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Book Review

Dreams of His Father

Rayyan Al-Shawaf
Reviewer
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic based in Beirut and Brummana, Lebanon. His book reviews have appeared in such North American newspapers as The Boston Globe, Charlotte Observer, Chicago Reader,…
Rayyan Al-Shawaf

To read a Truthdig excerpt from “Stranger to History” click here.“Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands”
A book by Aatish Taseer

Perhaps the most important lesson to be gleaned from “Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands” by Aatish Taseer is that if you come across a historical paradox, especially one in which the welfare of millions of people is bound up, don’t try to “fix” it. For what you gain in logical rigor, many could lose in freedom and comfort. In “Stranger to History,” a memoir recounting the author’s travels through several predominantly Muslim countries, Pakistan emerges much worse after an attempt to “fix” it, a project that also eventually leads to the killing of the author’s father.

Aatish Taseer is the son of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province from 2008 until 2011. “He was like an embodiment of the paradox on which Pakistan had been founded: as a nation for Muslims, but not necessarily for Islam,” Taseer observes of his late father. The governor was assassinated in 2011 by one of his bodyguards. His sin? Asking that one Aasia Bibi (also known as Aasia Noreen) be pardoned. Bibi is a Pakistani Christian woman who was sentenced to death after being convicted of insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. Suspicions that she was unjustly accused are augmented by the fact that her alleged blaspheming occurred during an argument with Muslims about her drinking from a well that was off-limits to her. In the book’s foreword, Taseer points out that “there is a distinct suggestion of caste to this story: of the old Hindu caste system and Untouchability — though strictly forbidden in Islam — still hanging on in Pakistan after all these years.” Two months after Salmaan Taseer’s killing, Shahbaz Bhatti, minister of minority affairs and the only Christian in Pakistan’s government, was also slain, almost certainly for his defense of Bibi and his long-standing call for the country’s blasphemy law to be amended.

In addition to probing Pakistan’s identity confusion, “Stranger to History” provides a moving portrait of the author’s father who, despite his fervent — and at times chauvinistic — patriotism as well as his deference to Islam’s public role in society, was fast falling out of step with the rising forces of religious extremism in his country. His life was ennobled by principled stands, such as opposing Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship (1977-1988), but tarnished by his bigotry as well as his cold and aloof treatment of his son. Arching above all this is the story of his curious and lifelong loyalty to an increasingly belligerent Pakistani Muslim Weltanschauung of which he should have been wary. Such fidelity seemed slightly pathetic until he was killed, when it became tragic.

book cover

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

By Aatish Taseer

Graywolf Press, 352 pages

Buy the book

“Stranger to History” was published in the U.K. in 2009, well before the author’s father was slain. Taseer has since written a couple of novels. The U.S. edition of “Stranger to History,” published in 2012, includes a foreword about the assassination. Taseer does not exaggerate when he speaks of wide swaths of mainstream Pakistani society lauding his father’s killer. And though the assassin would ultimately be convicted of murder and sentenced to death, the arguments his legal defense team employed on his behalf — he confessed to the crime, maintaining that his victim deserved to die — reveal much about perceptions of good and bad in Pakistani society. “The defense, in building their case against my father,” recounts Taseer, “sought to rubbish his credentials as a Muslim, moving easily towards the conclusion that if he had not been Muslim in the way they wanted him to be, he deserved to die.” The murderer’s lawyers even enlisted the aid of Taseer’s book in their bid to malign his father. “[‘Stranger to History’] was used in court to condemn my father,” notes Taseer, “making the case that he was not a practicing Muslim; that he drank alcohol; that he ate pork; that he — in another life some thirty years before — had fathered a half-Indian child by an Indian woman.”

That child, Aatish Taseer, was born in the U.K. in 1980 and raised in India by his Indian Sikh mother. She and his father — who was already married with children, and fearful for his political career in Pakistan — ended their affair when he was still an infant. After his schooling in India and college in the U.S., Taseer became a journalist, first in the U.S. and then in the U.K. His career choice proved decisive in his path toward this book.

Taseer wrote an article in 2005 on the religious radicalization of young British Muslims. He mailed it to his Pakistan-based father, who accused his son of failing to understand “the Pakistani ethos,” and of engaging in “invidious anti-Muslim propaganda.” Taseer, chastened, embarked on a journey to better understand the Muslim world, and in the process possibly forge a bond with his father, whom he came to know only as an adult, and never intimately. “Stranger to History” includes prosaic and sometimes superficial observations about a number of Middle Eastern countries. It also presents a perceptive, though somewhat narrow, analysis of Pakistan’s condition as well as insights into Salmaan’s confidently espoused but increasingly endangered identity as a “cultural Muslim.”
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.”

Salmaan’s idea of being Muslim consists in large part of membership in a perceived civilizational bloc, and the adoption of political causes championed by segments of that bloc. It reminds one of a prediction made by the late Samuel P. Huntington in his sensationalistic yet periodically insightful book “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.” Huntington opines that in future conflicts, people will align themselves with the faith-based civilizations of which they are ancestrally a part, even if they, on an individual level, lack faith. In a judgment that appears a bit too harsh, Taseer determines that his father’s culturally Muslim identity is merely an ideological cover for his bigoted views of India, Hindus, Jews and Americans.

The problem for Salmaan was that his culturally Muslim identity was not good enough for most Pakistanis. Zia and others considered the paradox of Pakistan, a country for Muslims but not an Islamic state, an absurdity. Had Zia been asked about cultural Muslims, he probably would have similarly dismissed them. And paradoxes are difficult to defend. Taseer exaggerates when he pronounces gravely that “after everything else had been allowed to fall away, the men who believed that Pakistan was created for faith would always have the force of logic on their side,” but he is partially correct.

Taseer’s father admittedly opposed Zia, though it remains unclear how he felt about the dictator’s Islamization program. (Salmaan was a supporter of Zulfikar Bhutto, whom Zia ousted in a military coup and sent to the gallows after a sham trial.) What comes through clearly, however, is Salmaan’s obliviousness to the growing danger around him. Zia’s Islamization program was not rolled back after his death in an airplane crash in 1988, even under the civilian rule of Benazir Bhutto, daughter of Zulfikar, who promised but failed to repeal certain of his ordinances. And on a popular level, people increasingly gravitated to religion. As Pakistan became more Islamic, Salmaan remained much the same. Worse, he failed to realize that he and the other cultural Muslims of the country would not be forgiven their lack of faith, however much they hated India or supported the Palestinians and Iraqis. Still worse, the truculent aspects of Islam were now as important, if not more so, than praying and fasting.

book cover

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

By Aatish Taseer

Graywolf Press, 352 pages

Buy the book

Although Taseer grasps his father’s brand of Muslim identity, he remains too focused on its peculiarities to register the presence of similar phenomena around the world. Confessional solidarity born of something other than religious faith is not exclusive to Muslims. For example, the belief among many Jews that they share a specifically cultural bond has little to do with adherence to Judaism, and nonobservant Jews have historically driven Jewish political causes such as Zionism and Israel advocacy. (A year after Pakistan was created for Indian Muslims, Israel was founded on the notion that Jews constitute a nation.) Additionally, it is not just Muslims in the Indian subcontinent who collapse their lineage into their religion’s history; the descendants of converts to Judaism have historically adopted the Israelite and Jewish past as their own. It would also have behooved Taseer to further explore the differences between Pakistan and Iran’s break with history on one hand, and Turkey’s on the other. Turkey can be faulted for many things, but there is no question that, after a long and winding journey, it has emerged as a viable and economically powerful democracy. Why, then, do prospects look so dim for Pakistan and Iran in their current state? Is it perhaps not the rejection of one’s history per se that proves injurious, but the nature of that history, and whether or not the reorientation tends toward secularism or ever-increasing religiosity?

Nevertheless, Taseer succeeds in crystallizing Pakistan’s plight. Over the decades, Pakistan has come full circle, and the picture is depressing, if not ominous. A de facto secular state founded as a homeland for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent ended up as an Islamic state. A country born out of India — which is mostly Hindu, to be sure, but of which Muslims, Sikhs and many others are an integral component — discarded cultural elements associated with that land in pursuit of the fundamentalist fantasy of a cultureless avatar of pure Islam. Undoing the historical paradox that was Pakistan, a country intended to be majority Muslim but not governed by Shariah, and creating an Islamic state in its stead, may have satisfied those yearning for the simple and deceptively reassuring logic of a one-dimensional identity. But the endeavor has impoverished cultural expression while unleashing puritanical interpretations of Islam, curbed freedoms of all kinds, violated the rights of women and religious minorities, and generally made life miserable for most Pakistanis. In Salmaan Taseer’s case, it proved fatal.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Beirut.

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