Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Depressing Outlook for the Ummah

Review: Stranger To History – Aatish Taseer

Some facts about the author Aatish Taseer. He was the child of an affair between a leading Pakistani politician and an Indian journalist from an upper class family. He was educated at the prestigious Kodaikanal International School and then at Amherst College in Massachusetts (which did not impress him). After graduating he had a “largely clerical” job at Time magazine and later became a journalist working for Prospect magazine in the UK. His interviews with British radical Muslims after the London bombings start this book.

Aatish’s father, Salmaan Taseer, is a controversial member of the elite in Pakistan. Briefly a minister in the Pakistan caretaker government in 2007-2008, he is at time of writing the Governor of the Punjab. Taseer père has an estranged relationship with his son.

Aatish Taseer’s book is an account of his travels through the Muslim crescent of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan as he strives to learn the theory and practice of Islam. By such immersion, he hopes to find a basis to re-engage with a father who has to-date mostly treated him with indifference if not hostility. So what does he learn?

The most obvious trend he picks up on is the ubiquitous rise of fundamentalist Islam. Taseer’s western-educated sophistication has no trouble picking holes in what he takes to be a simplistic literalist version of the faith rooted in Arabian desert culture, an ideology which can only reject new ideas and which obsesses on trivia and victimhood. He rapidly learns that no amount of rational argument can change the mind of adherents to a totalising world-view. Worryingly, this ideology includes the objective of establishing its dogma over everyone else by force.

Pakistan itself also worries Taseer. He sees the forced removal of the Hindu middle class after partition as having locked down a dysfunctional, feudal, faction-ridden, lawless semi-failed state which seems to be in even further regress. Most western analyses of Pakistan say similar things, but it’s interesting to get a personal, tourist-eyed view.

Taseer is a good writer, and sometimes communicates more than he intends. After all, he’s a smart, handsome young man in his twenties with fantastic connections in the subcontinent, and good connections in the West. His adventures inevitably exemplify a certain youthful self-confidence and naivety about how the world actually works. By some miracle he parties across the Islamic world and comes to no real harm.

He never makes it up with his father and fails to understand why. Given the precariousness of his father’s political position, he must see his son as a young bull in a china shop. I am not the least surprised that Salmaan Taseer wants to keep him at a safe distance.

To read this book is not to experience any very profound insight, but as a travelogue it sparkles. Let Aatish do the hard work of travelling in some truly awful places so that you don’t have to.

4 stars.