Book Review: 'The Faithful Scribe,' by Shahan Mufti
A journalist examines his family history to see if his native Pakistan can embrace democracy while staying true to its Islamic mission.

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  • @dhume: "The Faithful Scribe" can't quite strike a balance between memoir and history.

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  • @dhume: Mr. Mufti deserves credit for framing Pakistan's story in terms of ideas, not merely events.

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  • Though Pakistan is no theocracy, it shares some of the Saudi and Iranian sense of a larger Islamic mission.

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Where in the world do people dislike America the most? According to Pew surveys, that distinction belongs to Pakistan, where barely one out of 10 people holds a favorable opinion of the U.S. Rampant anti-Americanism and social dysfunction tend to go together. So it's no surprise that barely a week seems to pass without news from Peshawar, Karachi or Quetta of an attack on a church, a shootout between armed gangs or a suicide bombing targeting minority Shia Muslims.

In "The Faithful Scribe," Shahan Mufti, who calls himself "100 percent American and 100 percent Pakistani," sets out to explain the country's present-day turbulence through the prism of its history. A Pakistani-American who traces his descent on both sides to jurists in a network of Islamic courts first set up by India's Muslim conquerors about 1,000 years ago, Mr. Mufti spent years covering the land of his forebears for the Christian Science Monitor. Pakistan, he says, isn't merely a country populated by Muslims. It's a nation with a special purpose: to be "the world's first experimental laboratory in Islam and democracy." He wants to know whether Pakistan can fully embrace democracy, free speech and minority rights, and he seeks the answer with a mixture of history, memoir and reportage.

Even before the new country, cleaved from the Muslim-majority parts of British India in 1947, adopted a constitution, its leaders framed an "objectives resolution" that placed Islam at the heart of the national project. It tasked the state with ensuring that "Muslims shall be enabled to order their lives . . . in accordance with the teachings and requirements of Islam." But though Pakistanis could quickly agree that Islam was a swell idea, they never quite figured out what this meant: Just how Islamic was the world's first Islamic republic meant to be?

Mr. Mufti dates this confusion to the latter half of the 19th century, when the British consolidated their hold on the Subcontinent and swept away the last vestiges of Mughal rule after the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Two responses dominated among the Muslims of northern India at the time. The historic Deoband madrassa taught that Muslims must reject contamination by Western ideas and instead hew closely to Islamic scripture. By contrast, the activist and reformer Syed Ahmed Khan, founder of Aligarh Muslim University, believed that Muslims could only advance if they made their peace with Western power and Western learning. For Mr. Mufti, Deoband and Aligarh form "the double helix of Pakistan's DNA."

The author's own family was influenced by both schools of thought. As a teenager, Mr. Mufti's mother was traditional enough to wear a niqab that left only her eyes visible. But she also wept with emotion on meeting her hero, Gen. Ayub Khan, the Aligarh- and Sandhurst-educated dictator who ruled Pakistan in the 1960s and largely confined fundamentalist Islam to the margins.

Mr. Mufti's father, a U.S.-educated professor of medicine, favored the "Islamic socialism" espoused by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (Pakistan's elected ruler from 1971 to 1977), a mix of pan-Islamism with populist ideas such as land reform and the nationalization of private industry. After the pious Gen. Zia-ul-Haq (1977-88) deposed Bhutto in a coup, the Muftis departed for Ohio, where the author was born. But the tug of home proved too strong, and the family returned to Pakistan in the mid-1980s.

The young Mr. Mufti grew up in a society quite different from the one his mother experienced under the westernizing Ayub. In Zia's Pakistan, eating in public during the fasting month of Ramadan was illegal, female newscasters started covering their heads, and Islamic punishments such as the death penalty for defiling "the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad" entered the law books.

Zia's death in an air crash in 1988 was followed by bouts of democracy (under Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif ) interspersed with military dictatorship (under Pervez Musharraf ), but Pakistan still grapples with the general's legacy. The Aligarh school, which permitted a certain comfort with the West, is under siege from obscurantists and militants of various stripes. On his return from America, Mr. Mufti's father learned to keep his head down as the student wing of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami came to dominate Punjab University, where he taught.

Mr. Mufti deserves credit for framing Pakistan's story in terms of ideas, not merely events. He intuitively grasps that, though Pakistan is no theocracy, it shares some of the Saudi and Iranian sense of a larger Islamic mission. For Pakistan, 9/11 was a particular trauma. It forced the country's then Aligarh-oriented ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to make an impossible choice: between Western patronage and solidarity with the Taliban. It is the intellectual and ideological ambivalence of Pakistani leaders, as much as their desire to control Afghanistan, that explains Pakistan's reluctance—despite more than $20 billion in U.S. aid since 9/11—to fight the Taliban. Today the struggle between Pakistanis who seek accommodation with the West and those who view it as a mortal enemy shows no sign of subsiding.

In the end, though, "The Faithful Scribe" falls short of Shahan Mufti's ambitions. The writing is too breezy and the historical detail too sparse. For instance, Abul Ala Maududi (1903-79), the founder of modern South Asian Islamism, is dismissed as "a religious-minded journalist and activist from the Punjab," which does little to explain his enduring influence on Islam in the region. Mr. Mufti can't quite strike a balance between memoir and history. For the reader it's as though you start by slowly turning the pages of a family album and end up hurriedly skimming a file of newspaper clippings. Like the land with a mission he describes, Mr. Mufti's book is ultimately a bit of a muddle.

Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow him on Twitter @dhume.

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