Literature is Still Catering for The Orientalist Gaze Part Two: Muslim Masculinity and Violence
The art of characterisation is a quintessential part of making one’s protagonists compelling in the eyes of an audience. Masculinity is traditionally an attribute that shapes the way we see our male leads, harbouring many cultural norms and tells – one of which is the connection between masculinity and violence. Unfortunately, where this is exacerbated is on the matter of Muslim masculinity and its connection with violence. We see that this has become a common trope within literature, and exponentially in any form of media since 9/11.
Before delving into the contemporary nature of the issue, it is essential to study the fundamentals of where the overwhelming link between Muslim masculinity and violence originates from. Edward Said explains the way colonialism has orchestrated this perception of the Arab Muslim man to be ‘evil, totalitarian, and terroristic’. Painting the Arab, the Oriental, or the Moor as being a creature that innately lacks civility is a code that has been embedded into literature because it allows there to be a polarity where one society is portrayed as superior. From Daniel Defoe’s Moorish captors in Robinson Crusoe (1719) to Edith Hull’s The Sheik (1919), the violent nature of the male Other has been used to create geo-sociocultural divisions for centuries. By reflecting such work onto the Western society by selectively using specific language that connotes an idea, such as Muslims being violent and savage, is a simple means of indoctrinating the colonialist mindset.
Let’s explore Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers, for example. It propagates this stereotype through his fictional telling of what occurs in a South Asian Muslim community in the north of England. The plot is woven around the life of Shamas and the honour killing of his brother, Jugnu, and his brother’s girlfriend, Chanda, with subplots that expose acts of rape and domestic abuse. In one instance, we are shown how Shamas imagines Chanda’s father being abusive towards his wife in regards to his daughter’s illicit relationship and her disappearance. Violence is emphasised through the rampant use of abusive language in Urdu; these misogynistic words: ‘haramzadi’, ‘kutia’ and ‘kanjri’ fuel the vulgar tone of Chanda’s father and imply that he was responsible for the murder. Displaying traits of honour culture, Chanda’s father detaches himself from her; when addressing Chanda’s mother, he says that she was the one not able to ‘raise her badmash kutia daughter properly’. This sort of honour culture rhetoric is repeatedly used throughout the novel and Shamas, being the novel’s moral lens, highlights this and confirms the reader’s expectations of how violent and misogynistic Muslim men are.
Chanda’s brothers, who are also suspected of being involved in the crime, amplify their father’s message to another degree. Aslam narrates,
The sons say they didn’t do it but they are certainly said to have boasted of it. One said, “I’ll admit to anyone that I did it while wearing a T-shirt saying I did it with a picture showing me do it.” And the other that, “They were sinners and Allah used me as a sword against them.”
The extent of bravado within these lines through the ‘boasting’ of killing their sister and her lover directly illustrates the connection between Muslim masculinity and violence. The reference to religion promotes the construction between the Islamic ideology and violence as these words, ‘sinners’, ‘Allah’ and ‘sword’ act as signs for that which is signified: Islamic terrorism. Moreover, due to fact that the Western audience has been exposed to two decades worth of propaganda, those words have become buzzwords linking to terrorism and violence.
Shamas’ own admission of violence continues this sequence of male Muslim characters being true to their stereotypes, despite the tone of remorse. Unlike Chanda’s brothers’ religious reasonings, Shamas’ aggression stems from his anti-religious attitude. He is a secularist; he is ‘not a believer’, so does this break the sequence that connects the Muslim identity with violence? To a society that generalises, these specificities do not matter. He is still a product of Islamic culture and of South Asian culture. Besides, the specificities and individualisms prove even less significant as violence by Muslim men is linked to the bigger contextual issue of terrorism.
This violence that evokes such shock and fear holds the same aesthetic as terrorism as both are schematically tied to the identity of Muslim men. There is almost a promise of a violent Muslim male character in any given literature and we expect to see this due to the post 9/11 War on Terror culture. The automatization of the subject matter – how it has become overly familiar – hinders the genre of “Muslim” literature and does not allow it to progress beyond the post 9/11 bubble of sensationalised and reductionist generalisations of Muslims.
Great fiction must somewhat be a reflection of reality and not become a reproduction of tropes, no matter how defamiliarized, no matter how far Saussure’s signifier strays from the signified. In the case of Muslim identity, it is a distortion of reality that has an agenda. The same agenda that the power systems within our countries have always had: to expand, to dominate, to conquer and to exploit. As Said notes,
This system is not that it is a misrepresentation of some Oriental essence – in which I do not for a moment believe – but that it operates as representations usually do, for a purpose […] in a specific historical, intellectual, an even economic setting.
Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is another piece of published work that includes the narrative of Muslims connected to terrorism; it becomes part of a growing genre of Muslim fiction by Western publishers who over-saturated the market with the same stereotypical components, ones that only tell the tale of terrorists and burka-clad oppressed women. However, Home Fire does uproot the ‘system’ by presenting us with alternative conceptualisations.
Parvaiz, Shamsie’s protagonist, is a young man that we learn has grown up without a father figure as his father died en route to Guantanamo Bay. We learn how his becoming a terrorist is really an effort to fill this void of masculinity, which is something he found lacking in himself having grown up being ‘the only male in the house [and knowing] all the secrets that women shared with one another but none that fathers taught their sons.’ The memories he has of his father, Adil, involve posing with a Kalashnikov in the midst of some foreign war; he is a soldier who exudes the masculinity that Parvaiz could not attain. Parvaiz’s character is introduced by his older sister’s observation that he was ‘the weaker, sicklier twin’, and further on we learn that when he was mugged: ‘Parvaiz lay on the ground of the car park waiting for the pain to pass’. He is an antithesis to the traditional qualities of masculinity, such as strength and assertiveness and it is in search for these lacking qualities that we see Parvaiz follow the path of terrorism, the ultimate embodiment of violence. By creating this framework, Shamsie has bucked the trend of portraying Muslim men as being inherently violent.
With this observation, Parvaiz’s search for a father figure who manifests the masculinity that he lacks inevitably comes to an end. The portrayal of the terrorist, Farooq, that guides him astray synonymises violence with masculinity. What is interesting is that Shamsie deviates from a straight-forward antagonist narrative by also depicting Farooq as having some form intellectuality. He indoctrinates Parvaiz by presenting him a lengthy monologue about the chasmic nature of Christian and Islamic religious 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 had 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”, followed by the cruel joke of pretending to “give” independence when really they were merely changing economic models via the creation of client states, their nonsensical boundaries designed to cause instability.
This information that Farooq presents partially aligns with Said’s theory of Orientalism. The commentary on the rivalry between Christianity and Islam, the role of imperialism and the falsehoods behind neo-imperialism is sprawled out to educate Parvaiz, and simultaneously the reader, but where it digresses is in its tone that implies the justification of terrorism and violence. When he points out the violence of ‘Christendom’ through its ‘bloodlust’ in imperialism, it associates violence to all men regardless of creed but Farooq is not a credible source; he is a terrorist, and this is problematic as Shamsie has chosen to make him the mouthpiece for an anti-colonial perspective.
The ‘eunuch-like’ Ottomans and Mongol conquerors who had ‘squandered’ the Islamic Empire also links to the concept of emasculation. The contemporary fight for this ‘Muslim supremacy’ to be brought back by the terrorist groups is related to the idea of being able to regain this masculinity. Hyper-masculinity is adopted in order to be free from the strings that deem the Orient and the Oriental as being the Occident’s female counterpart: ‘Orientalism is a praxis of the same sort, albeit in different territories, as male gender dominance, or patriarchy, in metropolitan societies: the Orient was routinely described as feminine’. Shamsie shows us how both the violent, oppressive man and the feminised, emasculated man are able to operate concurrently in Orientalism.
In relation to the materialisation of Orientalist tropes, Peter Morey and Amina Yaqin in Framing Muslims: Stereotyping and Representation after 9/11 discuss the ‘Islamic Rage Boy’ who is ‘a protester who has appeared at a number of marches in Pakistan in recent years over such issues as the Pope’s comments about Islam, the Danish cartoons, and the knighthood given to Salman Rushdie’. His revolt is a direct affront to the ‘dominance’ of the Occident because he evidently does not harbour an inferiority complex. Yet, Morey and Yaqin expose how ‘his likeness has been digitally altered to show him as a vampire, as Hitler, as a naked woman, being force-fed pork, and with that distinctive shaggy head superimposed onto the body of a pig.’ The nature of the racist abuse is deeply reminiscent of much older motifs that aim to dehumanise and propagate the Other as being immoral. For instance, ‘vampire’ and dehumanisation using animal imagery are the same linguistic techniques that were produced in works such as Byron’s The Giaour and Shakespeare’s eponymous Othello, and as Said notes, in Dante’s Inferno. A Turk, a Moor and an Arab: created to juxtapose the heroes of European civilisation.
This literature that aims to represent Muslim men falls into socio-political discourse, whether intentional or unintentional. When there is a continued narrative that threads together a sustained conviction for hundreds of years, without really any systemic effort in changing, it allows for a generalisation to become a truth. The repeated promotion of the Other as being violent, like Parvaiz and Shamas, acts as justification for the violence that the West inflicts upon the Other and the Orient, in this case the Middle East. It poses the thought that perhaps it is not about inherent violence but vengeance against the West’s dominance.
In Home Fire, Parvaiz’s life boils down to ‘the heart of all [Farooq’s] lessons: how to be a man’, and this is what we see joins these types of texts in how they manifest Muslim men’s relationships with masculinity and violence. These stereotypical characteristics surrounding violence have been maintained from Said’s study of the Orient during the colonial period to what is the current post 9/11 context, and they have been intensified and made commonplace in order to support a constructed Muslim identity that poses as a moral affront to the West.
By Asia Khatun
 Edward Said, Orientalism, (London: Penguin, 2003), p. 27.  Nadeem Aslam, Maps for Lost Lovers, (London: Faber & Faber, 2004), p. 139.  Nadeem Aslam, p. 175.  Aslam, p. 20.  Said, Orientalism, p. 273.  Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire, (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), p. 127.  Shamsie, p. 13.  Shamsie, p. 123.  Shamsie, p. 129.  Edward Said, Orientalism Rediscovered, p. 225.  Peter Morey and Amina Yaqin, Framing Muslims: Stereotyping and Representation after 9/11, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), p. 23.  Morey and Yaqin, p. 23.  Shamsie, p. 129.