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My Book, 'Stranger To History', Was Used To Defend My Father's Killer

11/13/2012 11:28 am ET | Updated Jan 13, 2013

In the world that came into being with my father's death, my father's killer became a hero in Pakistan, a defender of the faith.

And my father, the Governor of Punjab at the time, Pakistan's largest province, came to be regarded by many as wajib ul-qatl, the Islamic designation given to a man fit to die: a man whom any good Muslim might kill.

The trial that followed was less a murder trial -- my father's assassin had proudly confessed his crime -- than it was a trial about my father's faith; and, whether his killer, a member of his security detail, had, under extreme provocation, been justified in acting against a transgressor, an enemy of the faith.

In this peculiar refashioning of the world -- a world turned upside down, it seemed -- my memoir, Stranger to History (published today in the U.S. by Graywolf Press), which had been one thing in one time became another thing in another time. It was used in court to condemn my father, making the case that he was not a practicing Muslim; that he drank alcohol; that he ate pork; that he, in another life some thirty years before, had fathered a half-Indian child by an Indian woman. The author of Stranger to History.

When I began my book, my father had been out of politics for fifteen years. He was a businessman in Lahore and for the purposes of the memoir, which was in part to tell the story of my complicated relationship with him, he needn't have been anything else. But -- and such has been the life of this book and its subject -- by the time it was ready for publication, my father had reentered politics as Governor of Punjab. The following year he was embroiled in a tense and public battle to defend a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. Then, a few months later, on a cold January afternoon in 2011, he was dead. Assassinated for his defense of the Christian woman, and his opposition to the laws that had condemned her.

No man controls what other men make of his words. But there are few experiences that make one feel more powerless than to see one's writing actively distorted. A few months after my father's trial began, I saw a YouTube video of such a scene.

A large man, with a ferocious beard hennaed red, stood before a congregation of other bearded men. He held up a copy of my book and read from it in tortured English: "To me, that was the most interesting aspect of the letter: my father, who drank Scotch every evening, never fasted or prayed, even ate pork, and once said, 'It was only when I was in jail and all they gave me to read was the Koran -- and I read it back to front several times -- that I realized there was nothing in it for me,' was offended as a Muslim by what I had written."

The red-bearded man then translated the English sentence into Urdu, embellishing it where necessary, and allowed the horror of the words to sink in. Once they had, he thundered: "Now I ask you, gentleman, a man like this who has rejected our way, who says the Koran is nothing to him, who has birthed a child from the body of a Hindu woman...A man like this, who stands in contempt of our Prophet, his funeral rites are not valid!" It was a veiled statement, but the room full of people gauged his meaning well. They threw up their arms and shouted cries of approval. The sound was muffled, but one man in a white cap and white jacket, distinctly said: Qadri. Others yelled: "Long live..."

"Long live Qadri." Malik Mumtaz Qadri? My father's assassin.

This was the world Stranger to History had come into: a world, in which my father's faith, over which my book had helped to a cast a shadow, could be used -- and was used -- to make the case for why his killer should go free.

I wish I could say I felt anger, indignation, outrage; I didn't. What I felt -- and I think this can happen when one is confronted with the moral absurdity of fanaticism -- was puzzlement, passivity and some considerable sadness. Sadness for my poor book whose meaning had been so badly mangled; sadness for my father, who had loved his country, and died wretchedly in it, died a death that recalled the last line of Franz Kafka's The Trial: "'Like a dog!' he said. It was as if he meant the shame of it to outlive him."

But, most of all, I felt sadness for the world that had produced my father.

In the present climate, people liked to make out that his brand of godlessness was a mark of his deracination; that he was Westernized, an inauthentic Muslim. It was as Salman Rushdie, only too familiar with these things himself, and with how the world can be made dangerous for books, writes in his memoir, Joseph Anton: "When tyrants rose to power across the Muslim world there were many who were ready to call their regimes authentic and the opposition to such regimes as Westernised or deracinated. When a Pakistani politician defended a woman falsely accused of blasphemy he was murdered by his bodyguard and his country applauded the murderer and threw flower petals over him when he was brought to court."

This was all true. But it was a mistake to cede authenticity to the people who did these things. For to do that was to forget that long before the present ugliness became the norm there had been another, very different kind of Muslim world. A world in which Muslim intellectuals, poets, writers took great pride in the challenge that they, as men of learning, were obliged to present to men of faith. Long before dissent and irreverence came to be seen as a Western contamination, they had been an organic part of the Islam of the Indian subcontinent. Not an import, but, to use the academic's word, deeply emic.

It had produced men like the 18th-century poet Mir Taqi Mir who wrote: "You ask Mir of faith? Why, he has sat in a temple, drawn a tilak across his brow, he forsook Islam an age ago!"

There was the Delhi poet, Dagh, who about to embrace his lover, wrote: "The muezzin has sounded the call to prayer. Ah, the wretch! He found this time of all times to remember God."

Or this, from Ghalib, the greatest of all Urdu poets: "For God's sake, do not draw the curtain from in front of the Kaba, I could not bear that here, too, I should find another heathen lover."

One has only to wonder what would happen to men like these in the Pakistan of today! Perhaps they would be declared inauthentic too.

The world of these poets became, in the twentieth century, the world that produced my father. My grandfather had been a poet; my father grew up among the poets; and when his father died, he was raised, in part, by another poet: his Marxist uncle, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Faiz, like my father, was that now most endangered of endangered creatures: the atheist Muslim. A man, who though not religious, was nonetheless steeped in the culture of Indian Islam; an unbeliever, yes; but, by no means, deracinated.

I had also, in Delhi, grown up around men like this; and if I wrote about them in my book, and counted my father among their ranks, it was because I believed they represented a certain intellectual and cultural self-confidence.

But as much as this was true, it was also true that this kind of man had, in our time, all but disappeared. More and more, we were left with people who were neither part of the faith nor its culture, the truly deracinated, as it were; or else, those for whom the faith was all. In a world of ever sharper polarities, the cultural Muslim, around till just the other day, had been edged out; he was, in some respects, the supreme casualty of the age.

And as I discovered what was being done to my book in Pakistan, it was this person, more than any other, that I found myself mourning the loss of. For, without him, the world, now for a long time to come, would be unsafe for books.

Not just for mine; but for all books, save one.

Stranger to History ($16) is published by Graywolf.