‘You don’t want us to own our own pain. You even want to deny me that. You want us to go through life like robots, not feeling what other people feel. All logical and shit. What kind of life is that? To have nothing of our real self. Look in the mirror one day and see a stranger. Not sure if he exists. I’m not sure if I exist.’
Practice: passively adopting one’s parents’ centre of gravity, is no longer a given. And for British Muslim youth, that idea is dead and buried. So, where do the young turn to, in sculpting the design for their life? Increasingly, it’s the Internet. Religion is fast becoming another noisy, digital marketplace. And stakeholders in Islam, arguably, are exhibiting the most agility because…competition. From the Jihadi to the New Intelligentsia to the Activist, the Dervish and even Government agencies – all have become Contenders, looking to build partnerships, wrestle the initiative and re-imagine Islam for the world today. The smorgasbord in front of a young British Muslim has never been richer / more confusing. Then layer on top social deprivation, old-school racism and a daily invective being dumped on them from all angles – by politicians, commentators, comedians, heroes, teachers, parents and elders,… Et voila – stability soon becomes a very bloody elusive thing.
By the age of twenty, a young person should be finding their place in the world. But in The Study Circle, we embed with a group of British Muslim men still struggling to locate terra firma – some patch of land, real or of the mind, to call their own. In Khan’s zeitgeisty novel, Europe’s Right is burgeoning and gaining confidence, the EDL are on the streets, activist Muslims are door-stepping over everything from rough sleeping to halal meat, and young chancers are donning long robes and talking of Islamic States. But with the whole world picking a side, Khan’s central protagonist is a contrarian – disenfranchised from every constituency. For the twenty year old Ishaq, everything that he loves, once loved, wants to love, is crumbling. He feels boxed-in, by Muslim and non-Muslim alike, and the heart of the novel is in Ishaq’s struggle to keep some small flame burning – to prevent all lights from being snuffed out.
An inner-London estate provides the story’s backdrop – a landscape which Khan shades with a palette of greys, revealing how post-War aspiration morphed and then decayed, with policymakers and the authorities stepping back to merely contain its degeneracies – preventing them from spilling out into the suburbs. And as a salve, some of the Muslim residents attend a ‘study circle’, wherein talks are given on the basics of good living, from an Islamic perspective. Basically, Love Thy Neighbour, laced with Arabic. But platitudes on neighbourliness are fast losing their appeal amongst the congregants – some wanting to meet might with might, others just after a quick buck – and soon MI5 start sniffing around.
Life on the estate is well portrayed, with its neglect and dis-ease coming over strongly. There is even room for a little humour:
‘Mujahid shouted, “Pauline, Ishaq is having an arranged marriage.” “Oh, she was pretty, but oh Issy, you’re not like that, are ya, luv? You could find a nice girl round here, not some random bint.”
But it’s a palpable claustrophobia that sets the novel in motion, with Ishaq restless like a caged tiger, searching for some way out. None of Khan’s characters is a poster-boy for integration – they are all some version of a Daily Mail reader’s nightmare. And yet each voice is compelling – reasonable, even. Despite the narrative at times threatening to degrade into a sequence of soap-box speeches, some of these carry huge power. Khan gives his reader space to orientate, to bridge the gap – chasm – between themselves and the unfamiliar, resulting in even the most ‘muscular’ perspectives seeming, well, not insane.
Any Cop?: The Study Circle is, in part, about the burden of history – the near history of kinships and shared, growing pains, as well as far history: all that ‘Once we were Warriors’ spiel that gets handed down the generations, becoming a chain around one’s neck. The novel is also Khan’s primal scream – he demands that you see his world beyond the 2D cartoons that you’re fed; he wants you to acknowledge the living, breathing contradiction that he is. And I know exactly how he feels.