Page last updated at 12:05 GMT, Saturday, 8 November 2008

Rise of the zealots in Pakistan

Returning to Karachi after many years abroad, Mohammed Hanif reflects on how religion now appears to be dominating life in the country.

(File photo) Pro-Taleban supporters in Karachi demonstrate against airstrikes in Afganistan in 2001
Some in Pakistan supported the Taleban when they ruled Afghanistan
Twelve years ago, just before I left Pakistan to work for the BBC in London, an old friend from school tried to recruit me into a militant anti-Shia organisation.

After dropping out from high school, Zulfikar Ahmad had started a motorcycle garage in my native city in central Punjab, and joined one of the sectarian organisations that were flourishing in the area.

We had a heated discussion over his politics and I reminded him of a number of common friends who were Shias and were as good or bad Muslims as any of our other classmates.

Visibly unconvinced, Zulfikar gave up on me and wished me luck for my life in London.

His attempt at converting me was one of the many signs of religious intolerance creeping into our lives.

Most people had secular pastimes, like watching soap operas on TV and placing small bets on cricket matches
The Taleban ruled neighbouring Afghanistan and a number of middle-class Pakistanis, while enjoying the relative freedoms of a fledgling democracy, hankered for a more puritanical, Taleban-style government.

But these zealots, despite their high profile, remained marginal in society as religion was a personal affair, not something you discussed in your drawing room.

A minority went regularly to the mosques, another minority opened a bottle of something in the evening, but most people had secular pastimes, like watching soap operas on TV and placing small bets on cricket matches.

Religious ubiquity

As I moved back to Pakistan last month, I was overwhelmed by the all-pervasive religious symbols in public spaces, and the theocratic debates raging in the independent media, as well as in the homes of friends and relatives.

Graffiti on walls in Karachi, my adopted home city, calls for jihad. Adverts for luxury Umrah pilgrimages are omnipresent.

Mobile phone companies offer calls to prayer as ringtones, and religious sermons as free downloads
And for those who cannot afford to go all the way to Mecca, neighbourhood mosques offer a series of regular lectures and special prayer sessions.

I went to a Nike store, and it was no different from any such store in any part of the world: expensive shiny sneakers and branded football shirts. But in the background, instead of the expected pumping dance music, recitations from the Koran were being played.

The multinational companies, sensing the mood of the people, have included religious messages in their marketing campaigns.

Mobile phone companies offer calls to prayer as ringtones, and religious sermons as free downloads.

During the month of Ramadan some international banks were giving their preferred clients fancy boxes containing rosaries, dates and miniature Korans.

Progressive teachings

During the Eid holidays I attended prayers at the mosque which is managed by some of my own family members.

Muslims pray outside a mosque in Karachi (Photo: Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images)
In Pakistan, an estimated 95% of the population is Muslim
They are very weary of radical mullahs and have appointed an imam who is from this region but spent most of his youth in the British city of Birmingham.

His sermon was probably the most progressive I have ever heard. He advised his male congregation that they must share the household work with their women.

He gave examples from Prophet Muhammad's life saying that he used to clean his own room even when he had more than one wife.

"You must attend to your stock yourself. It doesn't matter if you have servants, feed your buffaloes," he said.

I looked around in amusement, trying to imagine these men steeped in centuries of male chauvinistic tradition, going home to do the dishes.

Rising intolerance

My old friend Zulfikar still sports a long flowing beard, but his conversation is peppered with Punjabi expletives which I found quite refreshing among the wall-to-wall piety.

Women in Karachi protesting against US air strikes in Pakistan (Photo: Rizwan Tabassum/AFP/Getty Images )
Relations with the US have become strained in recent months
I have left all that jihad against Shia business behind," he told me. "I have college-going daughters now.

"Bringing up children in these times is a full-time jihad."

He told me that he was worried about the others: "I look as if I am a Taleban supporter but I am not.

"But these clean-shaven people you see here," he pointed to some clients and workers at his garage, "inside they are all Taleban."

He explained that with Pakistan coming under repeated US attacks, even people who have voted for moderate political parties were now looking towards the Taleban for deliverance.

Critics fight back

I was also puzzled at my own reactions: why do these overt symbols of religion bother me when I myself grew up in a family where prayers, the Koran, and rosaries were part of everyday life.

Map of Pakistan and India
One reason could be that the kind of religion I grew up with was never associated with suicide bombings and philosophies of world domination.

Religion was something you practiced on your own, between meals and going to school.

Maybe people are just buying into the symbolism as a way of expressing their defiance towards the Pakistan government's policies which many of them see as a mere extension of those of the US.

But there are others who continue to fight against these trends.

During my first week in Karachi there were three stage plays in Karachi's main auditorium, all highly critical of the prevalent religious zealotry.

Or maybe, like most other expats, I just hanker for those good old days when saints and sinners, believers and sceptics, preachers and their bored victims could live side by side, without killing each other.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 8 November, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
Country profile: Pakistan
07 Nov 08 |  Country profiles

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