Debunking Islam and re-educating the non-Muslim American public: ”Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers details the real-life experiences of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American man who is detained in a makeshift prison camp following the disaster of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Whilst the horrific details of Zeitoun’s arrest and detainment is a primary example of racial and religious discrimination, the build-up of the novel detailing the importance of religion for the Zeitoun family and Kathy’s conversion to Islam has a powerful effect for readers. The religious discrimination portrayed in the novel provokes sympathy for its readers but also serves as an anti-prejudice mechanism to debunk pre-conceived notions of the Islamic faith and an education on its principles.

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak/Time Magazine)

The war against terror by the Bush administration had a tremendous effect on the rescue operation in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Michael Eric Dyson details on how the war in Iraq ‘stymied the response’ of the National Guard in New Orleans and diverted the resources from the Army Corps of Engineers. (Dyson 80) Dyson also notes the budget cuts administered by President Bush for the Corps, as the budget for the Iraq war increased. (Dyson 81) With funds unevenly distributed to fuel the war on terror and chaotic arrests and the creation of Guantanamo Bay, New Orleans was left a disaster zone after Hurricane Katrina, as it is depicted in the novel. It also illustrates the panic felt by the United States government over Islamic terrorism. Judith Butler writes that ‘fears can give rise to an impulse to resolve it quickly, to banish it in the name of action’ (Butler 29) Not only is this transparent in Zeitoun’s imprisonment in Camp Greyhound but is alluded to throughout the novel especially in the religious discrimination faced by Kathy, Zeitoun’s wife.

The entire passage describing Kathy’s conversion is carefully plotted out to disprove the discriminatory stereotypes that are often associated with people of the Muslim faith. As Kathy recounts her discovery of Islam and journey through the religious conversion, she mentions some of her findings while learning about the basic principles of the Islamic faith. She learns that she was misinformed of Muhammed’s role in Islam and believed Him to be ‘the actual God of Islam’ (Eggers 72) and also that Allah means God in Arabic and that Christians in the Arab World actually refer to God as Allah. (Eggers 76) Eggers draws upon the similarities between Christianity and Islam in order to familiarise readers of the connections between the faiths whilst also gaining sympathy and understanding for the religious discrimination faced by Muslim followers. Kathy, alongside the readers, is discovering that her previous beliefs about Islam were false.

Kathy and Abdulrahman/ Michael DeMocker/Times/Picayune Archive

The passages that describe Kathy’s conversion to Islam has a defensive tone as if Kathy is speaking to a critical stranger. These thought processes are directly pointed at the reader, as well as disapproving figures in Kathy’s life. Kathy described how Islam gave her a ‘sense of personal responsibility’ and how she liked the ‘dignity and purity’ that she found in other Muslim women she had encountered. (Eggers 77) This disproves the argument of women being oppressed by Islam, which is one of the most prevalent criticisms made against the religion. By contrasting the perception of women in Islam as oppressed with the image of independence and personal freedom for women, readers are given another perspective that is often foregone.

The defence of Islam is particularly palpable in the passage illustrating different types of Muslims such as the ‘passive’, ‘uncertain’, ‘borderline agnostic’ and ‘devout’, and pointing out those who ‘twist the words of the Qur’an’ to enact personal desires (such as Islamic terrorists). Kathy draws upon these notions of Muslim people to the defence of Islam and says these characters are ‘familiar’ and ‘intrinsic to any faith’. (Eggers 72) This deconstruction of Islam, and especially to the different kind of people that practice Islam, is debunking the stereotypes and myths about the Islamic faith. This passage portraying Kathy’s education of Islam translates to the education of the reader also, as if Eggers is attempting to deconstruct people’s knowledge (or lack thereof) of Islam, which is made easier by beginning from the groundwork of a topic and building upon it. The defence of Islam is commonplace for many Muslims in the West, with the increased prejudice and hate directed towards the community. Nguyen references this in the USA and states that the number of hate crimes towards the Muslim community increased after September 11 (Nguyen xxii) and that criminal prosecution against civil immigration violations increased due to the inflated fear of Muslim individuals. (Nguyen 140) This portion of the novel not only is an education for Kathy, but also for the reader. The association between Islam and Islamic terrorism is separated and Eggers decides to explore the rudimentary basics of the religion that the reader otherwise may not have known.

A Donald Trump supporter holds up an anti-Muslim poster near the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July. CNN

Baudrillard stresses that the ‘real victory’ of terrorist actions is the obsession with security in the West and the ‘perpetual terror’ that is formed in societies through fear-mongering. (Baudrillard 62) With the ever-presence of ISIS, suicide bombers in Europe and the anti-immigration rhetoric, increasing political tensions and furthering religious discrimination in non-Muslim countries, the importance of this anti-prejudice message is as relevant now to the Western world as it was when Zeitoun was first published.

 

References

Baudrillard, Jean. The Spirit of Terrorism: and, Other essays. Translated by Chris Turner. London: Verso, 2003.

Butler, Judith. Precarious Life. London: Verso, 2004.

Dyson, Michael Eric. Come High or Hellwater: Hurricane Katrina and the color of disaster. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2007.

Eggers, Dave. Zeitoun. London: Penguin Books, 2010.

Nguyen, Tram. We are all suspects now: untold stories from immigrant communities after 9/11. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005.

6 thoughts on “Debunking Islam and re-educating the non-Muslim American public: ”Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers

  1. Hi Pelin,

    I really enjoyed reading your blog!

    What do you think Eggers’ overall motivation is in his discussion of Islam? Do you think that he is merely trying to clarify common misunderstandings about the faith, or is he writing with more of an agenda? I wondered if at times his attempt to make Islam more ‘relatable’ or ‘accessible’ resulted in a watering down of the beliefs of the religion.

    – Sophie

  2. Hi Sophie,

    Thanks for your comment!

    I am not sure on whether Eggers is writing religion as an agenda in this novel, but all passages concerning Islam does feel overdrawn and explanatory in certain parts which provoked my post about the education of Islam. I have never personally experienced this length of religious education in novels where the protagonists are Christian or non-believers, for example. I would lean towards the argument that Eggers is attempting to clarify misconceptions about Islam rather than promoting an agenda, however I did find Eggers’ aim to make the religion more ‘relatable’ quite tiresome after a while, as it was repetitive.

    In regards to the second part of your question, I do not necessarily believe that Egger’s watered down Islam to make it more accessible for all readers. Although Eggers descriptively discusses Islamic beliefs such as the five pillars and the hijab, it seems to be written as a defense against the discrimination that the Zeitoun family were facing. Although it feels repetitive and simplified to me personally (as someone who was raised Muslim), I think readers who have none to poor knowledge of the religion would find it more informative than watered down.
    I hope this answers your question!

    -Pelin

  3. Hi Pelin,

    This is a really interesting topic for consideration and one which particularly struck me when reading the novel. Kathy’s narrative of conversion is powerful and asks us to look at the ways in which we construct and propagate stereotypes about those with religious backgrounds.

    I wonder though how it is possible for Eggers to educate us on this topic as a white, American man. As a genre, narrative non fiction necessarily means that the author will have spent a lot of time with the Zeitoun family, listening to their stories and immersing himself in their lives. However, writing any book is a commercial project, it has to make profit and so the story takes on a heroic narrative in which prejudice is the obstacle the family face. What I am getting at is how can the thoughts and experiences of Kathy, a Muslim woman, force us to confront the stereotypes and misconceptions of Islam when they are mediated through a white, American man?

    It also takes on new light when we look at the story of the Zeitoun’s after the publication of this book (see this article in the New York Times) when it is revealed that Kathy and her husband are now divorced after he was convicted of her assault.

    How do you think these perspectives impact the construction of Islam in Zeitoun?

    Best,
    Lara

  4. Hi Pelin,

    I really enjoyed this piece. I was actually about to pose a question regarding Eggers’ potential agenda in his portrayal of Islam, but it seems that Sophie has beat me to it! I agree with how you answered her, in stating that you rarely find religious education like what we see in ‘Zeitoun’ in Christian novels. When we compare the presentation of Islam in ‘Zeitoun’, then, with presentations of Christianity across other works of contemporary fiction, I think you’re right in saying that Eggers is attempting to clear Islam’s name a little bit – especially in the wake of all of its bad press post-9/11. However, perhaps this is an agenda in itself? A justifiable one, at that, but an agenda all the same.

    The other question I wanted to pose to you is potentially a controversial one, but I would like to know your thoughts. You make the point: “Eggers draws upon the similarities between Christianity and Islam in order to familiarise readers of the connections between the faiths whilst also gaining sympathy and understanding for the religious discrimination faced by Muslim followers.” As you have identified, Islam has garnered a poor reputation in the twenty-first century, due to 9/11, ISIS, jihads etc. While Christianity is far from being accepted in mainstream thought (due to its controversial take on contemporary issues such as gender, sexuality, abortion etc), I think it would be fair to say that Christianity’s reputation has not suffered quite as much as Islam’s in the last couple of decades. My question is this: do you think Eggers draws upon the similarities between Christianity and Islam, as a means of legitimising Islam? By showing that Islam is not far removed from the West’s ‘preferred’ religion, Christianity, do you think Eggers’ agenda is to elevate the status of Islam somewhat?

  5. Hi Phelin, I really enjoyed this piece, with it illuminating many points that I didn’t think of when reading the text.

    Similarly to Lara, I also wondered if Eggers was best equipped to educate us, as we may consider him privileged, being a white, American man. Can we fully believe Kathy’s experiences and thought processes, as a minority (being a Muslim woman), and can these experiences truly force us to view Islam in a different light, when they are conveyed through Eggers?

    Like Sophie, I wonder if Eggers’ main aim is to challenge misconceptions of Islam, and I wonder, if this is his aim, if this can be achieved due to his own privileged status.

  6. Hi Pelin!
    I really enjoyed your discussion on how Kathy felt more freedom within Islam than oppression which people often don’t acknowledge. It lets the reader see how religion is such a personal choice.

    However, I agree with other comments made questioning how best he is to educate about his religion, considering his background and past revelations.

    Catherine.

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