This article appeared in The Herald
Aatish Taseer, raised by his Sikh mother and grandparents in Delhi and educated at a Christian boarding school in southern India and in the US, knew when he set out on his travels through Islam’s heartlands that he had a limited grasp of what it means to be a Muslim. Not being extensively versed in Koranic tradition, his own faith was threadbare; rather, indeed, like that of his Pakistani father, Salman, who shortly after Aatish’s birth in 1980, abandoned his new Indian family to return to his wife in Lahore.
In adulthood the younger man has sought to mend that broken relationship, but the pair’s disestrangement, complicated from the first by Salman’s attitudes towards India and the West, was set back in 2005 when Aatish wrote an article about British Pakistanis and Islamic extremism to which abba took vehement umbrage.
Taseer fils, puzzled that his forebear – politician, businessman and avowed disbeliever – should put such store in calling himself a Muslim, wanted to better understand the ‘civilisation of faith’ of which he had heard spoken both in Pakistan and Britain. And so, armed with his own lightly-worn Sufism, he decided to travel once more to Pakistan, this time from Turkey via the Arab world, in search of what this supra-national Islamic identity means. If the fact of his being a Muslim at all is his passport on the road, however, it should also be recorded that it gives him licence to be honest about the religion he encounters to a degree western writers tend to shrink from. For this is a book that asks awkward questions of Islam and comes up with unsettling answers.
Part travelogue, part essay, part personal odyssey, Taseer’s narrative is probing, exhilarating and shot through with pinpoint observations of people, places and situations, from the menace of Tehran to the ecstasy of religious experience and the commercialism of Mecca. His is an attempt to understand those societies from which Islam takes nourishment.
In Leeds just after 7/7, Taseer had observed a generational divide between older British Muslims, who remembered with some pride their hard-earned economic migration from Pakistan, and their offspring, who lacked their parents’ instinctive humour and openness and hated the West. To younger Muslims, whose religion seemed the more rigid and forbidding, faith came with an amorphous sense of grievance. Bored and rootless, they found in political Islam a grand narrative not readily proffered by the secular West.
In Istanbul and Damascus he meets many others who feel the same way, who see the West as stopping Muslims from thinking “as the early Muslims thought.” The notion of the great Islamic past is everywhere sounded, historical fact skewered to support a narrative of aggression and attack from the Christian West. The message, that the Islamic world is now divided because of the West and the influence of its ideas, is one in which ‘cultural Muslims’ like Taseer’s father can believe, as it has “more to do with the loss of political power than divine injunction.”
To his dismay, the solution the author finds gaining ground is a sort of retreat from the world, the re-emergence of Wahhabism and its insistence on adherence to letter of the Book, effecting new levels of intellectual incuriosity and cultural homogeneity. All of this is anathema to Taseer, who has a special feeling for the religious plurality of India but, ironically, it is in Iran that he finds reason to believe the ‘civilisation of faith’ will, not before time, come up against its own illogicality and absurdity. In a country where women are beaten for the merest transgression and young people are criminalised “by a tyranny of trifles”, he finds a growing culture of private and public dissent and widespread hatred of the Revolution.
In Tehran he also finds people who make the distinction between the enforced religion of the Islamic Republic, and ‘the real faith’; yet shocked perhaps that people like his father can be so unperturbed by fundamentalism, he asks: “Did it really matter whether the Islam of the Islamic Republic was the ‘real Islam’ or not? Did it matter whether the socialism of Stalin or Mao was the real socialism?” Indeed, among his Pakistani family – supposedly moderate – he encounters hatred of America, Israel and Hindus, as well as a tendency to doubt the Holocaust. “It was too little moderation and in the wrong areas,” as he puts it.
In Pakistan itself, he finds feudalism unchecked, corruption king and bitter division amid relative homogeneity, “where once great diversity had been absorbed.” His warning that extremists “know the country has to be destabilised, the robust society made bleaker” is all too sage in the light of last week’s terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. Stranger to History is a beautifully-written book, but the ugliness of what it reveals is what lives on after reading.