The Submission

Issue section: 

Amy Waldman

A jury painstakingly chooses the winner from anonymous submissions to design the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero. The consensus is immediately shattered when the architect's name is revealed - Mohammad (Mo) Khan. "Jesus fucking Christ!" says one of the jurors, "It's a goddamn Muslim!"

What follows in this beautifully written novel is a powerful exposé of post-9/11 America. In a climate of whipped-up fear and xenophobia, the US sense of itself as democratic, inclusive and a defender of civil liberties is quickly surrendered. The choice of Mo unleashes fury among many of the bereaved and people who felt humiliated by 9/11. It creates havoc among liberals, who predictably flounder under the pressure of Fox News-inflamed bigotry. It bewilders and divides US Muslims.

As the Islamophobic hysteria mounts, a rich cast of deftly portrayed characters find themselves caught up in a storm over which none has control and in which all are in some way victims. Each expresses views that challenge others (and the reader)to justify their beliefs, their tolerance, their intolerance - and each changes as a result.

Mo, the fiercely ambitious, secular US-born architect of Muslim Pakistani descent, watches in horror as he is depicted as Bin Laden - and finds himself strangely drawn to aspects of his family's culture. He grows a beard. He fasts during Ramadan. He risks all by stubbornly refusing to justify his design, arguing that a non-Muslim would not have been asked to do so.

Sean Gallagher is the angriest of the victims' relatives, but it emerges that his anger is mainly fuelled by his unemployment. As his extremism brings him respect in the anti-Khan campaign, his doubts begin to mount - particularly after he finds himself ripping off a woman's hijab, triggering copycat assaults across the country.
His nemesis, Claire Burwell, chosen instead of him to represent relatives on the jury, is cultured, liberal-minded and wealthy. At first she nobly defends Khan and his design, but then her doubts begin to mount.

Asma is a 9/11 widow too. But her husband was Bangladeshi and an "illegal" worker in the Twin Towers and therefore, as she says, "invisible" as a victim. Trapped at home by her lack of English, her poverty and her status as a single mother in a traditional Muslim community, she eventually finds her voice - a voice that once raised is the most powerful of all. Through Asma, Waldman reveals her deep understanding of and empathy with the Muslim communities in the West that have been so demonised by the tabloids since 9/11.

It was pretty disturbing to read some of the Islamophobic vitriol described in this novel. Even more disturbing was that Waldman wrote most of it before real Islamophobic vitriol was spewed out during the campaign to stop the proposed "Ground Zero Mosque" - a project that involved neither a mosque, nor Ground Zero. Life didn't just imitate art. It outdid it grotesquely.

The Submission is published by Heinemann, £12.99