Interview with Tawseef Khan

I’ve read that you’ve been formulating the idea for The Muslim Problem for a few years. Was there a particular impetus to write it now?

I actually started writing the book as soon as the idea came into my head. My involvement with an activist group had come to an end. I was thinking about what to do next, while writing the project for which I won a Northern Writers’ Award. The Muslim Problem seemed to be a natural extension of the work I had been doing and which still occupied my thoughts. A way to do that work on a bigger scale maybe. I’d seen how Muslims, young Muslims especially, internalised Islamophobic rhetoric and religious dogma, and then struggle to find their way out of it. I felt that, in the absence of book speaking directly to Muslims, at a time when public conversations around racism were reappearing, it was time to add my voice to the collective.

The book is meticulously researched, yet also deeply personal, containing snapshots of your life throughout. How did it feel to frame it in this personal way?

The personal framing felt very natural to me. I’m very heavily invested in everything I do – maybe too much sometimes! But when I was thinking about writing the book, it was clear to me that my experiences were so similar to the experiences of the Muslims I wanted to speak to. My life, in many ways, has been defined by the War on Terror. And my Muslim identity, whether I like it or not, is framed and defined by forces that often have very little to do with me. Beginning each chapter with my own experience of a particular Islamophobic stereotype, therefore, felt logical. I am a product of Islamophobia and religious dogma. I had to fight my way out of those things. And I wanted to show people how deeply both of those things hurt people – and the easiest way I could show that hurt was to write about myself.

Your ongoing podcast Muslim, Actually is a brilliant companion piece to The Muslim Problem and an expansion of the conversations you’ve prompted with the book. As a writer, can you tell us about moving between the spoken and written word and the way it changes how you articulate your ideas?  

I feel much more confident when writing, which I shouldn’t, because as a lawyer and activist, I should also feel at ease with verbally articulating my ideas! But the truth is, I was very nervous about putting the podcast, Muslim, Actually together. I guess in every part of this process, there’s a voice inside me that wonders if I am the right person for it, and I have to find a way to silence it. Here, too, I went into the process thinking that I didn’t know what I was doing with the podcast. But I know that I eventually found my feet, and having finished the recording of the first season, I’m really eager to do a second one!

But I guess the interesting thing about moving between the spoken and written word is that with the podcast, I have to think on my feet, I have to be flexible to where a conversation is going, and I have to trust my intuition, which is frightening at first. With writing, at least I have the luxury of being able to take time over my ideas, to think them through, turn them around, put them on the page, examine them again, edit, if necessary. I really enjoy being able to sit with my ideas, honing them until they’re ready to be shared. I can’t do that with a podcast episode, and it frightens me!

However, the most beautiful thing about the podcast goes beyond the difference between the spoken and written word. Mostly, I take a back seat in communicating my thoughts and ideas in the podcast. I feel The Muslim Problem is where I share what I think, whereas the podcast is where I share my platform and enable my guests to talk about their ideas and their journeys with Islam. Most of the guests are close friends of mine, so I find there’s something quite special about creating the space for people to hear their stories.

While everyone should read The Muslim Problem, the manifesto at the end particularly marks it as something that aims to speak to and support young Muslims. What do you want young Muslims to ultimately take from this book? 

Ultimately, that nobody can define Islam for you. They are not entitled to, but nor is it desirable for you to want that. The interesting contradiction with faith is the fact that so many of us resent hierarchies and gatekeeping in religion, i.e. religious leaders telling us what to do, and yet so many of us also just want that clarity and mooring, essentially, being told what is and isn’t out of bounds. And, I think, there is no get-out clause. We all have to define for ourselves what Islam means to us. And then we have to try our best to live that out in our daily lives, irrespective of what other people might make of our take on it.

Tawseef Khan is a qualified solicitor specialising in immigration and asylum law, and a human rights activist with over 10 years’ experience working on refugee and Muslim issues. In 2016 he obtained a doctoral degree from the University of Liverpool, where his thesis explored the fairness of the British asylum system. He was a recipient of a 2017 Northern Writers’ Award.