This week news that a woman from Iraq had been found in her home severely beaten revived fears of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment in the U.S. The woman later died from her injuries. The news of this attack was an unsettling reminder of American hysteria about Muslims in the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Yet the FBI reports that hate crimes against Muslims are "relatively rare" compared with attacks on Jews, gays, and Caucasians, although they have not yet dropped back to pre-9/11 levels.
Nonetheless 9/11 is beginning to feel like part of American history, rather than an event that dominated American fears of terrorism and the expectation that Al Qaeda would launch further attacks on Americans at home and abroad. The widespread fear of Muslims that erupted in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks has receded in the American consciousness, and even the more recent controversy over the building of a mosque and Islamic center near the site of “ground zero” has dropped out of the news cycle and public debate.
Amy Waldman’s novel, The Submission, offers a salutary reminder of those emotionally and politically charged times by offering a kind of "what if" narrative of events that could have taken place following America's worst terrorist attack.
Although the novel never explicitly names the terrorist attack whose effects pervade the story, the reader cannot help but name identify it with 9/11, that act of terrorism that forever changed Americans' sense that this kind of terrorism could never happen here.
The story begins with a jury’s selection of a memorial for the victims of this terrorist attack, a choice that becomes contentious when the anonymous artist selected turns out to be an American Muslim, whose name is Mohammed Khan, but who goes by the more anodyne nickname “Mo.”
The novel’s premise might seem to presage a thriller, but Waldman turns instead into a complex and riveting analysis of the relationship between the ways in which the public perceives the Muslim artist and how he comes to question the integrity of his own individual identity as both a secular American architect and a man raised in a Muslim faith and culture he has largely left behind.
Against the backdrop of the jury’s dismay at the identity of their chosen artist, Waldman shows Khan wondering if he has been passed over for a promotion he was expecting because he is a Muslim and facing questions by airport security agents in the days after the terrorist attack.
They asked about his travels in the past few months; asked where he was born.
“Virginia. Which is in America. Which means I’m a citizen.”
“Didn’t say you weren’t.” Pinball popped his gun.
“Do you love this country, Mohammad?”
“As much as you do.” The answer appeared to displease them.
“What are your thoughts on jihad?
“I don’t have any.”
“Well, perhaps you could tell us what it means. My colleague here isn’t good with the foreign languages.”
“I don’t know what it means. I’ve never had cause to use that word.”
The interrogation continues, and Mohammad feels his anger rising as the agents ask him if he’s been to Afghanistan, if he believes he’ll go to heaven if he blows himself up, and other questions ranging from the incriminating to the insulting.
Already feeling under attack, Khan proves unwilling to take the jury chairman’s suggestion that he back out of the competition because of public reaction and his insistence that he show his concern for the larger purpose of the memorial. "Then you'll care about how important this memorial is to America,’ the [chairman tells] him, and with more urgency: ‘You won’t want to tear your country apart.’”
However, as the chairman and Khan soon come to realize, once the selection has leaked to the press, they have both already lost control of the public debate over the idea of a Muslim artist building a memorial to the victims of Islamic terrorists.
Khan finds himself caught between the political interests of the Muslim American Coordinating Council, which offers him legal representation, and the Save America from Islam protesters, whose inflammatory rhetoric leads to a rash of "head scarf pulling" incidents against Muslim women.
As rumors begin to circulate that the United Arab Emirates had purchased “rights to the memorial, that opponents of the memorial were going to blow it up and blame it on the Muslims,” and even more far-fetched suppositions, Mo finds himself in his apartment, standing before the bathroom mirror and trying to determine if he should get rid of his beard to make himself look less threatening at his next public appearance.
He had grown the beard to play with perceptions and misconceptions, to argue against the attempt to define him. If he shaved, would he be losing the argument or ending it? Was he betraying his religion? No, but it would look that way. Was he betraying himself? That question shook the hand holding the razor.
As the ramifications of the jury’s decision move beyond New York to gain national and even international attention, provoking attacks on women wearing head scarves, and in turn leading squads of Muslim young men to patrol the streets of their neighborhoods with baseball bats in hand, there seems to be no way to damp down the rising tide of anger, accusation and counter-accusation, fear and speculation.
The controversy sweeps up far more than Khan himself, as other characters, family members of the victims, a tabloid journalist, Khan's Muslim lawyer/lover, are also forced to confront their conflicting feelings about whether or not Khan should accept the commission or withdraw and what that decision will ultimately means. At the periphery of the novel, the widow of an undocumented Indonesian worker who perished in the attack, is also literally and ironically drawn into this increasingly hostile debate. When she turns up to speak on Khan’s behalf at a public inquiry, the terrible gaze of public scrutiny turns on her with tragic results.
The Submission offers no easy answers to the conundrums it poses: Can a member of the same ethnic, racial, or religious group that engaged in an act of terrorism become the agent of healing for its victims, or does that person's affiliation with such a group trump any individual intentions of redress? How do we as individuals sort out our multiple allegiances? Can we ever fully leave our religious and ethnic roots behind us?
Every day we participate in the news media’s shaping of our perceptions, whether of public figures, or private individuals who are suddenly thrust into the public spotlight.
Rarely does a nuanced portrait emerge from these stories. Instead, we are presented with a simplistic either/or dissection of character. Either villain or hero, victim or criminal perpetrator, in the public spotlight, people are constrained to fit whatever stereotypes their gender, race, religion, or political affiliation suggest.
Waldman’s novel goes beyond simple questions about how we view Muslims within our own country and beyond its borders after 9/11. She makes us think about the effects of stereotypical narratives on our own perceptions of the world and how the world might view us if we too were thrust into the limelight and forced to "account" for own identity.