June Issue 2012

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 6 years ago

If you are mystified by the ongoing tensions between Pakistan and the United States, played out partly at the Chicago summit where President Asif Zardari of Pakistan was supposed to be a star but was left with a cameo role, get hold of Irfan Husain’s Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West. It should deepen your understanding of the unfinished struggle between the West — mainly the United States — and the radical Islamists involved in terrorist activities.

This reference to NATO’s Chicago summit, held in May 2012 and designed to chart out the end of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan by 2014, is an assertion of the topical relevance of Irfan’s engaging analysis of how 9/11 has shaped the Muslim perception of the West and vice versa.

The book was launched in Karachi on March 26, 2012 and it covers events well into the previous year. Besides, Irfan began writing it in the summer of 2010. In that sense, it has overlapped the major developments that have led to the worsening of relations between Pakistan and the United States. The focus has been on the restoration of NATO supplies to Afghanistan, suspended by Pakistan after 24 of its soldiers were killed in a cross-border attack by NATO forces in November last year.

While there is no dispute about the crucial role that Pakistan must play in the Afghan endgame, necessitating a collaborative relationship between the US and Pakistan, Irfan’s account of this enigmatic bond would be in sync with the essentially temporary debacle that has resulted from the Chicago summit.

However, this book investigates the global confrontation between Islam and the West in a perspective that is larger than the current headlines. And this investigation, thankfully, is not conducted by a think-tank researcher or an academic who would dabble in weighty formulations. We know that Irfan is a prominent columnist, with a keen interest in culture as well as cuisine. This should add up to a delightful recipe, to delve into thoughts that we must carefully digest.

At the outset, Irfan admits that the book is his attempt “to explain the causes of the resentment and anger that millions of Muslims harbour toward America and the West based on my reading, travels, conversations and email messages with readers.” When you read the book, you realise that this is the way to go when dealing with perceptions that people have long held in a subjective context. Hence, it holds the reader’s attention because it allows him or her to enter into a kind of dialogue with an author who has the journalist’s ability to combine information with knowledge and interpretation. One strength of Irfan’s discourse is his choice of excerpts and quotations from relevant authorities.

Instead of watching the scene from a safe distance to underline a posture of objectivity and impartiality, Irfan has portrayed the long interaction between Islam and Christendom as a sensitive Pakistani, unashamed of his liberal and modern proclivities. It depresses him a lot when he sees “that so many of my countrymen are so deep in denial.” He is worried about the chasm that has opened up between the Muslims of the world and the United States after 9/11.

It is hard for him to understand that a majority of Pakistanis look at the United States, rather than the jihadis, as an enemy. It is this faultline that makes it difficult to fight Islamic terrorism — “a virus that threatens Muslim countries more than it does the West.” Similarly, he has traced the derelictions of the West in nurturing Islamophobia. To place these post 9/11 delusions, lrfan has provided a useful historical perspective to suggest that the ongoing conflict began long before Christendom and Islam were born. It related to the struggle between East and West. Considerable research, reduced to a fluent expression of ideas and events, has added to the value of this book. Throughout, however, personal encounters and experiences have underlined the argument at hand.

For instance, he illustrates some complexities of interaction between Islam and Christendom with his memories of studying, in the early sixties, at St Patrick’s High School in Karachi, run by Catholic missionaries. Similar asides are found in a description of the Arab-Israel conflict. He refers to a conversation with a serving army general about the controversy over the Kerry-Lugar Bill and quotes this chilling answer to a query that with India and Pakistan having common borders, the use of a nuclear device would have a catastrophic fallout in Pakistan: “Actually, evidence from the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States in World War Two does not prove your point as the soil near these cities was not contaminated for very long.”

One chapter that I found particularly interesting is titled: ‘The Virtual Ummah and Online Jihad.’ Irfan takes note of the irony that “an ideology that opposes most forms of modernism should make such effective use of cutting-edge communications tools.” He has done some research to come up with specific examples from extremist websites and decided that he would no longer want to waste time “reading these unpleasant and often poorly written blogs.”

Considering the title of the book — the faultlines being “fatal” — it is obvious that Irfan was all set to conclude on a pessimistic note. But he admits to being swayed by the silver lining of the Arab Spring. Otherwise, we would just have the Pakistani paradox.

To end, consider this question. There are Muslims who assert that “Islam is a religion of peace.” Their detractors say that the teachings of Islam urge its followers to kill non-Muslims in the name of the faith. Irfan raises this predicament and says: “So who’s right? Actually, both are — and both are wrong.”

This book review was originally published in the June issue under the headline “The Unbridgeable Chasm.”

Ghazi Salahuddin is a respected senior journalist in Pakistan. He currently works with the daily The News and the Geo television network.