‘Do you wish to become a true Muslim?’ he said to me.
‘But I am -‘
‘I’m not talking about only visiting the mosque at Eid, or praying to Allah as if he were Santa,’ he said shaking his head. ‘I mean true Islam, without addition or subtraction. That which was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.’
(I Am Thunder by Muhammad Khan. P142. *Quotation taken from advance copy.)
Muzna Saleem’s parents will be proud of anything she chooses to be when she grows up, so long as it’s a doctor. They aren’t interested in Muzna’s writing. They are always concerned about what the Pakistani community think, and would rather break-up Muzna’s friendships than risk their daughter being shamed. It’s a good job they don’t know about that guy who tried to groom Muzna over the internet, then. But that was three years ago -it can’t happen again.
Muzna thinks she has met her soulmate when she starts a new school and befriends Arif. The popular girls can’t believe it. What does a good-looking guy want with a girl like Muzna? Muzna doesn’t care what she think. She and Arif are on the same wavelength. He knows what it’s like to be a Muslim. To be marginalised.
Unable to turn to her parents for guidance, and low on self-esteem, Muzna is easy pickings for the men looking to radicalize young people.
An important and necessary book, I Am Thunder will frighten you as you learn how easily young people can be exploited by extremists. Muzna is such a vivid character, I pleaded with her not to get herself into trouble even as the story was set-up. By vivid I don’t mean extroverted – Muzna is a deep-thinker, and a follower. This is one of the things which gets her into trouble. She is easily lead from one thought to another. When I say Muzna is a vivid character I mean Muhammad Khan has given her a strong voice. She and her friends are authentically teenage in a way which few YA books pull off. She also has this strong sense of her own identity which she feels compelled to hide.
Muzna’s parents are shown with a balance of sympathy and scrutiny. They aren’t bad parents. They have high aspirations for Muzna, and Dad works day and night to save for her future. They also care too much about what the community think, despite being liberal Muslims and well-integrated into jobs and British society. I think Muhammad Khan has opened a very important conversation about the immense pressure some Asian parents place on their children. As someone who grew up in North East London, I was sometimes in class with 28 kids who were supposed to become doctors or lawyers.
The earliest part of the book is set when Muzna is three years younger. This sets up her insecurities, and how these lead her to trouble. It also comes back at the end in a way which makes you realise how important is was all along.
As well as showing how Muzna is radicalised, the story shows the different attitudes of people around her. How it feels to know anything you say in class could be reported to Prevent. How it feels when people on the bus blame you for bomb attacks the other side of the world. The most important thing about showing this is young people who experience these events – or even worries about these events – now have a character to turn to. They can see the conclusions Muzna comes to, and can relate to her feelings. It might also make other teenagers think twice about prejudice they have picked up.
I love this book. It’s a phenomenal start to 2018. I can’t wait to hear more from Muhammad Khan.
Huge thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books for sending an advance copy in exchange for honest review.