Monday, July 23, 2012

A Profane Spirituality


Maryam Sakeenah

Pakistani private television channels glamorously sport sensational televangelists to satiate the public appetite for spirituality amidst tawdry entertainment galore. The trend rockets in Ramadan when popular media faces don sobriety in cotton shalwar kameezes of subdued hues, skull caps and most alluring beaded scarves and chiffon dupattas. It sells.

This year once again we have on screen with all his guns blazing one of these popular televangelists known for his versatile talents in speaking, singing, making dramatic invocations and tear-stained supplications as well as skills one cannot mention at the family dinner table. The latter came to light in a leaked video that had recorded this ‘aalim’s behind-the-camera antics and escapades. There was great shock and horror at this most dramatic volte face from a simple-minded populace that loves hero-worship. The wiser ones chuckled, saying, ‘I told you so.’ The 'aalim' carried on with classic composure, invoking divine retribution for the liars behind the scandal in his usual flowery and flamboyant language. The dexterous televangelist  carries on with his repulsively seductive religious rhetoric aimed at the simplistic mass mindset.

Notwithstanding the public humiliation he underwent and the aggravated sentiment of his massive fan-following (largely female), the aalim stuck to his guns and emerged unscathed. There you have it- the aalim graces the screen of Pakistan’s most popular private television channel this Ramadan with an unbelievable audacity. In your face. What adds a flabbergasting twist to the tale is the fact that the earlier video had been allegedly publicized on youtube and elsewhere by this very channel which now advertises his program as its Ramadan highlight. The channel also must be credited with putting up this ignoramus of abysmal moral standing and dubious background as an 'aalim' before the Pakistani public in the first place. After his metamorphosis into an ‘Aalim Online’ thanks to this channel, the so-called aalim reappeared on a similar evangelical show on another channel having quit his mentors in the previous one. That is when appalling off-camera clips from his programs recorded for the first channel went viral. In a mind-boggling move, the aalim returns to this channel he had quit, reaffirming his loyalties and once again using his odious eloquence to seduce gullible minds.

The entire episode reeks of a most worrying and dangerous trend in Pakistani society. The commercialization of the mass media has taken a heavy toll on our most sacred values, marketizing the sacred, commodifying spirituality. Religion too is to be sold, like soap or whitening creams or cheap powder. It is embellished with a deliberate spirituality calculated to keep the viewer glued to the screen, packaged under brand names, presented by alluring faces in lighter shades of lipstick framed by an oceanic-blue-green or pristine white sequined scarf. For a more dramatic touch, the camera captures a little tear droplet streaming down the lightly painted face at the precise time when the camera zooms in. It is a winning advert- sure to guarantee a sizeable viewership of semi-literate housewives from all over the country.

The ethos of Islamic culture is simplicity. Spiritual practice is an intensely private matter, and when it is brazenly flaunted by exhibitionists it loses all sanctity. The individual’s faith is a matter between him and his Creator, and humility is the defining trait of the believer. Religiosity dripping from phony appearances, hairy faces appropriate for the occasion, titles, headgear exposes the emptiness, superficiality and hypocrisy of the trade. According to a hadith, ‘Allah does not look at your appearances, but He looks into your hearts.’

The Pakistani media has reached the lowest point of depravity with this marketization of spirituality. It steers directionless, blinded by the commercialist and competitive imperative, leading a nation wired into the matrix, frozen into a hypnotic trance like sleepwalking starry-eyed zombies.

The artifice, pretentiousness and even shameless hypocrisy of it all is a damning verdict on our collective morality as a society. I fear for the generation that grows up in and is socialized into this morass of values. When the persona of the 'religious scholar' is tarnished with debauchery, hypocrisy and showmanship; when spirituality is worn and flaunted for appropriacy according to the occasion; when our most sacred values are presented in such blatantly superficial and distasteful ways, I shudder to think of what we are dwindling into as a society and a nation, what papier mache ‘role models’ and inspiration we are leaving behind for our children.