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'My interest took on some obsessive traits.' Inge Schilperoord delved into the appeal of faith for her new novel

Seven years after her acclaimed debut novel Seal appears the new book by Inge Schilperoord. She delved into the experiences of a young Dutch girl attracted to the Islamic faith.

When Inge Schilperoord (49), a forensic psychologist, spent time in 2017 conducting psychological examinations in the terrorist ward of a prison, where people suspected of links to terrorist organisations such as IS reside, the subject for her new novel irrevocably presented itself. Even if they were not all converts she spoke to, she became particularly fascinated by the experiences of young people who had converted to Islam. And had been radicalised. What was going on in them? 'I was really gripped by it and my interest slowly took on some obsessive traits, just like with my first book.'

For The light in the city she delved into the world of Islam, converts and jihadism. Her protagonist Sophie is a Dutch adolescent who has just lost her father. As a lawyer, he dealt with defending radicalised Muslim youth, and he introduced his daughter to the rituals surrounding Islam, its prayers and customs.

After his death, Sophie seeks support there, and she befriends her Afghan classmate Zala. At the same time, she searches online for the jihadist who defended her father and to whom he spent too much time in the last months of his life. This Isra El Hannouri was acquitted by her father, but then left for IS's caliphate in Syria after all. Sophie tracks her down because she wants answers.

In your novel, Sophie's father says that religious beliefs are often not the main cause of extremism, but other, more personal motives, such as loneliness, anger and the desire to belong somewhere. Is this indeed true?

'Let me start by saying that I am not a scientific researcher on Muslim extremism, I choose to write a novel precisely because I want to write about individuals, and not general causes. But before I knew I wanted to write a novel about this, I did psychologically research several people suspected of having links to the caliphate. What struck me is that these young people had often been radicalised in a very short time, and that many of them came from families in which religion did not play such an important role at all. They also by no means always knew much about that religion.

It fascinated me how young people born in a seemingly relatively comfortable country like the Netherlands can become so obsessed with a certain body of thought that they want to travel to the caliphate of IS. They are, I think, often young people who are searching, who feel lost in this world and think this is where they will find their salvation, a certain meaning, a higher goal. Dutch converts I spoke to also mainly said that they have found a home in faith. I wanted to show those different sides.'

Writer Inge Schilperoord: 'As an adolescent, I also found religion very interesting. It was something mysterious.' ©Marc Brester/A Quattro Mani

Could you put yourself in their shoes?

'To a certain extent. Initially, I wanted to write a story about a Dutch girl who converts and then also radicalises, but gradually I found it more interesting to have a protagonist who, on the contrary, continues to have strong doubts. I was better able to put myself in her shoes. I was brought up atheist, but as an adolescent I also found religion very interesting. I got books from the library about the different religions, and loved all those stories and rituals. It was something mysterious and I could also read about it with a certain envy.

From scientific circles, faith is often spoken of somewhat disparagingly, as if religious people believe in a fairy tale. To me it seemed nice, such a form of grip, and the transcendence, yet I could never really connect with it. That question also fascinated me: why do some people manage to open up to it, and others don't?'

Your protagonist Sophie also struggles with this: she is attracted to the Islamic faith, even considers converting, but still cannot fully surrender to it.

'Sophie is a young, white girl feeling lonely and looking for something bigger that she can merge into. She is attracted to the Islamic faith, at the same time she does not manage to really get into it, and the frustrations about it make her feel even lonelier. She feels jealousy for young people who go all out for it, because they really seem to know what they mean, have found an answer to the empty feeling of: who or what am I really living for?

We live in a complex time with great threats. So I can imagine that it's pretty complicated to be young now, and that such a one-size-fits-all answer can then be attractive, perhaps even more so than when I was that age myself. Whether that's Muslim extremism, or the far right or the far left.

Of course, I had prejudices of my own beforehand. For instance, I thought that many of those Dutch women who converted to Islam had probably done so because of a relationship with an Islamic man. That turned out not to be the case with any of the women I spoke to; the desire to (convert to) Islam really came from them.'

Coming-out process

It is also presumably not something anyone decides to do lightly?

'No, because socially it meets a lot of resistance. Most girls and women I spoke to were afraid to tell those around them. It really is a coming-out process sometimes. At a meeting of converts, they asked each other: have you dared to tell? How did your father react? In many white families these days, I think it is easier to come out of the closet as an lhbtiq+ than as a Muslim. I find that remarkable. There is quite a lot of discrimination in the Netherlands towards Muslims. Many young women said they were scolded on the street when they started wearing a headscarf. Of course, that only adds to their feeling of being isolated.

Of course I understand that, as a parent, you are not immediately thrilled when your child suddenly becomes religious if you are not yourself, especially when it comes to a faith that is relatively unknown to many Dutch people. But the converts I spoke to were full of good intentions and actually found a lot of beauty in Islam. So in the end, what's so bad about that?'

Inge Schilperoord, The light in the city (224 p.), Podium, €22.50

About Inge Schilperoord

Inge Schilperoord (1973) is a forensic psychologist for the Pieter Baan Centre, among others, and a writer. In addition to a regular monthly column in Psychologie Magazine and regular reviews for Wedshe published articles, essays and stories in publications including NRC Handelsblad, De Groene Amsterdammer, Dutch Monthly and de Volkskrant. In 2015, she published her debut Seal, which received rave reviews and was awarded the Bronze Owl. The book was also shortlisted for all other major literary awards. The book was translated into seven languages and also filmed in 2019; in 2020, the film won the audience award at the Ghent and Seoul Film Festivals.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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