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Islam and Islamophobia Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Family, Community, and Home Theme Icon
Crime, Justice, and Injustice Theme Icon
Faith, Perseverance, and Dignity Theme Icon
Human vs. Natural Tragedy Theme Icon
Islam and Islamophobia Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Zeitoun, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Islam and Islamophobia Theme Icon

Part of Dave Eggers’s purported goal in writing Zeitoun was to introduce a “normal” Muslim family to American readers who, almost a decade after 9/11, might have a limited or even prejudiced view of the religion and of Muslim cultures. By portraying a Muslim family and tracing its beliefs and practices, Zeitoun seeks to counter these limitations and suggest that being Muslim is entirely compatible with being American—indeed, it is just one facet of American diversity. Eggers describes in detail how Kathy Zeitoun, the protagonist’s wife, came to convert to Islam after having grown up in a Southern Baptist community. By showing how the small-mindedness of her Christian pastor contrasted to the openness that Kathy found in an imam she went to visit, Eggers inverts stereotypes about Islam and humanizes the religion. At the same time, we also learn how Kathy faced confusion and discrimination after converting to Islam—from her family lashing out at her for wearing a hijab (headscarf), to customers of her husband’s construction company cancelling their orders after learning that the employees were Middle Eastern. Zeitoun, meanwhile, draws on his religious beliefs throughout the novel as a source of strength in difficult times. For him, Islam is also linked to his family’s heritage, and is a regular part of his daily life. Anti-Muslim prejudice, however, is portrayed as a major reason for Zeitoun’s arrest and detention without reason. Guards who witness him and his friend Naseer praying five times a day (in accordance with Islam) immediately distrust them.

To combat this kind of suspicion, Eggers tries to make some aspects of Islam more understandable to non-Muslim readers. Long quotations from the Qur’an introduce readers to its beauty, while some passages—especially one about a massive flood—show that there are many similarities between Islam and the Judeo-Christian tradition. While Islamophobia never goes away in the novel—at the end, the Zeitoun couple continues to struggle to recover from their debacle—what remains is a certain confidence that knowing, understanding, and empathizing with those from other cultures and religions is the only way to decrease suspicion and discrimination.

Islam and Islamophobia ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Islam and Islamophobia appears in each chapter of Zeitoun. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Islam and Islamophobia Quotes in Zeitoun

Below you will find the important quotes in Zeitoun related to the theme of Islam and Islamophobia.
Part 1: Friday August 26 Quotes

His frustration with some Americans was like that of a disappointed parent. He was so content in this country, so impressed with and loving of its opportunities, but then why, sometimes, did Americans fall short of their best selves?

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

The book has been describing some of the minor slights and instances of prejudice that Zeitoun and Kathy have suffered at work and in life in general, often due to his Syrian heritage or to their Muslim beliefs. Here, Eggers characterizes Zeitoun's relationship to his adopted country, the United States, as one of complex ambivalence. On the one hand, he is grateful to have been given the opportunity to build his own business, to create a life for himself, in a way that would have been difficult for him to do back home in Syria. But on the other hand, he finds the prejudices and small-mindedness of some Americans painful and confusing.

By describing Zeitoun's attitude as that of a "disappointed parent," Eggers emphasizes that it is not that Zeitoun finds there to be a sickness innate to America, something unresolvable. Instead he believes such beliefs and attitudes to be a stage similar to that of a teenager, who simply needs to grow up and learn to become his or her best self. Islamophobia, for Zeitoun, is not something that should necessarily characterize Americans, but rather something that they can overcome. 


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Part 1: Saturday August 27 Quotes

She knew that in Islam she had found calm. The doubt sewn into the faith gave her room to think, to question. The answers the Qur’an provided gave her a way forward.

Related Characters: Kathy Zeitoun
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

Kathy had begun to attend a mosque and learn about Islam during a tumultuous period in her life, when she was no longer felt at home in her religion or with her family, and wasn't sure where her life was headed. Here, it is suggested in particular that the Baptist faith with which Kathy grew up was too strict and dogmatic for her: it left little room for her to question, doubt, or grow. Kathy has found the opposite to be true in Islam. She now feels inspired both by the questioning implicit in the faith as well as the answers she does think the Qur'an lends to questions of struggling and perseverance.

This section of the book is part of a broader interest in explaining one person's experience with Islam to a readership that may not be familiar with the religion beyond what is shown on the news. By describing Kathy's conversion and relationship to her faith, Eggers attempts to make it more understandable and relatable to American readers unfamiliar with Islam, and who might otherwise be tempted towards prejudice.

Part 2: Tuesday September 6 Quotes

But Zeitoun felt again that perhaps this was his calling, that God had waited to put him here and now to test him in this way. And so he hoped, as silly as it seemed, that his siblings might see him like this, on the water, a sailor again, being useful, serving God.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

Zeitoun has just been interviewed by a local reporter and asked about what he's been doing while in the city. Now he admits that he hopes one of his siblings will see the news broadcast and be impressed by what they see. They will realize, he hopes, that Mohammed is not the only one in the family who has completed admirable feats. Zeitoun's naturally competitive nature is evident once again here. Some of his motivations for helping others are indeed related to the social networks in which he takes part, and by which he hopes to prove himself. 

But Zeitoun also considers his task in New Orleans to be one of proving himself not only for his neighbors and family, but also for God. Zeitoun considers divine tests, such as those to be found in the Qur'an or Old Testament, to be central to his faith, and he sees this experience as something sent by God for him to fulfill and thus prove himself worthy enough. 

Part 4: Monday September 12 Quotes

Kathy often worried about the National Guard and other soldiers returning to the United States after time in Iraq and Afghanistan. She warned him about passing groups of soldiers in airports, about walking near National Guard offices. “They’re trained to kill people like you,” she would say to Zeitoun, only half-joking. She had not wanted their family to become collateral damage in a war that had no discernible fronts, no real shape, and no rules.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun, Kathy Zeitoun
Page Number: 252
Explanation and Analysis:

Zeitoun and Nasser are once again left alone in their cell, giving Zeitoun another opportunity to wonder about what he is doing in Camp Greyhound and why people are interested in him. His thoughts turn to Kathy's worries in the past about the possibility that Zeitoun, because he was Muslim and Middle Eastern, might be a target or object of suspicion to authorities. 

When Katrina takes place, the United States is entangled in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan: while they have pushed Saddam Hussein from power, for instance, neither the war in Iraq nor in Afghanistan is won, or even seems winnable by any standard definition of triumph in war. Instead, the wars have expanded to include a general attitude of fear and conflict with any part of the world that might seem to pose a threat to the United States. Kathy's point is that Muslim-Americans like Zeitoun may well seem to some to be part of such a threat, especially given the hazy borders of President George Bush's "war on terror." She argues as a result that Zeitoun has to be extra careful, more careful than white, non-Muslim Americans. While Zeitoun has brushed off her opinions before, now he begins to wonder whether or not Kathy's fears may well be able to explain his current situation.

Part 5: Fall 2008 Quotes

As he drives through the city during the day and dreams of it at night, his mind vaults into glorious reveries—he envisions this city and this country not just as it was, but better, far better. It can be.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun
Page Number: 325
Explanation and Analysis:

Zeitoun is proud of having restored over a hundred homes with his company in the years after Katrina. This passage, following a number of more sobering details about the struggles of the Zeitouns in the time following Hurricane Katrina, seeks to end the book on a more optimistic note. Indeed, Zeitoun's attitude here is portrayed as more positive, thanks to the success he's been able to regain in his professional life. For him, his job is more than a way to pay the bills: it is symbolic of his desire to change his community for the better.

Rebuilding New Orleans is of course a matter of physical, material reconstruction, but it is also, according to Zeitoun, a chance for the community to reimagine what it would like to be and how it might change. There is a chance, he thinks, that people may become more inclusive, and that if he just perseveres long enough, he will see this changes happen. Zeitoun thus remains committed to his country and smaller communities even despite the unfairness of what he went through, refusing to entirely lose hope that transformation is possible.