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

Aatish Taseer, I hadn’t heard of him until this year’s India Today Conclave where he was moderating the session with Salman Rushdie. At the same time I got to know that he is the son of the slain Pakistani politician Salman Taseer. Being born in India to an estranged Pakistani father and an Indian mother (journalist Tavleen Singh) and spending his childhood amongst Sikh relatives in Delhi, he has admitted that he was lost about his religious identity. Amidst no contact with his Muslim father and his speculations about his Muslim identity while living with his Sikh mother in India, he set out to travel across the Middle East in a bid to understand his father’s religion. Starting from London, he travelled through Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran and finally to his father’s nation, Pakistan. In the amazing and fascinating book authored by him ‘Stranger To History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands’ he has described his experiences of his turbulent journey and his understanding of (fundamentalist) Islam which to a progressive and educated Muslim like him, made little sense. It’s a great read describing his journey blended perfectly with bits of his upbringing, how his parents met and how he met his father for the first time in Lahore.

Taseer, an ardent Shiva worshipper at young age who later also wanted to grow his hair to sport, like his Sikh cousins, a turban, first discovered his Muslim identity at the age of five or six while urinating at his aunt’s lawn in Delhi. He was spotted by his Sikh cousin who screamed looking at his penis ‘Aatish ka susu nanga hai’ indicating that he was circumcised.

In 2005 in London after the 7/7 bombings, he noticed how second generation British Pakistanis overlooking their humble roots were being influenced by fundamentalist, radical and extremist Islam. There he interviewed Hasan Butt, an extremist Islamist, for Time Magazine and sent a copy of the article to his father in Pakistan who was furious after reading it and sent a stern reply to Aatish because as per him, Aatish hadn’t understood the Islamist ideologies and Pakistani ethos and had written this article as an ignorant Muslim. After this incident Aatish made up his mind to understand his father’s religion and set out for the journey of Islamic lands.

In Turkey he experienced the ‘sub culture’ of some radical Islamists who refrained from being a part of Turkey’s aggressive secularism and lived in their ghettos which they considered unadulterated Islamic territories and didn’t prefer even entry of other people from the rest of secular Turkey. There he met Abdullah, a person with strong Islamic values but with regret of succumbing to world system, i.e. he thought modernisation and western values were against Islam, but sadly he couldn’t do anything about it (Note, he is not extremist, only fundamentalist).
In my view Abdullah was blinded by Islam with his unrealistic notions about the religion, with the attitude of anything that is western is wrong, ranging from camera to culture. He wanted a new societal structure (but still not by the means of extremism unlike Butt) he was not content to be told in secular Turkey to conceal his religion and wear European clothes. He saw secularism as a tool of oppression of Muslim ideologies.
(I may seem biased while evaluating Abdullah for I am always pro secularism, be it soft one like India’s or enforced one like Turkey’s).

Then in Syria he saw the infamous Prophet Mohammed cartoons published by a Denmark newspaper and how the Muslims in Syria (and all over the world) saw it as a conspiracy by ‘enemies of Islam’ and a war against all Muslims. (That’s what I don’t understand, blaming entire nation on basis of one newspaper and seeing it as enemy, this attitude of Wahhabi Muslims needs a serious reality check).
Then he saw a political movement brewing under the covering of Abu Nour Mosque where under the name of Islamic studies, students were gradually being influenced towards political and extremist Islam.
To me, Turkey is a perfect example of how modern day Islamic polity can be secular and progressive. Other Islamic nations should strive to achieve this, but sadly they are in the air of the Wahhabi  fundamentalist ideologies of their religion which in today’s world are archaic. Such ideologies gave birth to Iranian Revolution in 1979 and turned Iran into an Islamic state from a secular one. And Iran happened to be next in Taseer’s journey after Saudi Arabia.

In Saudi Arabia Taseer headed for Umrah (an off season pilgrimage to Mecca), where he had to cover the Shiva tattoo on his right arm to prevent catching the eye of fellow pilgrims.

In Shia Iran, a country where Islam is not religion but politics, where Islamic democracy did more bad than liberal dictatorship (well of course if they link religion to state) which certainly as per Iranians was bliss looking at the country’s condition under Khomeini. There he met Mohammad Rahimi who once supported the Iranian revolution but now knowing the negative aftermaths wanted Iran to be pre 1979, this showed the plight of people in the Islamic republic being fed up of the ‘regime’.  Iran was a country where people were even arrested for wearing T shirts that ‘exposed’ their elbows and the religious police took away people’s pet dogs because under Sharia, dogs were considered unclean. It was a republic that had passed through an Islamic filter which proved derogatory for Iran.
In Iran he met Nargis who switched to Hinduism from Islam and became a Krishna worshipper; this definitely gives shudders thinking of following other religion in a state where sentence for apostasy is death. In Hare Krishna centre when Iranian spies came the chants changed from ‘Krishna, Rama’ to ‘Ali Allah’. Such was the fear of the regime.

In the end he had bad encounters with the regime and was forced to leave the country in a hurry and took a flight to Karachi via Dubai, now he was in  Pakistan, his father’s land, a country aptly described as one providing menial man power to oil rich Islamic Arab monarchies. There in Karachi he saw people who were concerned about their country’s future, that Sindh and Punjab can be saved by Sufism but its the tribal belt of Pakistan that would put their country to doom and has brought them bad name.
In Pakistan I felt Taseer portrayed more of its internal problems and his encounters with his father rather than focussing on Islam.
His writing on Pakistan reminded me of the 2007 BBC documentary, ‘Saira Khan’s Pakistan Adventures’ where Pakistan is shown in very good light as if there is nothing wrong with the country and all is good there but this book, written around the same time when the documentary was broadcasted, shows the true face of the country, it goes deep into the feudalism, rampant crime, corruption, hatred between Mohajirs (Indian Muslims migrated in 1947) and local Sindhis; Taseer also writes about the goons of political parties (just like in India where parties like Samajwadi thrive on goondaraj) who forced newspapers to write about them.

Then he met his father in Lahore for the second time in his life and got to know his views about Islam. His father doubted the scale of Hitler’s holocaust, this showed how secluded he was in his own ‘Muslim’ world.
(Many Muslims deny holocaust because they are in conflict with Jews and the state of Israel, they feel the state is formed in the Muslim lands (Palestine) after getting sympathy from the Britain and UN. Hence by denying holocaust they are trying to justify their claim on the land. To me it seems funny, they are denying a well documented fact that wasn’t even conducted by them).
In all Taseer wanted to find what made his father a Muslim even though he wasn’t a practicing one, but then he got his answer, his father was Muslim because he doubted the Holocaust, hated America and Israel, thought Hindus were weak and cowardly, and because the glories of the Islamic past excited him.
That’s how Taseer portrayed the face of modern day Islam in his book.

Now what I perceive of modern day Islam is that no doubt, there are many fundamentalists and extremists (and I am sorry to say) who give this faith a bad name, but not all follow their ideology.
Many Muslims, particularly Wahhabis perceive anything non Muslim as threat and because of such attitude, Islam is today, an extremely sensitive faith. In the modern context Wahhabis even see democracy (even in other countries) as a threat. They put their religion before their nation which is very wrong. Most of  their understanding is limited to the religion or region where they come from, i.e. it is confined to Islam. In the view of the west, It is an unreasonable religion (the ruling class of the Islamic states makes it so, not the common people).

Having said all this, I would like to express my respect for this religion (just like any religion on this planet)
I haven’t seen Muslims in other countries but from what I have seen in India, none of the Muslims I have encountered subscribe to the extremist/fundamentalist ideologies. Of course ruling out few groups like Deoband who banned Salman  Rushdie’s entry in India in Jaipur’s literary fest (but again it’s the polity or the ruling class to blame, not an ordinary Muslim on the streets). In fact in India most of the common Muslims are not even bothered by the Jew Arab conflict or the Israel Palestine Issue. If you would like to see the Jew Muslim harmony, visit the Magen Abraham Synagogue in Ahmedabad, situated in a Muslim majority area, where just outside the synagogue, Muslim vendors sell their products on the street not being bothered by Jews praying behind them, such is the harmony that two religions who are hostile towards each other globally,  peacefully coexist in one narrow street in India. This is in contrast even to the very liberal and tolerant UAE which bans people with Israeli passports to entering in its land.

This tolerance is because Islam in the subcontinent is influenced by Sufism, hence it is more soft; while the one in the Arab world/Iran/Afghanistan(Taliban) is the intolerant Wahhabism. Sufism is the kind of Islam I can identify with. I believe that this rise in Wahhabi ideology is the reaction to modernism, the Muslims experienced sudden dislodging from power because of Imperialism and colonialism, also they started to feel danger from other religions some 300-400 years ago when there was the  growth of west, European powers grew strong and Muslim empires failed, hence Wahabbi Islam today has strayed from the path intended to be followed by Prophet Mohammad and earned a bad reputation world wide, otherwise in its nascent stage  it was once a religion of peace and tolerance (and it is even today in India).

Anyway, like me, if middle east and Arab/Islamic world fascinates you then you should read this book and you won’t be disappointed. The reason I picked up this book was that it was written in a form of travelogue of the middle east. What more could I ask for?


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