COVER STORY: Looking at the past — to understand the present

Some time in the days after 9/11, then US president George W. Bush plaintively asked the asked, “Why do they hate us?” The query was meant only as a rhetorical one since it was quickly settled that Muslims — the “they” in the question — hated the US for its freedom. This exceptionally glib answer, one that seemed to be based on nothing but smug self-satisfaction and a distinct lack of curiosity, does not take away from the fact that the question is one that needs exploring.

Not only is it vital to find out why so many Muslims seem to nurse an abiding hatred for the West, we also need answers to the reverse question. After all, in the last couple of decades the US has invaded multiple Muslim countries, leading many to wonder why the Americans, and by extension the West, seems to have it in for Islam.

Even though — as he forthrightly states in the introduction to his important new book Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West — Irfan Husain is not a professional historian, there aren’t many better placed to answer both these questions. His life has been exemplary of how one can comfortably co-exist in both worlds. Husain has been a columnist exploring many of the issues raised in his book for decades; he has previously worked at the Pakistan embassy in Washington; he lives in Sri Lanka but also spends a lot of time in the western capitals.

Husain takes a long view of the mutual suspicion that has dominated relations between, to use convenient shorthand, the West and Islam. For him, its roots can be traced back to the Crusades, and even before that, to the period following the advent of Islam. The theory he is offering may not be novel, but what makes Husain’s restating and exploring this view relevant is the erudite way he summarises nearly a millennia of conflict and deftly draws parallels between events that transpired centuries ago and those that make headlines today.

The hallmark of Fatal Faultlines is Husain’s scrupulousness. His biases, which tend towards the urbane and reject retrograde thought, are immediately made clear but rarely intrude his work. He is mostly careful not to paint with too broad a brush, taking pains to point out that not all Muslims have a hatred for the US, let alone the fanatical kind that leads to mass murder. Despite his sympathies for the US and the West, Husain does not spare them responsibility for their historical sins. For example, he minces no words in describing a lot of western hostility towards the Muslim world as a desire to ensure that the days when Muslims ruled Spain never returned again.

Husain is also one of the few non-historian writers expounding on the subjects of terrorism to do the basic research required for the task. He does not simply attribute to terrorists the beliefs he thinks they most likely hold. Instead, he has studied their literature, devoting an entire chapter to the rise of militancy online. Without any exaggeration, he gives a good overview of jihadist literature on the internet but does not succumb to the temptation to give it more importance than it deserves.

He has also closely read the many speeches of Osama bin Laden and so has an excellent understanding of how the late al-Qaeda leader’s grievances are rooted in history as much as contemporary events. Osama may have listed the occupation of Palestine by Israel, US occupation of Muslim lands and Kashmir as his main reasons for fighting but, as Husain points out, he seemed to have an equal amount of anger over the loss of the Caliphate and the decline of Muslim power.

Interspersed in the book are Husain’s thoughts on Pakistan and its centrality in the war-on-terror narrative. Much of Husain’s writings on Pakistan will be familiar to readers as it covers territory that he has explored in his Dawn column for decades. Still, it is useful to be reminded of the “Pakistan Paradox”, as Husain calls it, that exists in a state which was created in the name of religion but whose founder disavowed any intention to discriminate.

On occasion, though, Husain succumbs to the temptation of cherry-picking facts to advance his own beliefs. On the question of drone attacks, of which he is clearly in favour, Husain quotes only a survey carried out by the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy which purports to show that a majority of residents in Fata support the drone attacks. But he does not mention that this survey was an outlier and every other poll done in the area showed scant support for the attacks.

A simple smell-test should have told Husain that it is almost unprecedented for a people to support those very people who are currently bombing them. Add to this the fact that the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy’s funding and provenance are still unknown, and one cannot help but feel that their polling was suspect at best.

Fatal Faultlines also has a slightly jarring ending. After spending many chapters exploring just how intractable the problems in the Muslim world are, Husain ends on an upbeat note as he finds renewed hope in the Arab Spring. Husain clearly sees the events in the Arab world as a potentially game-changing development.

One cannot help but feel, however, that Husain’s earlier pessimism was the more sound view to hold, especially since, in the months since Fatal Faultlines was written, the Arab Spring has lost a lot of its momentum and idealism. But these are minor quibbles and do not mar what is likely to be one of the finest political reads of the year.

Husain has taken familiar material and given it a new shine, adding to our understanding of the world today by concentrating on the scar tissue that binds it to centuries of history.

In an age of insta-analysis, that historical perspective is badly-needed and under-appreciated.


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