In her debut young adult novel, No True Believers, Rabiah York Lumbard draws from personal experience as an American Muslim, both in the United States and abroad, to weave together a story addressing issues of Islamophobia and white supremacy.
No True Believers opens with Salma Bakkioui bidding farewell to her friend Mariam, whose family is forced to leave the country when her dad’s patients no longer want a Muslim chiropractor. Not long after, a terrorist bombing in Washington, D.C. makes Salma the target of rising hostility as one of the few Muslims in her community.
The context in which No True Believers emerges is eerily current. The rise of Islamophobia is a global phenomenon, seen in the forced detainment of tens of thousands of Uighurs in the Xinjiang province at the hands of the Chinese government, policies such as France’s continued ban on Islamic face coverings even while mandating mask-wearing during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the all-time high of anti-Muslim hate crimes reached in the United States in recent years, to list a few. Rabiah York Lumbard even parallels the anonymously circulated pamphlets in London that delegated a point system to violent acts against Muslims for “Punish a Muslim Day,” and elicited fear amongst Muslim communities even in the United States a couple years ago.
Using this backdrop, Rabiah York Lumbard writes a thriller novel with a hacker protagonist trying to prove her innocence while also grappling with escalating Islamophobia in her day-to-day life. With support from her boyfriend Amir and friend Vanessa, Salma struggles to navigate the newly-hostile environment. The Turners, the new neighbors who moved into Mariam’s old house, seem to be one of the few families that don’t turn against the Bakkiouis—but even they are a little odd. In the midst of rising hostility within her community, suspicion frames Salma for acts she has nothing to do with. Using her coding skills, Salma works to uncover the white supremacist plot, exacerbating the Islamophobia she and her family continue to endure.
As a Muslim reader, I was appreciative of the realistic portrayal of practicing Muslims, which feels less prominent in much of the popular young adult books featuring Muslim protagonists. But Rabiah York Lumbard masters this in her attention to detail: the casually infused and personal understanding of Quranic verses, Salma’s mother’s connection to Sufism, and Salma’s interpretation of the Imam’s khutbah, the explanation of fasting. These details made me feel connected to Salma’s character in that “Islam” didn’t feel represented as a label, but rather, a way of life.
Another enjoyable aspect of the book was the author’s approach to representation as a whole. Apart from the Muslim representation, she includes Titi, Salma’s Moroccan grandmother, to explore Amazigh culture and the widespread misconceptions that surround its interpretation in her book. Another thing that Rabiah York Lumbard represents is chronic illness through Salma’s Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS). Though I cannot speak to the accuracy of their representation, I was very appreciative of the manner in which the author approached presentation of commonly-misinterpreted or rarely-represented topics as a whole, including aspects of culture, chronic illness, and faith.
However, as a whole, the book tackled large issues and increased the stakes at the same time in a way that made the believability a bit more difficult to achieve. The pacing felt reasonable, but Salma’s single-handed attempt to tackle a white supremacist plot as a teenager seemed a bit much. In this sense, I think the avoidance of tying everything up too neatly in the end was helpful in making the book a bit more believable. I do still think it could have improved its realism if maybe there was a group of hackers working together, though it is a common characteristic in YA to feature young protagonists tackling large issues.
As a whole, the book was enjoyable and I would definitely recommend it. No True Believers is a stark reminder of the larger issues at play in the regular manifestations of racism and Islamophobia, not far-fetched from the current polarizing era we live in.