the book came to me while I was talking to an artist friend about the 9/11 memorial competition. I asked whether she had entered, and then we got onto the subject of how these competitions work. We talked about Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C. There was some backlash against her at the time because she was Asian-American and Vietnam was an Asian war. A small contingent of people said, "How can we let her do that design?" even though she had been born in the United States.