BOOK REVIEW: A young Muslim man travels the Mideast to learn about Islam.
"Stranger to History: A Son's Journey Through Islamic Lands" (Graywolf Press, 323 pages, $16) was conceived in hope but written in pain and disillusionment. Young journalist Aatish Taseer was born in Delhi to a Sikh mother and a Pakistani father. Because Taseer's father is Muslim, so is he, though for Taseer it is merely an automatic identity. Hoping to understand Islam and reconnect with a father he has seen only once before, he undertakes a pilgrimage from secular Turkey through Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan.
What he finds is not encouraging for non-Muslims. As Muslim states were formed, Islam changed over time, adapting to varying cultures in its practices and rituals. To counteract the modernizing of the faith, a relatively new, fundamentalist and homogeneous Islam has arisen. It claims to be ahistorical, above time, literal in its reading of the prophet's book. Ignoring centuries of history since Mohammed's time, it offers an "alternative world on earth, equipped with sanctified history, politics and culture ... a pure historical and political world-order, free of incursions from the modern world."
What history remains de-legitimizes any contributions to civilization by Greece, Christendom or our industrial and technological age. It downgrades the Holocaust, because that led to the formation of Israel, usurper of Arab lands.
Taseer is in Syria when Danish cartoons satirizing the prophet are published and riots erupt. Muslims are outraged on two levels: graven images are forbidden, and they have no concept of freedom of the press and assume the Danish government was complicit in the publication. In Syria, "the faith was made to explain aspects of the world beyond its circle of completeness, such as how rights and judiciaries worked in a modern society."
In Iran, Taseer is alarmed by a politicized Islam that has devolved into an obsession with "trifles." The regime sought to regulate every detail of people's lives. "At a time when people might have needed religion most, a hybrid of the world's two most pernicious varieties, the bureaucrat and the cleric, was in charge of it." As a result, the citizens Taseer talks to have become cynical about the mix of religion and a corrupt regime. By engaging with ordinary people, he gets into trouble with the authorities, who kick him out of the country.
It is in Pakistan that he sees the extent to which political Islam is failing the people. The ramshackle country is held together, sort of, by a faith whose main content seems to be grievance; resentment toward India, the country Pakistan had split from; and resentment toward the West, whose politics, materialism and perceived godlessness Muslims disdain.
Taseer's family reunion doesn't go so well, either, despite the friendliness of his half-siblings. His father wants nothing to do with him. Despite his irreligious life, he asserts his Muslim identity against his westernized son. (He also hated an earlier published version of this book.) It is a tragic irony then, when the elder Taseer joins the Pakistani government and is assassinated for defending a Christian woman against blasphemy.
Aatish Taseer's portrait of the Islamic countries he visited is so bitter and bleak that I can only hope that his harsh judgments are at least partly clouded by his personal stake in his journey.
Brigitte Frase is a book critic in Minneapolis.