by Claire Chambers
In her 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt argues that there is nothing in evil that is radical or lucid. Instead, she claims, even the most extreme evil is senseless and banal. Amos Elon summarized Arendt's argument in terms that cannot but resonate with the current political circumstances in the United States: 'Evil […] need not be committed only by demonic monsters, but—with disastrous effect—by morons and imbeciles as well'. As Arendt writes about Adolf Eichmann, one of the Holocaust's prime orchestrators: '[he] was not Iago and not Macbeth […]. Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all'.
The world's new Orange Overlord, 45th President of the United States Donald J. Trump has gifted us too many irrational, muddled, and downright idiotic statements and actions over the last year for enumeration in this short blog post. To take just one example, on the first day of Black History Month, Trump seemed to believe that Frederick Douglass, the nineteenth-century author of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave, was still alive. According to Trump, Douglass was 'an example of somebody who is doing an amazing job, who is being recognized more and more, I notice'.
Arendt was right to observe that the slide from thoughtlessness to evil is easy and smooth. A week before his Douglass gaffe, on Holocaust Remembrance Day 2017 Trump issued his executive order banning refugees from the United States for 120 days and from Syria permanently. Additionally, citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries (Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Sudan and Somalia) were blocked from entering for 90 days. What a way to commemorate the premeditated and industrial killing of six million Jews and 200,000 Roma by singling out refugees and a religious group for exclusion. Thankfully, Trump soon found himself struggling with implacable opposition from the US legal system and at the time of writing has been unable to execute his order.
Moreover, there was no mention of the Jews or anti-Semitism on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Trump's inept Press Secretary Sean Spicer later clarified that this omission was not regretted because the White House's intention was to 'acknowledg[e] all of the people' who died. Prince Charles responded by saying the lessons of the Holocaust are being forgotten. Yet these lessons are in fact being wilfully erased by Trump and his team.
Central to that team is the anti-Semitic, Islamophobic far-right Chief Strategist for the United States Steve Bannon. Writing in Foreign Policy, Kate Brannen makes clear the former Breitbart News chief's significance: 'If there was any question about who is largely in charge of national security behind the scenes at the White House, the answer is becoming increasingly clear: Steve Bannon'. Bannon is the shadowy power behind the gaudy Trump Tower throne. And a brief glimpse at Bannon's messy private life points to the conclusion that this is a man of staggering banality. It must be acknowledged that he is not as chaotic as Trump and has a political agenda that he has been working on for a long time, even in his Breitbart days. Yet in his quotidian life, rumours of alcoholism surround Bannon, who has been divorced three times. His second wife Mary Louise Piccard alleges that he physically and verbally abused her, was an absent and neglectful father to their twin daughters, and told her that he 'didn't want the girls going to school with Jews'.
If Indian author Hari Kunzru was right to say that there was a 'Weimar feeling' to 2016's rise of populism, then in 2017 the Muslim ban may be aimed at provoking a new Reichstag Fire. When British Prime Minister Theresa May's Home Secretary Amber Rudd belatedly worried that the travel ban might provoke more people to join Daesh, she missed that that might be precisely the point. (And it is amazing how quickly people forget that there has already been a terror attack in North America since the ban—because it was committed by a French Canadian Nazi on Muslim mosque attendees in Quebec. More such atrocities are inevitable and will continue to be forgotten or misreported as being perpetrated by Muslims.) When a Muslim extremist executes an act of terror on American soil, it may be just the excuse needed for the Bannonality of Evil to erode democracy further and institute emergency powers.
But I am straying far from my usual literary brief. The rise of neo-fascism in Euro-America today got me thinking about how Nazism has been represented in South Asian Muslim literature. I read Anna Guttman's fine book Writing Indians and Jews: Metaphorics of Jewishness in South Asian Literature, and for the rest of this post will concentrate on one Muslim woman who fought Nazis in earlier times: Noor Inayat Khan and her representations in fiction and film.
Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan was born in Moscow in 1914. Her father was the Sufi philosopher and musician Hazrat Inayat Khan, who was a descendant of Tipu Sultan. Inayat Khan met Noor's mother Ora Ray Baker in San Francesco when he was touring his music around the United States. Ora's family were interested in the East and devotees of yoga, but were nonetheless opposed to her marriage to this itinerant Indian. Despite their tolerant strand of Sufi Islam, Hazrat Inayat Khan's relatives also disapproved of the match. In the face of disownment, the young couple married and Ora took the Muslim name Ameena Begum. Inayat Khan and Ameena travelled to England and France before their first child Noor was born in Moscow. In Suresnes on the outskirts of Paris they estabilised their family home, which was named Fazal Manzil or the House of Blessing. Many disciples from different nationalities would flock to Fazal Manzil to listen to the devotional music that played there and seek guidance from the mystical patriarch.
It can easily be imagined that with her Indian and American parents, birth in Russia, French upbringing, and work in England during the Second World War, Noor was a multilingual and open-minded woman. In Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan, popular historian Shrabani Basu writes, 'Noor was an international person: Indian, French and British at the same time'.
Another formative influence on Noor was the untimely death of her father when he fell ill on a solo trip to India. At the age of just 12, this gentle, imaginative girl had to take on a maternal role to her younger brothers, Vilayat and Hidayat, and only sister Khair-un-Nisa (known as Claire). Her mother sank into a deep depression, which did not lift for a decade.
The stories Noor told her siblings to get them through this dark time shaped her budding career as a children's writer. In 1939 Noor published an illustrated volume of ancient Buddhist stories that she retold in Twenty Jātaka Tales. Her father's pluralist interpretation of Islam meant that she was well acquainted with and could breathe new life into the tales and traditions of other religions. Yet she gave the stories a distinctive Sufi slant, emphasizing the values of truth, activism, self-sacrifice, and justice. For instance, in 'The Guilty Dogs', hounds from the royal household mischievously bite through some valuable leather leashes. The king imposes severe punishment on all the kingdom's dogs, but the chief dog speaks truth to power:
'O King,' said the chief in a gentle voice, 'is your command just? Why should the dogs of the palace be innocent and the dogs of the city be judged guilty? The ones you favour are saved and the ones you know not are to be killed. O just King, where is your justice?'
In her biography of Noor aimed at children and young adults, Gaby Halberstam erases the words 'Islam' and 'Muslim' altogether, just mentioning Noor's religion once as Sufism and referencing the Hindu Bhagavad Gita as an important influence on her. This is doing Noor a disservice because, as the quote suggests, the core Islamic principle of justice is at the heart of much of her writing and political activity. And in today's Islamophobic political climate it is crucial to highlight that Muslims like Noor have lived, worked, and contributed much to Western societies for centuries.
If Noor had not had the misfortune of living in interesting times, she might have become a major author. I feel this loss keenly, as someone who has long been researching 'British Muslim Fictions'. But of course in 1939 war broke out and Noor and her family were among the hundreds of thousands of people who had to flee Paris in scenes of chaotic desperation.
Despite her tolerant Sufi background and mixed heritage it was always assumed that Noor would have an arranged marriage to a distant cousin in India. Instead, Noor, who was an accomplished musician herself, had fallen in love with a student attending Paris's École Normale de Musique. Some surviving family members told Shrabani Basu they did not remember his first name, so strongly did they disapprove of him. However, according to Khair/Claire's son, Noor's nephew David Ray Harper, the fiancé's name was Azeem Goldberg and he was of Turkish Jewish descent. Noor's six-year engagement to Goldberg despite her family's implacable and possibly anti-Semitic opposition likely contributed to her fierce resistance to the Nazis. However, it also seems probable that her passion dwindled over time and that she broke off the engagement in 1940.
In her 2004 novel The Tiger's Claw, Indian-Canadian author Shauna Singh Baldwin turns Noor's unique biography into historical fiction that has strong resonances for the post-9/11 era. She embellishes the relationship with Goldberg, who is renamed Armand, and imagines that the couple had an informal marriage which was quickly consummated. Noor became pregnant but when her Jewish lover was deported from France she had an abortion. Partly written in epistolary form, The Tiger's Claw presents letters from Noor to the terminated child. She hopes this baby girl will be reborn when Noor and the imprisoned Armand are reunited and their marriage can be legalized. Singh Baldwin presents readers with a fugue on Noor's impassioned realization that, notwithstanding her conservative uncle's principles and later her armed guard's unwanted advances, 'my life is my own, my soul and my body my own'. This chimes with the trope of the struggle for control over women's bodies common to much diasporic South Asian women's writing. Shompa Lahiri similarly 'map[s] Khan's shifting embodied representations' in an article in which she 'highlight[s] the performative aspects of embodiment, or the roles the body plays'.
Nowhere does this emphasis on Noor's bodily autonomy and physical shape-shifting take on more importance than in her activity during World War II. Exiled in England after the family's expulsion from Paris, Noor contributed to the British war effort. Her flawless French eventually led to her becoming one of just about 30 women recruited by Selwyn Jepson to become a Special Operations Executive (SOE) operative. As the excellent Making Britain database explains her career as a secret agent:
Noor Inayat Khan joined SOE, F section on 8 February 1943 and was seconded to FANY (Women’s Transport Service First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) as a cover story for family and friends. There she trained in the use of firearms. On 16/17 June, after 4 months of training, she was flown to France under the code name ‘Madeleine’ and her cover name Jeanne-Marie Renier, one of the first female wireless operators to be infiltrated into France.
SOE operatives were saboteurs and guerrillas more than spies. Noor, with her petite beauty and pacifist views made an unlikely team member and her credentials were frequently questioned by her seniors. The wireless operator role that Noor accepted was the most dangerous designation. After deployment these agents notoriously had an average life expectancy of just six weeks. In the documentary film Enemy of the Reich, however, Hanna Diamond observes that the few women operatives that worked for SOE had the advantage of going unnoticed by the Germans for much of the war. Noor had several narrow escapes from the Gestapo where she used disingenuousness, quick thinking, and flirtation to get out of trouble.
Following these brushes with danger and the arrests of many members of her network, Noor was offered the chance to return home to her family in England. She turned this down, choosing instead to stay on and try to rebuild her Prosper team. Small wonder that she would posthumously receive Britain's George Cross and France's Croix de Guerre. Soon after, in autumn 1943, she was captured. At the Gestapo headquarters on Paris's Avenue Foch, she was held in isolation and treated as a Nacht und Nebel prisoner who was supposed to disappear into figurative night and fog. On her own and with fellow prisoners, she made several unsuccessful attempts at escape. She was treated more harshly than others incarcerated by the Nazis because of her intransigence and because her olive skin tone led officers to believe she was a Creole. Eventually she was moved to Dachau concentration camp where, after a night of torture and perhaps rape, she was shot. Legend has it that her last word was 'Liberté!'
Pir Zia Inayat-Khan says of the war and his aunt Noor in Enemy of the Reich: 'I believe if one studies history this is one of the very few global situations in which there was such a clear contrast of values and such a clear moral imperative […]. I think she [Noor] felt that moral imperative very viscerally'. Indeed, according to several accounts Noor was in favour of Indian independence and had no sympathy with what Saikat Majumdar has called, with a nod to Arendt, the 'banality of empire'. But as a non-white French refugee, resisting fascism had to take priority over her nationalist politics.
The relevance to issues rearing their heads again today does not need spelling out. To come back to Trump, Bannon, and their henchmen, amidst rampant anti-immigration sentiment and mooted Muslim bans, recovering Noor as a role model is important. As Vrinda Grover argues, she was wise enough to know what was the right path and how best to resist. Singh Baldwin has Noor express herself to her unborn child as follows:
With other followers of Sufism, I performed namaaz and zikr, meditating to heal the planet. We prayed for the miraculous enlightenment of Fascists everywhere—German and French, Hindu and Muslim. But where did conciliation and appeasement lead? First to losing you, ma petite, then to losing the one man worth calling husband.
And so, my first night back in Paris, I swore to Allah: I resist all tyranny.
Refusing to let non-violence become appeasement or spirituality become quietism, Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan did justice to the meaning of her first name, 'the light of womanhood'.