‘Identity should be understood as fluid.’
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Fatima Bhutto, photo by Hannes Thalmann

Fatima Bhutto was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1982. Her father, Murtaza, was in exile after a military junta executed her grandfather, Pakistan’s first democratically elected
head of state. Bhutto spent her childhood in Damascus, Syria, before returning to Pakistan. She studied Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures at Columbia University and completed a Masters in South Asian Government and Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She published her first book, a volume of poetry called
Whispers of the Desert, when she was 15 years old. Her latest novel, ‘The Runaways,’ poses difficult questions about modern identity and radicalisation.

Your novel, ‘The Runaways,’ traces the path of three youngsters who end up in a jihadist camp in Mosul. Why are you interested in the topic of radicalisation?

Radicalisation is something that has been widely discussed but very rarely understood. I feel like the discussion is always very shallow. It never tries to understand why somebody could be radicalised.

What does the West not understand about radicalisation?

The West assumes that radicalisation only impacts young Muslims. There is no conversation about alienation or isolation or pain. Politics or nationalism radicalise people, not religion. In fact, an established religious background protects you. If you look at young people who are being radicalised, they do not know anything about Islam. What makes them prone to exploitation is a feeling of hopelessness, a feeling of exclusion – and that affects many more people than just Muslims.

Does this mean that the West makes people feel alienated first, and then drawn towards violence?

Radicalism is a complex set of things that come together. Part of it is alienation, part of it is a lack of education and anger. And part of it, yes, does belong to the West. If we look at Austria, where a government official says that immigrants are rats, what does that do to people with migrant backgrounds? If you are an American and you are listening to Trump saying “we do not want people like them here, these are shithole countries,” what does that make you feel? Like you have a place in that society? No. If you do not give your young people a vision for their future, they will take any other vision that is offered.

Doesn’t talking about ‘the West’ further perpetuate the East-versus-West narrative that partly leads people to radical Anti-Western groups?

The West, in other words white America and Europe, is very happy to be called “the West” when it comes to being classified as a superpower. But they are uncomfortable if it has to do with migrants, minorities or integration. A lot of the things that we see in the West today come from this deep annoyance at having to be answerable to people who used to be your subjects. Look at Brexit: One of the posters showed people running across a hill with the slogan “the migrants are coming” – this is from a country that invaded the world. For 400 years, it had its people in other people's countries, and they cannot take 60 years of immigration?

We are talking a lot about problems with language, people not seeing the whole picture, excluding people. What is the solution?

I think that is a problem for states. They have to integrate more. If people are woven deeply into the fabric of society, it is going to be harder for them to extricate themselves from it and to turn against it. Governments spend enormous sums on war, but not on educational programmes, skills training or arts programmes.

Why is it important, then, to be concerned with the radicalisation of Muslims rather than white supremacists or the gender of terrorists?

Absolutely, we have to expand that conversation. If we look at neo-Nazis, in many ways they are motivated by the same impulse: They are people who feel isolated from their society. They are people who do not feel that they have a future anymore. The same impulses motivate all these radicals, whatever ideology they subscribe to. But there is a resistance, at least in the media, to having this conversation. Take the English-language coverage of the New Zealand shooter. The Daily Mail had a picture of the sort of angelic-looking blond baby, saying: “Look at this beautiful boy! What happened to him to make him radical?” That is not the same reaction they have for the Sri Lanka suicide bombers. But when I travel to all these countries, I also find people who are not resistant to dialogue. People in the West want to have a conversation about  white supremacy and the rise of white supremacist violence, too.

Xenophobia against Muslims has reached a critical level. Do you think that is a new phenomenon?

No, it is not new at all. People always attack a minority. And it is not new even in the Muslim case: For almost 20 years, we have had to apologise for [9/11], something none of us had anything to do with. If you look at the number of people involved in radical acts of violence, and the population of Muslims, they are not even a fraction. It is super upsetting that we are constantly engaging in the same blaming of minorities. Tony Blair said recently: “Migrants should integrate better to stop populism.” Why is it the migrants’ fault? The family that comes from Syria, it is their fault? Why is it not Tony Blair’s responsibility to behave better? That is crazy.

Identity politics used to make people feel secure and integrated, like they can join forces to solve common problems. These days, we see people joining forces against “the other” instead, excluding people based on skin color or religion. What would a new approach to identity politics look like?

I think identity should always be understood as fluid. It should never be forced that somebody has to be the same person their whole life. In Asian or Middle Eastern philosophies, you are not the same person right now that you were five minutes ago or yesterday. I think outside the West, we do understand identity and time differently.
It is nice to finally have these discussions, whether we talk about gender, belonging, or identity. I think we should be a lot more forgiving and a lot more open and  understanding of people's experiences, of their journeys, and struggles. Your identity is not a ticket that you get at birth. It is always in movement, it is always changing and growing with you.

Home, identity—these discussions are determined by Western voices. Why do we not hear voices like yours more often?

I do not know. It depends on where youare. If I am in Pakistan, I hear a lot of voices like mine. That is one of the great things, to meet different people, to see different people. I think the internet helps. I think we do not have an excuse to not hear other voices. I do not have to live in Pakistan to read a Pakistani writer: I can look them up, I can do some research. I am positive that this is changing. Forums like the St. Gallen Symposium are good places to introduce new ideas, and new people.

So what can we do to give room to these voices?

You can not give voice because a voice is not yours to give. What you can give is your attention. When I come to St. Gallen, I am invited to speak, but I also come to hear what other people have to say. And I am curious to be asked questions. I think part of it is being open to the lives of other people.


Writer Fatima Bhutto says lack of compassion for migrants contributes to the radicalisation of youth.