Face of Moderation

The following editorial appeared in 17 July edition of The Express Tribune.

We all have something to say. Whether it’s suggesting there’s no place for it in modern day society or inherited convictions about necessity of organised religion, most of us want to get our two-bits in. The alarming factor though is the all-or-none phenomenon with which the majority approach religion now. To lessen the hold of hard-liners such as the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Ahle Hadith, came the Al Huda foundation, established in 1994 by Dr Farhat Hashmi wielding a specifically moulded version of religion. Sixteen years on and countless charities, a TV channel and educational centres in the UK, US and Canada later, they offer everything — from how to raise your children, to what ayats to recite, to why hijab is necessary in a neatly packed programme  — guaranteed to turn you into a good Muslim. Why the Al Huda ideology has gained immense popularity in Pakistan is hard to quantify. But it could be attributed to the mass exodus of semi-qualified and unskilled labour to the Middle East made the import of the Arabised version of Islam back into Pakistan. Also if the choice is between the alien liberal lifestyles and Talibanised Islam, I suppose one can see why some of the affluent and the middle classes would look to the likes of Al Huda to fill the vacuum.

Not too long ago, Zaid Hamid with his fetching visage caught the eye of the many young Pakistanis, inspiring pop stars and designers to endorse his particular brand of inaccurate conspiracy theories which blame RAW, Mossad and Blackwater as the root causes of all our problems. Ivy League graduates are running madressahs in Karachi, doctors are arranging majalis in Islamabad, educationists who read Tolstoy and enjoy Indian classical music are writing songs and stories to inspire children to be good Muslims in Lahore while investment bankers applaud the veracity of Zaid Hamid’s theories on weekends. These trends reveal a lot about the state of our society and where it is heading.

Hashmi has been termed as the “rich man’s preacher” because the argument goes that some may find it easier to be spoon-fed religion than to find it themselves.  On the other hand, Pakistan’s evangelist Zaid Hamid is not only fighting his mysterious past but also tackling allegations by peers in the blogosphere pertaining to his university days. Previously heavily-endorsed Hamid who appeared on our TV screens distracting us from the fury of the mullahs in the wake of the Lal Masjid fiasco, has now shrunk back into oblivion.

When a teacher from the Al Huda academy in Boston was charged with conspiring to kill American soldiers and politicians in October 2009, sceptics raised their eyebrows in a “we knew all along it was just another front for militancy” manner. Nonetheless, the world over, moderation seems to be in fashion as the novelty of the conspiracy-laden, hatred-fuelling condemnations and orthodox interpretation of religion wear off. Egypt’s Al Azhar is now launching a multi-lingual ‘moderate’ Islamic channel to capture the masses, particularly the attention of young people. Maybe it is time for a new face in Pakistan as well. Someone who can provide religious rhetoric that the Star Plus audience needs, but in a manner that presents a truly moderate face of faith.

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