kenny hodgart

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Review: Stranger to History, by Aatish Taseer

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.

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Political books of 2008

This article appeared in The Herald

Many of the books on the politics shelves this year have been overtaken by events. As crisis became crash, the realisation that political economy is to politics what money is to banks was a little late in dawning, but there were at least one or two lonely voices who claimed to have seen the whole thing coming in time to dash off guides to where it had all gone wrong.

Robert Shiller’s The Subprime Solution: How Today’s Global Financial Crisis Happened and What to Do about it (Princeton, £9.95), a short expose of the lax borrowing that led to America becoming the world’s first subprime superpower, falls into that category. Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money (Allen Lane, £25) does too but isn’t just a paean to capitalism’s convulsions: it’s also a thorough-going history of the rise of capital (the foundation, Ferguson believes, of human progress).

For anyone who takes fright at mention of stocks and bonds, securities, bears, bulls and hedge funds, it is essential reading. Ferguson’s lessons are that sooner or later every bubble bursts and that human greed and ignorance, rather than the financial system itself, created the current crisis.

There’s something atavistic about AN Wilson’s Our Times (Hutchinson, £25), an indictment of Britain’s national collapse. Wilson is a cultural conservative, yet there’s nothing rigid or canonical about him: neither the old establishment nor the new, the Britain of aristocratic humbug nor of health and safety tutorials, is spared his vituperation.

Britain’s shared sense of identity and purpose has been undone since the war, he believes, by political elites, mass migration, yoof culture, the demise of organised Christianity and the replacement of trains by cars. He can be contradictory, factually wayward, even scurrilous, but he is always entertaining and always illuminating.

China’s story over the last two decades – thanks to its economic reforms – has been one of rise rather than demise. Philip Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of New China (Simon & Schuster, £14.99), challenges utterly, however, the notion that democracy will be the inevitable corollary. In a sobering, saddening study he narrates the stories of men and women, dead or imprisoned, who dared to break rank. Their heroism, obscured and written out of history by the Party, a de facto “mafia”, deserves to be honoured everywhere.

Left-wing commentators lobbed so much mud at Martin Amis this year that even his virtuoso prose style was filed as a charge against him. Too clever, not self-effacing enough, crowed one reviewer, a marginally more coherent remonstrance than the view, expressed by the Marxist academic Terry Eagleton, that one should no more listen to a novelist talking about Islamism than a window cleaner.

The Second Plane (Jonathan Cape, £12.99), a collection of essays and short fiction written in response to 9/11 and all its consequences and bifurcations on the world stage, is a brilliant riposte to that view. Literature, for Amis, is “reason at play”; religions are repositories of “ignorance, reaction and sentimentality.” Islamism (“an ideology superimposed upon a religion – illusion upon illusion”) is a death cult every bit as pernicious as Nazism or Stalinism and the novelist – for whom morality and reason are, in the end, all – has in fact a duty to say something about it.

When confronted by Islamist terror, Amis believes, too many on the liberal left evade the truth: they see not a desolate and implacable ideology but misguided liberators whose cause is fundamentally righteous.

Where Amis’s eloquence is trained on anti-Americanism as an ideology, Simon Schama proffers instead its antidote. His The American Future (Bodley Head, £20) is both a history and a treatise on that most nebulous of constructs, hope. Our television don assumes a triangular perspective – daydreaming about the future as the past looms like a gently stirring branch at the window of the here and now. America’s history of violence is explored in considerable detail: from the obliteration of the Cherokee, to Gettysburg, to Vietnam. The liberty so prized by the early settlers, then, came at a cost to others; on the other hand, the country’s enduring racism and paranoia should be understood as inevitable by-products of being the world’s melting pot.

Convinced of America’s ability to reinvent itself once more in the 21st Century, Schama hoped for an Obama victory, and he got it. In the president-elect he sees a Jeffersonian figure salving the wounds of the bedraggled republic and renewing a sense of “common purpose.” Others tend, similarly, to see what they want to in Obama. One hopes he can be something more than that: his own man.