Even though Irfan Husain's book Fatal Faultlines is essentially about Pakistan, Islam and the West, millions of Muslims across the world will nod their heads vigorously in agreement as they leaf through the pages.
A Pakistani civil servant for 30 years, a prolific writer in Pakistani newspapers, a frequent traveller to the West, Husain is a liberal who is able to see his religion, as well as his country, and the collision course of both Islam and Pakistan with the West without blinkers.
The book begins with the chapter “Why us” where Husain tells us that after the 9/11 attacks he was flooded with e-mails from Americans “who had suddenly begun exploring media Web sites in the Muslim world to try to understand where these suicide bombers had come from.” The common subtext was: “Why us?”
The rest of the book is a comprehensive and eloquent, even if sometimes clichéd, attempt to answer this question by digging deep into history. Having worked as a diplomat in Washington DC for some time, he can understand why these open and generous people, never given to rudeness or hostility, “were so shocked at being attacked.”
Limited world-view of Americans
Husain starts answering the question by touching on the limited world-view of Americans, who get their news from local newspapers, TV channels or radio stations which don't cover too many international without a domestic connect.
“The result is a parochial worldview that blocks out any deep understanding” of how others react to American policies abroad. Not only did he find most Americans indifferent to what happens in the rest of the world, but also their “eyes glazing over” while discussing international affairs.
Husain argues that most of the Muslim ummah cannot understand the way America functions, and that its foreign policy is shaped primarily by geopolitics and economics. Even in its dealings with the Islamic world the US takes different stances depending on its own interest. Its arms, money and training are often used by regimes such as Egypt to crush Islamist opposition. The US supported Egypt's Hosni Mubarak for years till his toppling in 2011. The message to the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters was that their corrupt leaders who had turned away from Islam were being supported by the US to exploit them. This message resonates deeply among millions of Muslims.
But Husain really touches the most crucial point of Islam's conflict with the West when he explores the narrative of the Israel-Palestine conflict. This aspect of Western, particularly American hypocrisy, is something that I myself have discussed and debated heatedly with many Muslim friends. Most Muslims view the UN resolution that created Israel right in the midst of “an Arab – predominantly Muslim - neighbourhood, as an act of sheer injustice and highhandedness that has resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. They see the UN as a body controlled by Western powers and one in which they have little or no say.”
Dramatic though this might sound, Husain is absolutely right when he says Muslims view the “creation of Israel as a dagger thrust into the heart of the Middle East.”
Also, argues the author, Muslims cannot understand why America, with all its talk about democracy, justice and international law cannot apply these values to Palestinians. For Muslims only one narrative exists; they think Israel is trying to avenge the Holocaust on Palestinians!
On its part, argues the author, the West perceives Muslims as intolerant, particularly when it comes to any questioning or criticism of their faith. When the Islamic world exploded in a volcano of rage over the Prophet Mohammed cartoons in a Danish newspaper, Westerners were puzzled. “Having grown up in a culture where the most sacrosanct icons are regularly pillories in the media, on the screen, and on the stage, they could not grasp that people would kill and burn to protect the perceived disrespect towards their Prophet,” he notes.
From the Salman Rushdie affair to the Prophet cartoons, the “West increasingly views Muslims as intolerant, violent, humourless people with alien, unattractive values and traditions,” he says.
But, he adds, with Israel continuing to create settlements deemed illegal under international law, Palestinian disillusionment with the stuttering peace process is understandable. Apart from expressing its “disappointment”, the US has done little to use its clout with Tel Aviv to halt it, confirming Palestinian belief that “America is complicit in the land grab taking place”.
Husain argues that when US President Barack Obama made his famous Cairo speech in 2009 where he said just as Israel had a right to exist, so did Palestine, and questioned the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements, he “electrified the Muslim world”. But when nothing came of the great hopes about the emergence of an “independent and viable Palestinian State,” it only reiterated Muslim belief and deepened their resentment that a powerful Jewish lobby in the US – less than 3 per cent of the population – could sway the American policy in favour of Israel.
Who can understand the Pakistani mindset and its abhorrence for the US better than a homegrown person like the author?
In the interesting chapter ‘The Pakistani Paradox”, the author provides great insight into why Pakistan, once a staunch ally of the US, has turned so vehemently against it.
A paradox is religious parties doing very poorly in elections in a country that was carved out in the name of religion. But then if M.A. Jinnah's dream of creating a “modern, secular nation has been steadily subverted” – remember Jinnah's famous speech “you are free to go to your temples, your churches” - it is because Jinnah died within a year of this ringing announcement. And his successors “had neither his political stature nor vision to stand up to Islamists.”
Add to this Pakistan's “obsession with the perceived threat from India”; America's use of Pakistan to grab the opportunity of converting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan “into the Soviet Union's own Vietnam”; the US brouhaha over blocking the release of F16 fighters, and after 9/11 a host of other issues such as drone attacks. Pakistanis saw all this as “America's trampling of Pakistan's national sovereignty, national dignity and honour”.
Such a sentiment, says Husain, unites right and left, liberals and mullahs. Instead of blaming their own army for creating jihadi outfits that were active in Pakistan and Afghanistan, most Pakistanis hold Americans responsible for the sharp rise of terrorist attacks in their country! Even on the bin Laden operation by the US Seals, there was outrage in Pakistan. Both the people and the media castigated their government for its ignorance and impotence.
Effective use of online technology
It is ironic, says the author, that a religious ideology that is perceived as opposed to most forms of modernisation should make such effective use of the Internet, cell phones and other mass communication technology, created, ironically enough by West, for extremist propaganda, motivation and training. Ironically, he adds, given the pressure that jihadists are under, without the Internet and its wide reach they would be totally crippled.
When the author googled “jihadi Web sites in English” he got 363,000 results!
Read this book to deepen your understanding of the standoff between Islam and the West. In a simple, engaging and anecdotal style Husain manages to hold your interest in what would otherwise be a “heavy, academic” topic!