The Kindness of Enemies


Yasmine Motawy, The American University in Cairo

Leila Aboulela’s The Kindness of Enemies (2015) explores two historical settings that focalize Muslims in Europe. The first narrative is set in contemporary Scotland, and the second in the 1850s North Caucasus.

In the present day, Oz (actually Osama), is a Muslim student arrested under suspicion of potential involvement in terrorist activites. His half-Russian half-Sudanese university lecturer Natasha Wilson had been obliged by Prevent duties to monitor and report him as a student likely to be radicalized, but failed to do so, although she had had no qualms about submitting reports on other Muslim students before. Before his arrest, she finds herself snowed in at Oz’s home and remains as an impromptu guest for days,where she becomes fascinated by his mother, Malak, a Sufi and an actress, and the sword of Shamil, Malak’s alleged ancestor, that Oz and Malak possess. Natasha is forced by these events to stop and examine her life, which she does in Khartoum following her father’s sudden death.

In the second narrative, the real historical figure of Imam (honorific for a Muslim spiritual leader) Shamil, is leading his tribe in battle after battle against Russian expansion into Dagestan.ِ After the siege of Akhoulgo, Imam Shamil agrees to give the Russians his 8 year old son Jamaledin, named after Shamil’s spiritual leader, as a hostage to show goodwill in the negotiations. When the negotiations fail, the boy is made the Tsar’s godson in St Petersburg and grows to become a Russian officer. Imam Shamil searches for 13 years for a prisoner valuable enough to exchange for Jamaledin, and finally has Anna, a Georgian princess, her two children and their French governess kidnapped by his men. They live with his family in the traditional mountain village of Dargo until an exchange is finally effected.

With her children and their governess, and her daughter slips and dies on the difficult ride up into the Dagestan mountains, she arrives bereft, but an open observer of how this community in danger conducts itself, is a lens through which the ways of traditional people, including marriage, hierarchy, are seen. As an anthropologist of sorts, she has access to Shamil and is impressed by his dignity and manner as the possibility that she may become his wife should her husband fail to ransom her and convince the Tsar to send Jamaledin back, is horrific and tantalizing in turns, as she considers joining Shamils family and resitance to free Georgia. Anna is forever changed by her experience, and remains attentive to how Moscow society accounts of Shamil compare to hers. Meanwhile, the Russians have broken Imam Shamil’s stronghold and it is the beginning of the end of the Caucasus Imamate. Imam Shamil surrenders and is set up comfortably by the Tsar near Moscow then in Kiev, and finally dies on a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.

Aboulela fills a need she identifies, to humanize those practising Islam, without falling into sentimentality by offering her readers heroes in each timeline: First, the formidable Shamil, his tenderness with his disabled daughter, his humility before his Shaykh who can in a material sense do nothing for him, his patience with his difficult wife, his nobility in war, and the testimony of the Armenian captive who refused to return to her family when ransomed and seems to genuinely love him. When his time as a warrior comes to an end, it is is followed by a graceful repose in worship, and a portrait of his inner spirituality dominates the narration; He sees God in all things and notes how the church bells of Russian ring, “truth, truth,” in his ear, echoing the formula he repeats in zikr (301). In the modern world, Aboulela’s heroine is Malak, who lives fully in the world, practising her faith privately, favoring its esoteric spiritual core, and shedding its shell. When Natasha is snowed in, she, like Anna, sees the life that she might have lived if she had found the courage to look for ways of balancing her inherited faith with the society that was antagonistic to it, and to her.

A number of rights-based conversations can be had based on this book.

The right not to be discriminated against on the basis of race or religion. Natasha does not use her Muslim surname, and is frustrated by not being white passing, while Jamaledin bristles from comments on his Asiatic features, raising the question of how being visibly identifiable as Muslim on top of this might further complicate life in modern Western states. Natasha is told by her superior that she is an asset, and Jamaledin is told by the Tsar that he is their “mouthpiece in the Caucasus” (143, 59). As young Muslims – if only by ancestry- they do everything they can to prove to the modern European societies they live in that they truly belong, denying essential parts of themselves and even agreeing to work with the State as native informants within the Muslim communities, but it is still not enough to save them from discrimination.

The right to religious freedoms, which, while enshrined by laws, are undermined by others, as some young Muslims in Europe live under a constant shadow of suspicion, that itself fuels some radicalization. Oz serves as a mouthpiece of disillusioned European young Muslims who openly, and often violently, reject the double standards and racism embedded in the system. Ultimately, the first questions that are asked by officers about Oz are around whether he drinks alcohol or has a girlfriend; in other words, whether he takes his dangerous religion seriously. This is mirrored in the 19th century narrative, as many flee their ancestral homes in the Caucasus to the Ottoman Empire in order to practise their faith in safety, suggesting that the “stay and forget who you are or leave” choice is still real, making it important for Natasha and Anna to return to their paternal ancestral lands in Khartoum and Georgia respectively in order to heal and cease to suppress part of themselves. This is similar to the exodus of the Jews from conquered Andalusia to Muslim territories and finally Ottoman Turkey in order that they be able to practice their religion freely, outside of Christian Spain.

The book considers the rights of the seeker of knowledge to safe spaces of trust for learning. The depiction of the guide-follower relationship between Shaykh Jamaledin and Imam Shamil is seen to be based on trust in the insight of the mentor, and is sharply contrasted with the fundamental mistrust in the educator-student relationship brought about by the UK anti-terror law’s obligations on educators.

As a mirror to how human rights are compromised and safeguarded in the 21st century ‘War on Terror’, the question of rights in the 19th century wartime setting is both a research topic that interests Oz, and a reality that Imam Shamil contends with on the ground regarding responding to the Russian’s use of firearms, as Islamic law at the time, prohibited the use of fire on enemies in combat, and the conflict between various Islamic laws and local custom laws. The title of the book alludes to a respect for the human rights of dignitaries that represent entire communities within a belligerent situation, through the way Anna is treated in Dargo, and the way that Imam Shamil remains an admired combatant in the eyes of the Russians, and is treated with honor by the Tsar after his defeat.

Being published in English in the UK, this book encourages its readers to allow the parallel historical narrative and the contemporary one to add texture to their understanding of what it has meant in the past and continues to mean today be Muslim in Europe, albeit in different directions of exile and immigration. For today, immigration to Europe is still partially driven by the desire for religious freedoms that is enshrined in European laws.


The Contested Caucasus

Bridging the past and the present, Leila Aboulela’s The Kindness of Enemies is a testament of the changing faces of war and terror. The war presented most prevalently in the novel takes the reader to the farthest reaches of Europe, to the perpetually contested regions of the Caucasus. A diverse geographical region, the Caucasus sits at a convergence between Europe and Asia. This vast region consists of a number of nations, including the southernmost parts of Russia (notably Chechnya and Dagestan) and the Transcaucasian nations of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Spanning such a great area, the Caucasus is aptly called “Jabal al-Alsun in Arabic, translating to “Mountain of Languages”, a nod to the region’s diverse ethnic makeup.

Nineteenth Century Caucasus – Rise of Political Islam

Imperial Russia’s expansion effort spanned more than two centuries, beginning in the early seventeenth century, as the empire attempted to move further east and down the Eurasian borders for political and economic gain. This expansion was one that prompted cultural as well as religious discord, resulting in violent conflicts and attempts at peace, such as Georgia ceding to Russia to avoid war. Retaliation against the Russians came primarily in the early nineteenth century in 1817, as Russia’s military progress threatened the way of life of the ethnically diverse populace of the Caucasus regions, including the Dagestani and the Chechens.

The greatest opposition to the Russians was led by Sufi Imam Shamil, who controlled much of the Dagestani regions. In the time of his leadership, the Caucasus had undergone a change from localised religious and cultural practices, to adopting Sharia law. By uniting the various tribal factions of the Mountain areas under their shared Islamic faith, Imam Shamil forged a holy war that ran parallel with the other resistance efforts across the continent, including the Åland War to the north, and the Crimean War further south, attracting more international attention.

Hewsen H. Robert. Armenia: A Historical Atlas. Chicago, 2001.

A figure standing in the path of the Russian expansion, Imam Shamil gained the favour of the nations participating in the Crimean War, particularly Great Britain, as his jihad effort stopped Russia from gaining dominion over India. Lasting from 1817 to 1864, this politico-religious war with its estimated casualty of over 290,000 people, culminated in Imam Shamil surrendering and Russia annexing Dagestan. Despite Shamil’s surrender and Russia’s claim to Dagestan, peace in the Caucasus remained impossible. Amongst the nations living under first Imperial Russia and later the USSR, military attempts at independence permeated the history of the region into the twentieth century.

Ongoing History – The Chechen Wars

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, a bid to independence triggered the start of the First Chechen War. Lasting from 1994 to 1996, this new war had various similarities with Imam Shamil’s Jihad of the nineteenth century. Moving against Russia, an Islamist militant group fought for the independence of Chechnya, then part of the Russian Federation, led by Islamist leaders, including Shamil Salmanovich Bayasev. During his active years, Bayasev gained notoriety as his militant actions blurred the lines between liberation of the people and religious terrorism. The issue of the Second Chechen War remains to be resolved as it is an ongoing affair with no perceivable ending on the horizon.

Aboulela’s account of history urges us to consider that we have not moved beyond the horrors of the past. When politics and religion converge, the common cry is that of Terror, and if history has shown us one thing, it is that time is cyclical. The same vices play out time and time again under new guises. Be it Imam Shamil’s war against Russia or the atrocities of the Chechen Wars, what remains is a cry for recognition for the rights and the dignity of the many victims of the ongoing violence in the region.. To quote from The Kindness of Enemies, “[h]ere he was between one dress and the other, neither Russian nor Chechen, just naked and human” (Aboulela 240).

Human Rights

Ethnic and religious warfare, persecution, and profiling are fundamental themes in Leila Aboulela’s novel The Kindness of Enemies (2015). These problems persevere and are still acutely relevant on a global scale.

Data provided by PEW from 2012

Though complete accuracy and updated numbers can be difficult to attain, several credible reports have been published. The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank, for example, has now published their ninth annual study on global restrictions on religion in 2018 titled “Global Uptick in Government Restrictions on Religion in 2016”, which you can read in its entirety here (or you can look at their key findings here). According to their findings, restrictions on religion increased around the world in 2016. Nationalist parties and organizations played an increasing role in harassment of religious minorities, especially in Europe, and this is the second year in a row that overall restrictions on religion – whether the result of government actions or by individuals or societal groups – increased in the 198 countries studied. In 2020, they provided an updated layout of religious restrictions in these countries, as well as how each country’s restrictions have changed since 2007, which you can explore here.

One response to the September 11 Attacks was The Prevent policy, which is one strand of the UK counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST. It was introduced in 2003 by the New Labour government of Tony Blair, with the aim of preventing the radicalization of individuals to terrorism. Initially, Prevent played a minor role in CONTEST relative to the other strands, but following the attacks in London on 7th July 2005, the importance of the Prevent strategy increased as the government hoped to deal with a risk of “home-grown” terrorism. At its core, the Prevent strategy was built to be the “hearts and minds” dimension of the overall CONTEST strategy, aiming to prevent radicalization to terrorism through three strategic objectives: (1) respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism; (2) prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure that they are given appropriate advice and support; and (3) work with sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalization. In 2015, the Prevent policy became legally binding for public sector institutions, including higher education institutions (you can read the updated CONTEST strategy from 2018 here). As such, its reach has extended much deeper into society.

A partnership approach with Muslim communities has been at the heart of delivering these Prevent objectives.

However, this initiate has been heavily criticized by members of the Muslim community, both in the UK and abroad, for years. Sharmishta “Shami” Chakrabarti, a British Labour Party politician, barrister, and human rights activist (former director of Liberty), branded it the biggest spying program in Britain in modern times and an affront to civil liberties.

Leila Aboulela herself has spoken out against such invasive government initiatives and the phycological ramifications they have generated amongst Muslims in the UK. In her 2015 article, “Why must Britain’s young Muslims live with this unjust suspicion?”, she states:

Before even being exposed to radicalisation, young Muslims are talked down to and told off. They are shoved under the microscope. Whatever the news item, whatever the issue, be it cultural practice or immigration rules, regardless of how religious they are or how much they practise, by simply being Muslim the youth are made to feel that they are on the wrong side.

In February 2021, Amnesty International Amnesty joined a coalition of 17 human rights and community groups in boycotting the UK government’s review of the anti-radicalisation programme, in protest at the appointment of William Shawcross as its chair, pointing to his history of negative remarks about Islam. The coalition fears that by appointing Shawcross, the UK government proves that it has no interest in conducting an objective and impartial review of the strategy, nor in engaging meaningfully with communities affected by it. In a joint letter, the organisations say:

The UK government must fundamentally reconsider its flawed and counter-productive counter-terrorism strategy, which has profound and far-reaching human rights impacts. We condemn its lack of political will to carry out this crucial task—the price of which continues to be disproportionately paid by Muslims across the UK.

Additional resources

Reading Group Guide for The Kindness of Enemies

Book reviews:

Article by Leila Aboulela written at the time of publication:

From author’s website – the inspiration behind the novel: