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Journalist Shahan Mufti describes himself as “100 percent American and 100 percent Pakistani.” Born in the American Midwest, he quickly discovered through his reporting from Pakistan — his parents’ home country — that it was impossible to separate his family’s story from the country’s history. We talk with Mufti about the importance of storytelling for people and nations alike, and Pakistan’s role in world events.
- Shahan Mufti journalist; author, "The Faithful Scribe: A Story of Islam, Pakistan, Family, and War"
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “The Faithful Scribe: A Story of Islam, Pakistan, Family, and War” by Shahan Mufti. Copyright 2013 by Shahan Mufti. Published by Other Press. All rights reserved.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe tales families tell about the generations that came before while gathered around today's dining room tables can provide valuable insights into the histories of nations and context for better understanding the present. And maybe the stories of nations aren't so different from our own personal stories built on memory and shaped by telling and retelling. They're often closely woven together, which is what journalist Shahan Mufti discovered when he began researching and reporting on Pakistan, a country where he had strong familial ties, which he soon found went back farther than he ever thought, ties that have given him a greater understanding of a country that isn't always easy to explain.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to share some of what he learned is Shahan Mufti. He is the author of "The Faithful Scribe: A Story of Islam, Pakistan, Family and War." He's also a journalist and professor of journalism at the University of Richmond. Shahan Mufti, thank you for joining us.
MR. SHAHAN MUFTIThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou too can join the conversation with Shahan Mufti. Just call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. What questions do you have about Pakistan and the U.S.'s relationship with that country, 800-433-8850? In any attempt to begin to understand Pakistan we might start with its modern origins. Take us back to 1947. How did the country come to be?
MUFTISo in 1947 we have the British colony of what was called the British India, which is almost the entirety of the subcontinent -- the Asian subcontinent. And so Pakistan really began when the British decided to leave. And the question became how many countries are there going to be -- are going to come from this one single British colony? And there were competing regions of this so there were some that said it would all be one country. And India would be left as one country born from one colony. But there were many other groups that thought there were multiple nations inside this region.
MUFTIAnd the Muslims in that region which accounted for almost a quarter of all Muslims in the world at that time, they came together under the leadership of a few very interesting individuals. And they claimed that there was a separate Muslim nation that existed in the British colony. And that that separate nation of Muslims should have a separate state. And that state eventually became Pakistan in 1947.
NNAMDIBut then there's 1971.
MUFTIThere is, and that is where my book begins, where my parents are trying to get married. It's their wedding day and there is a war overhead. And that was the war between the two halves of Pakistan. So the British left two halves of Pakistan on each side of India. And it was a very strange state that had really nothing like it before and never has been again.
NNAMDIYeah, when I was kid I looked at the map and was like, how could this be the same country?
MUFTIIt made no sense. It makes no sense still but -- so this was separate by almost a thousand miles of India, which was considered enemy territory. And in 1971 the two wings of Pakistan went to war with each other. There was a civil war in which the eastern wing separated to become Bangladesh. And India became involved in this war as well, but Pakistan was left as the single corridor of land along the Indus River. And in many ways -- I mean, there's a lot of different people who have different views of what happened to Pakistan in that war but in many ways it became a more coherent and more realistic state.
MUFTIAnd it was just one corridor of land along the Indus River that went from the Himalayas to the Arabian Sea in the south.
NNAMDIAnd it's fascinating how that war is intricately interwoven with your family history, your parents getting married at the same time. But I want to go to the notion of a separation of church and state, one that's so engrained in Western culture, that the very idea of an Islamic democracy like Pakistan can be difficult for people to wrap their heads around. What are the hallmarks of that form of government and how central is the role of religion in it?
MUFTIWell, that is a central issue in my book which I deal with. And Pakistan is the example to look at. If you're going to be talking about Islam and Democracy and politics and the separation of church and state, like you said, Pakistan is the original example to go back to. So like I said, the Muslim -- this nation that was formed in the British colony identified with each other on the basis of their religious faith in some ways, or at least their religious identity. And so it became very difficult for the nation to define itself or realize itself without involving the religious notions of identity at least.
MUFTISo Pakistan really became the first -- world's first Islamic democracy. And what I mean by that is that it wrote a constitution. So Pakistan's first constitution declared the country -- the new country an Islamic democracy. Now that phrase had never existed, that term had never existed before. So Pakistan was onto a rocky path there because it was blazing a trail in many ways. This had never been done before. There was no experiment to follow.
MUFTIAnd so Pakistan has been, for the past six or seven decades almost, dealing with this experiment in which Islam is -- but the constitution of Pakistan -- that original constitution did state that, you know, liberty, freedom and freedom of expression and independence of judiciary. And, you know, it had all the instruments of any modern democracy. There's nothing strange about it. But the twist of course was that the constitution said that all of this will be realized in Islamic essence. And that really became the trick. Otherwise there's really no trick to the -- the constitution of Pakistan is very clearly democratic and not very strange to anybody looking at it from the West.
NNAMDIWell, what makes it such a complicated trick is because Islam has no titular head, so to speak.
MUFTIExactly. And that's what becomes the real challenges when we talk about the separation of church and state because there is no church in Islam to separate from the state. So a lot of people look at this the other way. I mean, there's two ways of looking at this, and the inverse as well is that church and state aren't separated in Islam.
NNAMDIThere's no pope.
MUFTIThere's no -- well, yeah, there's -- I mean, in that Islam and politics are two mixed together. But, I mean, at the same time there is nothing to separate when it comes to Islam. There's no separate church. Islam is something that's very -- the power structures in Islam historically have been really defused. And so the idea of separating church and state in Islam and in this experiment of Pakistan in the oldest Islamic democracy experiment, it's been very tricky.
MUFTIAnd a lot of leaders -- every leader that has come into Pakistan, it's very tricky to talk about secular leaders in Pakistan. Because when you really get down to it, if you want to be a political front or political party in Pakistan, you have to accept the ethos of the state, which is that Islam and democracy mix. And so every leader that Pakistan has seen from Benazir Bhutto to Pervez Musharraf who the Americans became very familiar with over the last decade. They all had their own vision of how Islam and democracy mix. And everybody had their own kind of solution to this.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Our guest is Shahan Mufti. He is the author of the book "The Faithful Scribe: A Story of Islam, Pakistan, Family and War." He's also a journalist and professor of journalism at the University of Richmond. Have any questions about Pakistan about the U.S.'s perception of that country, 800-433-8850. As you mentioned, Shahan, Pakistan was also created to be a home to Muslims from across the subcontinent, which raises another question. How do ethnic origins and tribal structure fit into the political dynamics at play in this Islamic Democracy?
MUFTIWell, that has been one of the trickiest parts of this state that we know as Pakistan. Like we were just talking about, the civil war that separated the two wings of Pakistan. That was in many ways that the -- because the roots of that was in that eastern wing of Pakistan at that time -- spoke a different language than -- I mean, there's tons of different languages, you know, almost half a dozen recognized different languages.
MUFTIBut the Bengali-speaking people in the east didn't see themselves fitting in or gelling with the rest of this Muslim nation. And they found this reason to express their Bengali identity. And that was in many ways the roots of Bangladesh when it separated from Pakistan. But Pakistan still has a lot of linguistic groups, ethnic groups that are very, very -- its various histories and various cultural practices. And Pakistan did bring them together, again, with the intention of creating a Muslim.
MUFTISo they all -- most of Pakistan is almost 99 percent they say Muslim. So they do share a common religious identity but the reality in Pakistan is that the different ethnic groups are quite often, you know, at odds. And this expresses itself in all kinds of challenges inside of Pakistan. And then we have, of course, I mean, in the current scenario with the war going on in Afghanistan, the Pashtu in the Pashtun areas of Pakistan, which are along the northwest and the west, are experiencing this war in Afghanistan and the conflict with America in a very different way than the populations on the eastern side closer to India at the Indian border.
MUFTISo even experiencing something as, you know, complete as war becomes very different along ethnic lines.
NNAMDIGlad you brought up India again because your own studies took you to India. And I wonder if you think that shared history of those two countries being both colonies of Britain in the same region continues to shape relations between the two nations today for better or worse. Before you answer, of course, there was another meeting that took place at the recent session of the UN General Assembly that was not paid as much attention as the possible meeting between the presidents of the U.S. and Iran. And that is, apparently for about an hour the prime ministers of India and Pakistan were able to meet there. How significant was that?
MUFTIWell, I mean, this always gets tricky because it's closely followed by some, well, unconfirmed reports this morning that there is some skirmishes across the bordering Kashmir, which is shared between Pakistan and India. And some reports of heavy fighting in that region. And this was apparently taking place while the meeting at the UN was taking place. It's very hard to tell fact from fiction here, in the immediate aftermath at least. But it is a very troubled relationship. It's a relationship that, you know, American presidents have identified as the trickiest relationship in the world to handle and a nuclear hotspot obviously. We know both countries are nuclear.
MUFTIPresident Obama actually -- in the run-up to his first -- in his presidential race, pointed to Kashmir as a possible path to solving the crisis in Afghanistan as well. So it's very relevant to -- this relationship between India and Pakistan is playing out in very, very interesting ways in the American war in Afghanistan as well. But the two countries are -- I spent some time - and I talk about this in my book -- my time in Pakistan. And I was the only Pakistani I knew in that country at that time. This was around 2004 and '05. And I was...
MUFTI...a spectacle. In India. And I was a bit of a spectacle in India because there -- you know, I describe it as a phantom limb for both nations. It's a phantom limb that you can't scratch. There's an itch in the phantom limb that you can't scratch. And that's what each country -- the people in each country feel for each other because their histories are so tied together. But after separation there hasn't really been much movement back and forth between people. They're off and on but of course most recently after the attacks in Mumbai there has been no cricket, which is...
NNAMDIIn those two countries, right.
MUFTIAnd there's been an important bond between the two countries. And there's been -- you know, there's very little exchange. So this continues to play out in all kinds of ways. But there is a shared history obviously, but the two countries have diverged in the last six decades because Pakistan's, you know, developed this national identity around Islam. And India is dealing with its own national identity in its own ways.
NNAMDII want to get to your family but before we get off the subject of Pakistan and India, here is Mazar in Falls Church, Va. Mazar, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MAZARHey, Mr. Nnamdi, how are you?
MAZARI was a pretty young child and my father was a (word?), worked for the government when Bangladesh became Bangladesh. We were under house arrest for ten months. I don't blame anybody but Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Mujibur Rahman won the election. He should have been the president. He was Bengali. Instead of giving him the presidency, that criminal, the Pakistan People's Party, he decided to send the war never before in the history of the war had 93,000 soldiers told to put their arms down because this criminal wants to be the president.
MAZARHe went and arrested Mujibur Rahman. Mujibur Rahman should have been the president, just like Mr. Manmahon Singh is in India. He's a Sikh. A Sikh could never become president in India while a Hindu is number one in India, but yet...
MAZAR...Mr. Manmahon Singh is the president. Look at our country. They all are criminals, Mr. Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWell, allow me to interrupt for a second because -- and thus, Shahan Mufti, we enter the weeds so to speak. Specific details having to do with Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's ascendency there.
MUFTISo what Mazar was referring to is again, where we began this story, it was 1971, which is when my parents are trying to get married. But this was a civil war between the eastern and western wing of Pakistan, and as you can see, this is very fresh history. The wounds from this history are very fresh, especially in Bangladesh -- current Bangladesh where the -- and I talk about this in my book. Just the violence that the Pakistani army unleashed on the separatists -- on the nationalists in Bangladesh, was, you know, it was -- I mean, it was brutal by any measure.
MUFTIBut as you can see, I mean, and there are these discussions of -- and what Mazar was referring was also Zulfikar Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto's father, who rose from the ashes of that war to lead Pakistan and build its nuclear program, so a very strong historical figure in his own right. But yeah. There's obviously, I mean, there's history that's debated still.
NNAMDIAnd we talked about how your own family's history and what you began to learn about it as you began to research and report on Pakistan, how did that provide greater context, if you will, for your work?
MUFTIWell, I was in Pakistan -- I started reporting from Pakistan as a news reporter, so I begin my book by explaining, and as you were saying earlier, that I consider myself a hundred percent Pakistani and 100 percent American, meaning that I've had my foot in both worlds forever, as long as I can remember. I was born in the American Midwest, then moved to Pakistan, then moved to the United States, and I've been bouncing back and forth over and over.
MUFTIBut in the (unintelligible) I moved to Pakistan in 2007, and I was a daily news reporter there and I was reporting the conflict in Pakistan really, most of it beginning in 2007, for an American paper. And it was while I was covering the conflict, and obviously all the American involvement in it and in, you know, like Pakistan's involvement in Afghanistan. It was during while working as a reporter that I came across this treasure, family history really, that I had never seen before.
MUFTIAnd my grandfather had passed away, and so it was with his remaining stuff that I found a family tree. And it traced my origins back all the way -- well, far back through...
NNAMDIMuch farther back than you had known.
MUFTIMuch farther back than I thought, but into the inner circle of Mohammed, the Islamic Prophet. And of course, I mean, this was fascinating history and fantastical in many ways. Some of the logical leaps that were taken in writing this history were obvious. But it really became an interesting -- it was an interesting shock to my system as a news reporter. And I knew that I wanted to tell -- I wanted -- I was covering this conflict between east and west, Islam and west in many ways that was occurring in Pakistan and in the bordering lines of Afghanistan.
MUFTIAnd then I came to this history, which I found was written a couple of centuries ago by one of my ancestors during the colonial period when the British arrived in those lines of present-day Pakistan. And I was amazed to read that history and how he was dealing with these exact same questions of east meeting west and Islam meeting west and the conflict that arose, and sometimes a very hot conflict. War, really. So he was dealing with all these same issues, the person in my family who had recorded the history, and just kind of opened up a world to me.
MUFTIAnd it, all of a sudden, was a shock to me as a news reporter when I realized, oh, everything I'm taking about has been spoken about before, a hundred years ago.
NNAMDIIt's fascinating because you have -- you can look back as a kid growing up there. You can look back as being an adult there. You can look back as being a reporter there, and then all of a sudden, a much larger view of history in general, and your family's history in particular, allows you contextualize all of this. All of this, of course, you can find if you read "The Faithful Scribe: A Story of Islam, Pakistan, Family, and War." We're talking with the author, Shahan Mufti. You can call us at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIHave you gained a better understanding of a country your family has ties to through your personal family history? Give us a call. 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Shahan Mufti. He is the author of "The Faithful Scribe: A Story of Islam, Pakistan, Family, and War." Shahan Mufti is also a journalist and professor of journalism at the University of Richmond. Do you consider yourself equal parts American and another nationality? If so, have you found that others have a hard time understanding that notion? Give us a call. 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIWe go back to your description of yourself at 100 percent American, 100 percent Pakistani. Relations between the two countries can be tense. Do you ever feel a tension between those two backgrounds? Personally, you seem to blend very easily into either one of those societies.
MUFTIWell, yes, it's true. And I say in the book as well that when I'm in Pakistan -- I set this up quite early, that I -- when I'm Pakistan, I'm not mistaken for anything but Pakistani, and when I'm in the United States, obviously I am American. I feel very American here, and comfortable. But obviously, this is -- and this is something that, you know, this is an experience that a lot of people share. In my experience though, I mean, not just as a person living between worlds, but also as a reporter covering war, and being between two worlds that are actively in conflict, and at war with each other, and a very strange war as well, which is supposed to be an alliance but is actually a war.
MUFTIIt's a very -- a lot of cloak and dagger. So being in the middle of this has been, of course there is, you know, I mean, there's a -- but that's what makes this my -- I thought -- that's what pushed me to write the story because I felt like this is a relationship between America and Pakistan that's worth addressing and worth addressing from a point of view that maybe somewhere in between rather than from one place or the other. And I see, you know, and when I say that I had my foot in both worlds, it's -- I really do. I mean, it's not just a physical presence, it's an emotional presence, and it's a linguistic presence, you know?
MUFTII mean, and that's a huge thing to be able to understand. We're dealing with this all the time in international affairs and foreign policy. The things that are said in one language and then the things that are said in the international language. And to see just that laid out so clearly in between Pakistan and the United States, which incidentally share English as an official language inherited from their colonies.
NNAMDISo many great English writers.
MUFTIYes. From Pakistan more and more. So it is. I mean, there's just -- it was fascinating to me to -- as I explored family history, to see this east-west -- not only the east-west divide, but the east-west meld within my own family. Much larger than just my own personal experience.
NNAMDIWell, to the extent that you and your family personify both the east-west divide, the east west coming together, and the tensions that result thereof, a personal thought popped into my mind when I read that. Your father was in medical school at Cast Western, leaves in the early 1970s, goes back home, he marries your mother, your mother is seeing him for the first time because it is your father's sisters who have gone about the business of finding -- of arranging a marriage for him when they see each other the first time. How do you blend the cultures when you decide to get married?
MUFTIWell, you're giving away the end of the book.
NNAMDIOh. Then in that case, no spoiler. No spoiler. We won't -- we won't tell it.
MUFTIIt is, I mean, it is an interesting question that, I mean, my -- and I do. This tension that is constantly moving my family back and forth and myself with it. My father at first, and being -- bouncing between the United States and Pakistan, and eventually settling in Pakistan, and then me reversing that track. And as I grew up in Pakistan, I realize I need to be in the United States. And then myself -- finding myself bouncing back and forth. It's interesting.
NNAMDII won't give away that part of the story. Whether from U.S. drone strikes, or a consequence of urban crime, you've said that one of the hardest things to explain to people who ask about Pakistan is the violence. How does it affect people psychologically and in facets of life you might not expect?
MUFTIWell, violence is something that is central to this book, and a huge part of this book for me is exploring this idea of violence that I was able to, unfortunately, I guess, see very up close as a journalist. So there are many scenes in my book in which I come very close against this, you know, scenes of violence. The assassination attempt against Benazir Bhutto, I was there, and then the siege at the -- some Americans might remember the siege at the red mosque in Islamabad which was 2007 is when the Pakistani military launched an assault on the central mosque in the capital.
MUFTISo this -- and just writing this book, and the process of writing this book, and thinking about these issues of violence, I've come to see violence as it's very hard for me to now differentiate between good violence and bad violence, and to see certain acts of violence as necessary, and certain acts of violence as unnecessary. There are some that are just, you know, the sheer nakedness of some violence is obviously meant to be more striking than others. Some violence is meant to be a little more sanitized I suppose.
MUFTIBut violence in this conflict, to me, what I have covered, violence does take on this -- it becomes one whole really, and it becomes a self-fulfilling -- self-feeding monster in some ways that it begins to acquire coherent wholeness and sense in a way that every violence -- every incident of violence is somehow justified by the last incident of violence, and every preceding incident of violence is, you know, justified by the last one. And this -- it's called, I mean, I guess it's called a cycle of violence and all that, but it also -- it works greater than a cycle. It's just -- it gives meaning to the larger violence that surrounds people and it seeps into everyday life.
MUFTIEven, you know, I mean, people talk about moving Pakistan forward in this time, and there's a lot of frustrations I hear from Pakistanis about, you know, moving Pakistan forward in education and in healthcare and in providing these facilities to ordinary Pakistanis. But it's amazing how violence and war seep into all crevices of life. And, I mean, I've used this obvious example as well, of just fighting against polio. So it's very tragic what's happening in Pakistan with polio is -- it's one of the few countries where in the last decade Pakistan was close to eradicating polio, but then in the last decade during -- coinciding with this war in Afghanistan, polio cases have arisen in Pakistan.
MUFTIAnd obviously it's hard to, you know, imagine how -- what does polio eradication have to do with the war, and a conflict between, you know, with drones and all that, or militants attacking, suicide bombers. But then it becomes clear in just one crystal moment when we find out that Osama bin Laden was tracked through a doctor who was treating for polio, and his job as an asset of the CIA was to infiltrate as a polio doctor. And what that does, how many years does that set back polio for example, and polio eradication. And this is to say, I mean, that's just one example.
NNAMDIWe have heard that Pakistan has been referred to as a country where most people are likely to believe conspiracy theories. You just gave a very good example of why.
MUFTIAbsolutely. Because sometimes those conspiracies it's hard to argue with.
NNAMDIThey happen to be true.
MUFTIAnd that's just I think in any conflict it does give rise to conspiracy.
NNAMDIHere's Mirwais (sp?) in Washington DC. Mirwais, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIRWAISYes, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. I am -- my name is Mirwais. I'm originally from Afghanistan.
MIRWAISLiving in DC. But my question was for Mufti. Doesn't he think that that Pakistan is (unintelligible) a fundamental (unintelligible) for the region and for the old world by their policy that the government and the (unintelligible) is taking towards the war, and also my other question is...
NNAMDIWell, we can only answer one because we're running out of time. But he talks about the government and the Pakistan Intelligence Agency.
MIRWAISYeah. The policymakers of Pakistan (unintelligible) trying to -- especially the ISI -- Afghanistan was not that much fundamental. And everything came through the Pakistan ISI.
NNAMDIThere is a great deal of suspicion -- allow -- allow me to have him respond to that, Mirwais, because we're running out of time.
MUFTIWell, yeah. I mean, now we have a view from the western border of Pakistan. The last caller was from the eastern border.
NNAMDIWhich had to do with my questions about the western (unintelligible)
MUFTIYeah. And with...
NNAMDIIraq and Afghanistan -- Iran and Afghanistan.
MUFTIMirwais is getting to the very central issue, especially to Americans right now, which is, Pakistan's role in America's war in Afghanistan and what has that role been. And also Pakistan's role regionally. So Mirwais from Afghanistan is suggesting that Pakistan's role in Afghanistan has been very destructive. Some Indians also say the same thing. Pakistan's role has been very destructive. Pakistan -- and I mean, this all goes back to, I think, this has all been highlighted in the last 10 years again, because -- back when this alliance between Pakistan and the United States formed.
MUFTIAnd it was never really an alliance that was -- I mean, it's amazing that the day after President Bush spoke to Congress, September 19, 2001, President Musharraf of Pakistan spoke to Pakistani people, and basically he laid out a plan which said, the best choice we have right now to preserve the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistani influence is to go along with this American war. So just from the get go, the two goals of the two countries have been so misaligned. So it's no surprise that Americans are so frustrated with the roles Pakistanis have played, and the Pakistanis are extremely frustrated with the roles that the Americans are playing -- the role that the Americans are playing in the region.
MUFTIBut as far as this -- I mean, this question of Pakistan turning into a fundamentalist state or something, I think those are views -- that's a point of view that's overblown. Pakistan had just, you know, after -- again, a 60-year experiment in Islamic democracy just had its first peaceful transfer of electoral power this summer, which was a big, you know, it was a big moment in Pakistan. I was there as a journalist covering it, and it was a big moment for the country to finally have its first -- truly what people would call its (unintelligible) .
NNAMDIThe complexity of Pakistan has to be seen in historical context, and can be seen through the history of the family of Shahan Mufti. He is the author of "The Faithful Scribe: A Story of Islam, Pakistan, Family, and War." He's also a journalist and professor of journalism at the University of Richmond. Shahan Mufti, thank you for joining us.
MUFTIIt was great to be here.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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