In a New Novel, a Secular Muslim American Rejects the Burden of Labels

Pauls Toutonghi in The New York Times:

EtrazEnter 2016 — the election year of our discontent — which threatens to topple the country into a social chaos unseen since the late 1960s. Nearly two-thirds of Republican voters approve of a temporary ban on Islamic immigration. A mainstream presidential candidate has made xenophobia a central tenet of his campaign. In the first three months after terrorists attacked Paris in November, the rate of hate crimes against Muslims tripled in the United States. This is not an America with a robust and nuanced public discourse. And so the question must be asked: How much is our cultural marketplace to blame — where the narratives that sell most widely are ones that, arguably, do little to advance understanding, or even dialogue, across difference?

Into this maelstrom comes Ali Eteraz’s debut novel, “Native Believer.” Eteraz is the author of a memoir, “Children of Dust” (2009), that chronicled his journey from boyhood in a small town in central Pakistan to sex-obsessed adolescence in the American South to pious Islamic young adulthood to the broadly humanist activism that has marked his past 10 years. “Children of Dust” is, essentially, a description of the birth of “Ali Eteraz” — a pen name that translates to “Noble Protest,” which the author adopted several years after Sept. 11. Eteraz’s publisher has taken an admirable risk with “Native Believer.” I found myself wondering — as I sped through its pages with alternating interest, awe and queasiness — whether Eteraz had set out purposefully to challenge his imagined readership, to engage in a kind of “noble protest” against the demands of literary commerce. I believe this novel will offend as many readers as it captivates. It is unflinching in its willingness to transgress taboos, whether those taboos are religious, sexual or both. And in the end, “Native Believer” stands as an important contribution to American literary culture: a book quite unlike any I’ve read in recent memory, which uses its characters to explore questions vital to our continuing national discourse around Islam. This is a novel that says (to borrow a line from Aimé Césaire’s “Discourse on Colonialism”), “Any civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization.”

More here.