Of Beards & Butter

Last year 21-year-old Wasif Qureshi graduated from a local college in Karachi. He is a budding musician, has a band, a recently acquired day job (in an advertising agency) and dreams of traveling abroad to do his masters degree.

In what, I asked him? Advertising, Marketing, Economics, Music …?

“Islamic Studies,” said he.

I was obviously taken aback. Why on earth would he want to go to a European university to study Islam?

Wasif  was a bit surprised at my reaction: “Why are you so shocked?” he asked.  “Did you know Farhat Hashmi did her PhD in Islamic Studies from University of Glasgow in Scotland?”

I didn’t know that. But her name rolling out so profoundly from a 21-year-old young man made me realize how different this generation is. Especially compared to the one I belonged to. The one which danced in the streets of Karachi and Lahore at the demise of the Zia dictatorship and looked euphorically towards a more liberal, secular and democratic Pakistan.

Wasif is very much like Aman Akmal from Islamabad and Javed Ramey from Lahore.

Both are about to get themselves enrolled in a high profile university in Lahore. From there they want to get their MBA degrees and then join a foreign bank.   They  like designer brands, are hip about latest western trends, watch Hollywood and Bollywood movies with great interest, but will suddenly swing to the far sides of conservatism whenever talk of Islam, Koran, Bush or Osama props up.

After talking to these young men, I figured that the whole concept of contradiction (let alone hypocrisy), seems quite alien to this generation.

I also noticed that when you do point out the polar contradictions in what they enjoy and what they so seriously believe in, they will look at you as  someone who is either in denial or still stuck with “Marxism.” Funnily enough, on most occasions, they have absolutely no clue as to what Marxism really is, usually equating it with either atheism or just plain cynicism.

With very convincing American accents, even though none of them have ever been to the US,  each one of them said “capitalism is the only way a country’s economy can prosper.”

So I asked them, what about the “true spirit of Islam” they were talking about and the whole concept of the Welfare State in it?

“That’s Socialism!” Said Wasif.

“And what’s so problematic about Socialism?” I asked.

“It’s not Islamic,” he said, confidently.

Another interesting thing that I discovered about this group of young men, almost all of them had at least one close relative associated with an evangelical Islamic organization. The most prominent among these whose names kept coming up were, Farhat Hashmi’s Al-Huda, Baber Chaudary’s Al-Rheman-Al Rahim and the famous Tableeghi Jamaat in Raiwind.

Such organizations, even till the early 90s, were usually believed to be only  associated with the conservative petty-bourgeois, or the more religious among the alienated labor class.

But according to well known Urdu poet and learned Beralvi school follower,  Azm Behzad,  with the rise of the Taleban in 1995, various intelligence agencies  got involved in a “strategic” and “cultural” program designed to safe-guard Zia’s so-called “Islamization process” at the wake of liberal democracy in Pakistan.

He said the roots of this lie at the start of the Afghan civil war in 1979, when Zia  started putting more emphasis on promoting the more conservative, puritanical and orthodox strain of  the religion called “Deobandi Islam,” even though the majority in Pakistan still follow the more liberal and apolitical “Beralvi school of Islam.”

A conservative himself and once a Jamaat-e-Islami sympathizer, Azm Bhezad suggests that Zia’s emphasis on propagating the Deobandi thought was due to lack of enthusiasm shown by the Beralvi Islam followers for things like jihad and politics. .

The fall of Communism in 1991, and the sudden arrival of the social and cultural confusion generated by the capitalism-driven “globalization,” brought into question the place of a practicing Muslim Pakistani in such a scenario.

Not having a strong secular tradition (like Turkey), paranoia emerging from a feeling of contradiction surfaced. The question now was how to justify enjoying the material and amoral benefits of neo-capitalism and globalization and yet remain to be  a “good Muslim?”

According to Tariq Qadir, a former member of the Al-Rheman-Al-Rahim organization, the sole aim of brand new organizations such as the one he became a part of and Farhat Hashmi’s Al-Huda was “to take care of the anxiety pangs of people of the educated and modern classes who’d been attracted towards the more puritanical sides of Islam and were feeling uncomfortable about their life-styles clashing with their new-found beliefs.”

He said these classes were searching for “scholars” who’d tell them what they all wanted to hear. That “it is okay to enjoy the fruits of modernization and still be  a true Muslim.”

Tariq says, this in a way, justified religious hypocrisy.

“As the mullahs were encouraging a more brutal form of religious hypocrisy among the underclasses, these organizations are justifying a more sophisticated level of hypocrisy in the privileged classes,” Says Tariq.

Organizations like Al-Rheman-Al-Rahim, Al-Huda and the Tableeghi Jamaat not only got a boost (both financial and social), due to a sudden surge in their ranks of people belonging to the moneyed classes, but when, in the late 90s, a string of celebrities in the shape of pop musicians, actors and cricketers started to join, it almost became a trend among affluent young men and women to frequent lectures organized by these organizations.

Tariq began his “reborn” life by accompanying celebrities like Najam Shiraz, Salman Ahmed, Junaid Jamshed, Adnan Ali Agha and others to Al-Rheman Al-Rahim’s old headquarters on Tariq Road in Karachi.

“Most of them (the “converted celebrities”) began their transformation here (at Al-Rheman Al-Rahim), in the late 90s,” Tariq told me. “The lectures were attended mainly by modern young urbanites, both men and women. The older crowd from this class, especially women, preferred Farhat Hashmi’s Al-Huda organization.”

I asked Tariq, who also visited Raiwind (with Junaid Jamshed) for a Tableegi Jamaat gathering in 2001, weather the Jamaat’s message too was about a convoluted reconciliation between modern living and Islamic thought?

“Well at least its more moneyed and privileged members see it this way,” said Tariq. “It seems the Tableeghi Jamaat now feels it is important for them to get high profile celebrities. The Jamaat does not stop them from enjoying the goods of their professions, as long as they are good recruiters,” says Tariq.

But there is a clear contradiction in what these celebrities do and what they preach.

“Well that’s why these organizations are here for,” he said. “Becoming a part of them means getting an Islamic label while continuing to do things that have nothing to do with saadigi (austerity), or modesty!”

According to him, Imran Khan too was once tempted to join the Tableeghi Jamaat. “Basically he wanted to look for an informed Islamic justification for marrying a westerner and a Jew.”

A former Thareek-e-Insaaf member,Omar (last name withheld on request), agrees: “After unable to find a convincing point of view on his marriage with Jamaima from his visits to Raiwind, Imran consulted the charismatic late Islamic scholar, Dr. Malik Murtaza. It is him who  had the most influence on Imran’s transformation as a born again Muslim.”

Coming back to Tariq, now 31, I asked him what made him leave Al-Rheman Al-Rahim and then the Tableeghi Jamaat?

“Common sense,” he said, smiling. “I realized these organizations first spread  the feeling of guilt and anxiety in young people, and then afterwards spend time telling them it is okay to do what you do and still remain a candidate for a place in heaven. Why do you think Junaid Jamshed or Inzemam-ul-Haq or a young woman traveling with Farhat Hashmi,  appear so self-righteous and confidently religious and yet have not an iota of saadigi in their life styles?”

Ifat Nasreen, a passionate activist of the Womens Action Forum (WAF) in the 80s and now a mother of two teenage sons, summed up the situation with an air of resignation: “What is happening to to today’s young generation regarding religion is an outcome of what happened during the Zia regime. The process of institutionalizing religious hypocrisy that he started has now been strengthen by everyone from brutal jihadi organizations, to mullahs to even the organizations who are catering to the more well-to-do segments of society. But what can you expect from a society whose state and governments are all guilty of such hypocrisies?”

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