x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Power to the media mullahs

A new breed of religious scholar is fast achieving influence in Pakistan but some fear their wagging fingers are supporting the Taliban.

A camera films Dr Israr Ahmed as he delivers a speech at a mosque in Lahore.
A camera films Dr Israr Ahmed as he delivers a speech at a mosque in Lahore.

LAHORE // Mullahs or maulvis, terms often used in Pakistan to describe religious scholars, have never been titles of reverence - at least not until a couple of years ago. Most maulvis still live in rundown houses in lower to middle-class neighbourhoods, with strict partitions for women and men. On incomes as low as 10,000 Pakistani rupees (Dh450) a year, these bearded men cycle, or ride motorbikes, around town to impart religious education to children.

In terms of social stature, most maulvis fall into the same category as the postman or milkman. "The regular mullah is tolerated but not revered," said Asadullah Ghalib, a Lahore-based newspaper columnist, who writes for The Daily Express. "He is someone people go to in the event of a birth, a funeral or a wedding but not a person whose counsel is sought." But in the past couple of years, the neighbourhood mullah, who was known by name only to the handful of worshippers who would regularly drop into his mosque, has given way to the entrepreneur mullah, the entertainer mullah and the power mullah.

In terms of rank and influence, this new breed is fast achieving the fame due to rock-stars and the influence of politicians, yet despite the popularity, Islamic parties traditionally do badly in Pakistani elections, taking no more than five per cent of the vote. They hog airwaves, thunder out sermons on FM radio, sell DVDs and CDs by the thousands, drive around with armed body guards in SUVs and afford an arsenal of employees.

"In Karachi, there are frequent warnings that the Taliban are headed this way," Mohammed Hanif wrote in Newsline, a monthly current affairs magazine in Pakistan. "But nobody seems to warn us about the preachers who are already here: the ones wagging their fingers on TV always tend to precede the ones waving their guns, smashing those TVs and bombing poor barbers." As the army battles the Pakistani Taliban in Swat valley and other parts of the North-West Frontier Province, a different and more telling battle is being fought in mainland Pakistan - in cities such as Lahore and Karachi.

What were once centres of music, fashion and Sufi Islam are now becoming symbols of extremism. Last month in Lahore, women studying at an elite college were threatened on the streets and told to cover-up by men. In Karachi, fashion shows and similar events have come to a screeching halt while attendance at Quranic study sessions is swelling. "As the mullah has become more powerful, more people have started revering his word and following him when he talks about the need for jihad and Sharia," said Khalid Hassan, a sociologist. "This is breeding intolerance in societies at large and especially in previously cosmopolitan cities like Lahore and Karachi."

What has stunned commentators both abroad and in Pakistan is how little condemnation of terrorist attacks there has been from the public. "Where are the liberals, the humanists, the outraged?" said Yusuf Bashir, a social commentator in Karachi. "They have either been converted by the power mullahs or been silenced due to their minority." The Swat valley provides an ideal example of the dangers associated with allowing power mullahs to run amok on FM radios.

For decades the valley was renowned for the hospitality of its residents and their secular ideals: enter Maulana Fazlullah and his incendiary radio commentaries and Talibanisation began gaining support among the public. "A similar phenomenon can be observed in other cities," said Rafique Khan, a sociologist. "The evangelist mullah is trying to convince all that the salvation of the public lies in them adhering to his commandments: once he has them convinced of this fact, it's a small jump to turning the public into a support group for Talibanisation."

Lahore's own Fazlullah would be Dr Israr Ahmed, a 77-year-old mullah, whose name is revered across the country and who has a waiting list of about two weeks if someone desires a private conference with him. Out of the thousands who are eager to meet him, touch his clothes and hear his point of view, only a chosen few get the privilege. The rest simply flock to see him deliver a sermon, or donate generously to his religious organisation. No one questions where the money goes.

His lectures are standing-room-only and are generously sprinkled with references to anti-Americanism and the need for imposing Sharia in Pakistan. At a recent Friday sermon where hundreds of men gathered to hear him talk, he thundered: "No man of conscience will rest until Sharia has been imposed in Pakistan. No country in the world is truly an Islamic state today and Pakistan has to set an example. It is up to us - Muslims and residents of this country - to ensure that the government is given no choice but to impose Sharia. Don't rest until Sharia is imposed."

After the sermon - which lasted more than 45 minutes - he was rushed to a waiting car, flanked by bodyguards, and sped off to a television lecture he was due to deliver. In the fifth row at Dr Ahmed's sermon sat Saifullah Khan, 30, who tries to never miss one of the power mullah's lectures. He stroked his beard which he only started to grow after he heard Dr Ahmed's lecture on it. "He has been a huge influence on my life," he said. "Now my wife wears a burqa and also listens to his sermons on tapes. We are trying to live our lives the way he thinks we should."

Ali Haq, 40, and father of two, is also a regular at Dr Ahmed's sermons. He agrees with his mullah that Sharia law is the only option for Pakistan. "I believe we need to have true and proper Islamic law in this country and sacrifices will need to be made in this regard," he said, adding that bombing of theatres was justified. "So many many commitments," said Dr Ahmed, when he was finally tracked down at the office of Tanzeem-i-Islami, an Islamic education organisation which he founded.

Dr Ahmed claims to have more than 10,000 followers who will act in whatever manner he tells them to. "But I don't preach violence, at least not yet," he said, smiling. "I just want the government to realise that the public wants no system other than Sharia and so they should impose it sooner rather than later." Dr Ahmed is delighted at the increasing influence mullahs are wielding in Pakistan, but believes they need to organise better.

"We are operating like headless chickens without a leader," he said. "We need to have one enlightened and educated man we can all obey." Not too far from Dr Ahmed's office is a neighbourhood mosque managed by Maulvi Mohammed Siddiq Waqar, 47, who has also recently been given a slot on cable television. Although less than 100 people show up for his Friday sermons, Mr Waqar is trying to gain supporters by styling himself as the next Dr Ahmed.

"I listen to all recordings of his sermons and gain knowledge from them," said Mr Waqar. "I want to help him and his followers bring Sharia to Pakistan. That's our aim and that is what we will do, at whatever price. "The Taliban are actually good people - they have the correct ideas - but our government is too pro-America. Insha Allah thanks to people like Maulvi Israr Ahmed we will win." * The National