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Dreams of His Father

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Posted on Dec 5, 2012

By Rayyan Al-Shawaf

(Page 2)

One of Taseer’s chief undertakings is an exploration of how different people and nations approach history, especially in constructing their identity. In Turkey, which departed abruptly from its Ottoman Islamic past after World War I, Taseer meets with devout and alienated Muslims navigating life in an avowedly secular country. They attempt to reconnect with their storied past as well as the contemporary Muslim world. In Iran, which has striven since the 1979 revolution to disown its history before the mid-7th century Islamic conquest, Taseer talks with Iranians who repudiate not only the regime but Islam itself. Many aspects of Islam and the Muslim world were foreign to Taseer at the outset of his journey—he was raised by his mother as nominally Muslim—and he covers well-trodden ground here. Similarly, he offers little original or substantive commentary on Syria and Saudi Arabia. 

Pakistan is where the author’s investigation comes upon its most vexing case, to which he applies his considerable analytical skills. Over several visits in the early 2000s, Taseer finds a nation gripped in the effort of unmaking history, and captures the incongruities and effects of this wrenching phenomenon. When Pakistan was created on either side of India after Partition in 1947 (East Pakistan would become independent Bangladesh in 1971), its founders, at whose head stood Muhammad Ali Jinnah, did not envision a state where Shariah, or Islamic law, would reign supreme. Rather, the idea was for a country in which the Indian subcontinent’s Muslims would not fear marginalization by an ascendant and (thanks to Muslim followed by British rule) long-suppressed Hindu majority. Taseer mentions this history in passing, though he does not provide background on Islamization: Pakistan was declared an Islamic republic in 1956; Zulfikar Ali Bhutto pushed through religion-based discriminatory laws during his rule in the mid-1970s; and his successor, the aforementioned Gen. Zia, launched a full-fledged Islamization drive in the following years.

What Taseer manages—with aplomb—is a depiction of the political Islamization coupled with cultural de-Indianization to which Pakistan continues to subject itself. Consider the matter of ethnic origin. “Pakistanis, for the most part converts from Hinduism to Islam, lived with a historical fiction that they were descendants of people from Persia, Afghanistan and elsewhere, who once ruled Hindu India,” Taseer writes. Buying into this fiction, the author demonstrates, has impelled Pakistanis to attempt to purge their culture of many things of Indian provenance, from wedding celebration styles to the sari worn by women. Had the process been discriminating, one might have sympathized with it. For example, caste comes to mind as a part of Indian culture best dispensed with—though, as we have seen, it has proven resilient. Unfortunately, the effort has been indiscriminate and all encompassing.

book cover


Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands

By Aatish Taseer


Graywolf Press, 352 pages


Buy the book

Taseer also touches upon a crucial distinction between Pakistan and Iran when it comes to history and self-portrayal. In Iran, the regime has attempted to submerge the country’s pre-Islamic past, but the people have defiantly kept it alive. In Pakistan, however, the attempt to break with vestiges of the much more recent Indian past is both popular and official. Taseer asks a committed but contemplative Pakistani Islamist about this. The man’s answer proves instructive: “If all India became Muslim, we might have been able to identify with the Hindu past.” Indeed, Iran does not border a predominantly Zoroastrian country whose mere existence reminds it of its past. One of the reasons Pakistanis accord so much importance to Islam as a public signifier is that it differentiates their country from India, with which they do not wish to have anything in common. As a result, public expressions of Islam in Pakistan almost inevitably assume a hostile and slightly desperate tone.

But what of Salmaan—specifically his identity as a “cultural Muslim”? Initially, Taseer “had understood the term to mean some basic adherence to Islamic cultural norms, circumcision, wedding and funeral rites, a little Urdu poetry.” In fact, in the early part of his travels, he even goes so far as to use it to describe himself—in part because he is circumcised. His understanding is not wrong in the absolute sense, as many nonreligious Muslims around the world conceive of their Muslim identity in precisely such a manner, but insofar as his father is concerned, the term is considerably more political.

“What I had not known, when he spoke of this idea of cultural Islam, was the extent to which it influenced his historical and political worldview, and how things that to me seemed out of the ambit of faith, such as the Islamic invasions of India, the struggles in Kashmir and Palestine, or the war in Iraq, could—for men like my father—come to acquire all the force of faith, could, in fact, become like articles of faith. … The hold of the religion, deeper than its commandments, of religion as nationality, was something that I, with my small sense of being Muslim, had never known.”


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