The author discusses the complexity of Islam, the role of emotions, and the inspiration behind her new novel, The Submission
When the planes hit the Twin Towers, you were working for The New York Times. What was it like to come into work that day?
I literally had just arrived at work when the planes hit. The initial reaction was just shock -- first as a New Yorker, and as a person, and then as journalist just trying to gauge the scale of it. That was unclear at the beginning. Was it 3,000 people or 10,000 people? Nobody knew.
I spent the rest of that day at the office making phone calls, trying to reach businesses and individuals who'd been in the World Trade Center, doing my best to figure out what actually happened and who had been in the buildings at the time.
You spent about six weeks in New York reporting on the aftermath. What were some of the stories you wrote during that time?
I looked at children who had lost parents in the attacks and what it was like for them and their families. I wrote about how families were being notified when deaths were confirmed. I went to the Fresh Kills landfill, where they were sifting through the debris from the towers. After that, I was sent overseas to Russia and Iran and then Afghanistan. I was in Western Afghanistan after the Taliban left.
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.
That got me thinking: "What would the equivalent be for the 9/11 memorial? It would be if a Muslim American won the competition." I thought that would actually be much more controversial, given our lingering anxiety, confusion, and anger surrounding Islam. Before then, I had not really written ficiton before, and it hadn't occurred to me to write a book about 9/11. But very quickly, I thought of the main character -- this guy Mohammed Khan, an American-born architect who wins the competition. And I was intrigued by him. I was curious how this scenario would turn out.
Also, writing this book seemed like a great way to explore some of the questions that have been swirling around. How do we think about American Muslims -- the people who are caught at the intersection of this conflict? We pride ourselves on being a meritocracy, but what happens when that clashes with all of our post-9/11 anxieties? And when you think of all the people who have been scarred by this event, with all their divergent opinions, how do we reach a consensus?
You seem to treat all of your characters with compassion -- including Sean, the New Yorker who becomes fiercely anti-Muslim when his brother, Patrick, dies in the attacks.
I was interested in where emotion comes into these debates. There can be a tendency to shut down people's emotions when they clash with principles that we hold dear. That's partly what I was interested in with the novel -- what a powerful force emotion can be. Even liberals can be quite dismissive of emotions like grief and anger when they don't line up with certain values.
But I think you need to allow all of that to come out. You need to allow people to express their feelings, even if they are not politically correct -- to have them out in the open. It's much better than trying to pretend those emotions aren't there.