A modern reimagining of Sophocles’ Antigone, Shamsie’s seventh novel Home Fire (Bloomsbury, £16.99) was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year. It follows two British Muslim families, and one young Londoner’s radicalisation.
Why did Antigone seem ripe for a retelling?
There’s clearly something in the water these days that’s making novelists and playwrights turn back toward the Greeks. Or maybe it’s not something in the water, but something in the air. The Greek tragedians were so good at distilling large terrifying themes into something muscular and powerful – and we seem surrounded by large, terrifying themes these days. Antigone particularly appealed to me because it can either be read as the story of a principled individual taking on an unjust state or the story of a self-absorbed woman who won’t accept any limits on what she is allowed to do. I like working with that duality. And I also like the fact that at its heart it is very much a story of family relationships, so the large themes are all played out on an intimate scale.
Is the role of generational conflict overlooked as we search for reasons for people being radicalised?
Yes, I think it is. It is so often the very young who are drawn to these dark places – and that can be a rejection of their parents or their upbringing as much as anything else.
Your rich mix of characters shows many different approaches to Islamic faith – Aneeka wears a hijab but is sexually liberated, Isma follows Islam more strictly, Karamat has rejected his faith to advance up the political ladder. Is society guilty of overlooking these nuances?
I think it’s too easy for people to see a woman in hijab and think the word “oppression” without wanting to know very much more about her; and it’s equally easy for them to see an Asian man with a beard and start to feel nervous about being on a tube with him. That’s reductive, it’s racist, it’s damaging to Britain. But having said that, Britain has a range of Muslims in the public eye who make it less easy to take the un-nuanced view – from Zayn Malik to Malala Yousafzai to Moeen Ali to Mishal Husain to Sadiq Khan. And we need to remember that 20 years ago that would have been a much shorter list.
Parvaiz’s story goes beyond the headlines that we usually read about the Brits who go to live in Islamic State – his motives aren’t violent. Do you think this is the case for many?
One of the things that set Islamic State apart from other terrorist organisations is the fact that it really was intent on establishing a state, so it didn’t just need fighters but also doctors, engineers, and – pertinent to the novel – people who work in the media. If you look at their recruitment propaganda it isn’t just directed at people who want to fight, and are drawn to violence – it’s far more multi-pronged than that. It’s precisely because we only hear of the people who join in order to fight that I was interested in the other kinds of stories. Having said that, of course everyone who chooses to live under that kind of rule is accepting of unspeakable violence, even if they aren’t taking part in it.
London, Karachi and Massachusetts can be researched by being there, Islamic State territory less so. How did you research how people lived in that territory?
The internet! You have undercover documentaries, interviews with those who’ve escaped, clandestinely transmitted testimony from those still there – so it’s possible to get a pretty strong picture.
Is jihadism as much an attack on the freedoms Muslim women have gained as it is on the West?
Let’s start with the word “jihadism”. Jihad is a very broad term, meaning “religious war” and I grew up hearing it applied to the Afghans who were fighting the Soviets who were occupying their country. So I have to push back when I see it being used only to mean the actions of terrorist organisations. But certainly there is a deep misogyny at the heart of violent, extreme Islam – it’s why I think you need to look at issues around masculinity when you consider the appeal of these organisations to young men.
What is your opinion on our government’s approach to terrorism and what should they be doing to prevent radicalisation?
That would require a far longer answer than Big Issue North has space to print. Let’s just say I think it’s entirely counter-productive to set up programmes such as Prevent – which all schools now have to sign up to – which essentially tell British Muslims from a very young age that they’re being spied on by their government. You need strategies that make people feel they’re equal citizens, not the opposite.