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December '06: On Living Room Seminaries

Individualland spotlight is a monthly monitor on political affairs printed on the 17th of every month by individualland.com. Individualland would welcome reproduction & dissemination of the contents of this report after proper acknowledgment.

On Living Room Seminaries
(December 2006)

In the recent past, citizens have witnessed a phenomenal rise of the popularity of religious organizations like the Al-Huda which preaches a narrow brand of Islam. For the December issue of individu-spotlight, we wanted to focus on Al-Huda in an attempt to understand the reasons of it's phenomenal popularity and the implications that this might have for Pakistani society and Diaspora. Individualland is grateful to Dr. Aneela Zeb Babar who has extensively studied the Al Huda phenomena, for sharing her thoughts in this indivdualland spotlight.

The meteoric rise of Farhat Hashmi and Al-Huda and the organization's project to build a base in the professional, urban, and upper middle class Pakistani groups has confused the traditional as well as the modernist/secular groups in the Pakistani community. As Google (2002). study of Islamists in Turkey shows, though these groups are in an oppositional political struggle with the modern secularists, they often mirror them and search for public representatives who speak foreign languages and belong to the professional and intellectual elite. This was reflected in Al-Huda's move to recruit students who belonged to such backgrounds.

Al-Huda on its part concerns many in Pakistan and beyond, finding as they do, advocacy material for it in the offices of controversial organizations like the Jamat-ud-Dawa. For instance the website for Jamat-ud-Dawa offers a hyperlink to Al-Huda's and Al-Huda reciprocates this by promoting Jamat-ud-Dawa through its electronic resources. At this stage there is no evidence of any other inter-relationships between the two organizations that can worry authorities. At best one can deduce that the 'good Muslim technocrats' (male) that Jamat-ud-Dawa produce need a cadre of 'good Muslim', skilled professional women to compliment their project. I see here strains of the 'Home Economics school' project that the British introduced to South Asia, so that the 'local elite' could return to a household where the woman of the house had been socialized to repeat the colonial project.

In the case of Pakistan the encounter of the Pakistani 'home' with modernization has been as Bhattacharjee (1997) explored elsewhere for diaspora communities, ambiguous and fragile, fraught with tensions, and marked by contradictory patterns. Saigol (1995) witnesses the development of modern social classes that coexist, often uneasily, with more traditional groups setting up a situation of disparity and disaffection that then underlies calls for moral and cultural renewal, including the privatization of women's roles:

The influx of the rural population into urban areas brings new ideologies and new ways of being. A large number of rural jobless youth constitutes the increasing numbers of the urban poor. Armed with their deeply religious world view, they are often attracted to the Islamic fundamentalist parties like the Jammat-e-Islami. The commercial, consumerist, Westernized and, in their view depraved, morality of the cities, inclines them to react against everything perceived as Westernization and modernization. The city represents moral degradation, loss of cultural values and spiritual emptiness. The fundamentalist call to return to a state of Islamic purity and clean moral values, appeals to them (Saigol, 1995:86).

This is what I have witnessed in Pakistani diasporic communities and how I explain the attraction of organizations like the Jamat-ud-Dawa and Al-Huda for the 'new arrivals' in Pakistani cities and overseas. If one has to study the appeal of such organizations, it would be by studying the negotiated power struggles of a new Pakistani generation as it gradually negotiates class and spatial politics. They are conscious of their exclusion from certain networks dominated by the 'social elite' of Pakistan and Pakistani communities overseas and they struggle to find their own support structures.

Pakistani women living in the diaspora, Muslim and non-Muslim, are born into certain social structures, into families who have 'certain being' or 'non-being'. With the pressures of leading their lives in the diaspora and the perceived quest to acquire the 'desired stage/status' where they can be recognized and gain distinction within the community, the women negotiate with other entry points to the power circles. If the currency in Islamabad and their host cities is exhibiting a certain flavour of Islam, then that is what is pursued fervently.

The Pakistani communities in these cities explore the spectrum of 'visiting religious voices' to resolve their dilemma for acquiring or maintaining the 'desired status of recognition' in their respective communities. For women in the communities I had looked at, there was a growing influence of scholars like Riffat Hassan and Farhat Hashmi-both wanted women to go back to the religious texts but the goals for both are different. Hassan wants us to negotiate our voices in the text, to challenge the 'masculinist' interpretations circulating about while Hashmi wants us to use the texts to reconcile what is designated to us. With Hashmi you stop mourning the shrinking of possibilities, the unrealization of self and are content with your lot. Any angst at the growing realization of the inequality of distribution of resources in Pakistani society and the gendered reality of the community and family is suppressed by the inequality of desire for change among her readers now.

On my field visits to Al-Huda's campus in Islamabad I grew to realize that her organization and the growing evangelist missions in the diaspora were moving towards conversions intra-Pakistan and the Pakistani diaspora. For them, the faithful have to return to the realm and comprehend the true message rather than introducing their 'true message of Islam' as they put it to communities other than Pakistani Muslim.

Al-Huda differs from other religious networks in the Pakistani diaspora in that it is reflective of a particular 'women's world' that is purely mediated, organized, targeted towards and funded by women's contributions. Farhat Hashmi and Al-Huda as an organization could be sustained by the support structures they have formed in the Pakistani diaspora, even if they lost their current popularity in Pakistan. What had started in the Pakistani cities of Karachi and Islamabad had been taken over by the networks maintained by Al-Huda students globally. Over the years the organization has managed to fashion, amongst other developments, a set of psychological devices about self-empowerment in Pakistani women where they could 'make themselves at home' anywhere in the Pakistani diaspora in unfamiliar as well as familiar surroundings. They could be at home without perhaps even knowing the language or the culture of the host community-as long as they could have access to Al-Huda resources.

It was at Hashmi's campus that I was introduced to the groups of 'overseas students', young women from Pakistani families in Australia, UK and the United States who were participating in the 'summer programs' that offered diplomas in Islamic studies on completion. These women stayed mostly in the hostel accommodation provided on campus and maintained the strong networks developed in Islamabad on their return to families. It is these networks that form the basis of the transnational web of Al-Huda's influence in Pakistani households in diasporic communities over the world. This was the theme I witnessed for myself in Canberra, Australia where the dars classes organized by former students and their extended families are attended diligently by women's congregations in Canberra's living rooms. They have kept their connections with Islamabad through the exchange of audio-cassettes containing Hashmi's lectures, the web-site maintained by her organization Al-Huda (which hosts audio- and print files of her lectures to be downloaded as well as a live 'web-cast' of AlHuda hosted lecture sessions in Lahore) and by following Hashmi's lecture sessions on satellite TV channels during Ramadan. Therefore even within the dars congregations I could witness a change in consumption of media (from the audio cassette lecture sessions in the living rooms to now virtual congregations).

The overseas Pakistani communities have witnessed the daughters and extended family of the dars organizers returning to the city after participating in the 'summer school' and 'diploma programs' organized by Al-Huda in Islamabad. The prospectus for the 'diploma course' offered by AlHuda quotes a Quranic verse:

And it was not important that all of the Faithful stood up but it might have happened that from every one of their communities rose and left to get an understanding of the Faith and returned to the inhabitants of their area to warn them so that they did not adopt non-Islamic attitudes and refrained from [such] activities (Surah Tobah: 122)

I was fascinated by how the organization could integrate a religious sanction into their transnational network by strategically using Quranic verses. The former student went on to explain that the value of the course and its basic aim was that it:

"Equipped us as Al-Huda states to create a Islamic character and attitude and such people whose knowledge and behaviour should not be for their own personalities but take it to any corner of the world, inside the house or outside, with our full effort and pure intention to better the lives of other people and this is only to gain Allah's goodwill. I liked it as they used modern audio, video aids and multi-media presentations so to make everything effective and interesting."

However, what is particular about Al-Huda's appeal to specific Pakistani communities? This question was imperative as we unpack the analytical moment of social geography and class for the Pakistani community in the diaspora. Why was it that Al-Huda appealed to particular 'living rooms' in Canberra, Australia and Dubai in the Middle East but not in Brunswick, New Jersey or Manchester, United Kingdom. Why was Al Huda overwhelming popular with the 'high ranking military officer wives' of Islamabad and the residents of certain suburbs in overseas communities? Issues of class, power and aspirations towards dominance of social networks is central to understanding the Al-Huda phenomenon and what is particular about the diasporic Pakistani community.

What Al Huda's supporters have in common is their need for a support system and their exclusion from certain networks traditionally dominated by 'old money'. Al-Huda tacitly acknowledged this particular community's 'moment of arrival'. Therefore the conversations in certain 'living room seminaries' revolve around exhibiting wealth and being seen as doing well for themselves, of consumer goods, designer kitchens and of affluence, any mention, or analysis of Pakistan's poverty or the needy is missing. Al-Huda is how particular families can network. These families are, as I interpret, a bourgeois group doing the 'right thing' (as mentioned earlier) by being part of this particular organization and attending the Al-Huda lecture sessions, and thus achieving what they perceive as social status.

The 'transnational gendered religious networks' had also struck at what Rahman has declared as the 'secularist clich�' that religion be 'relegated internally to the position of a private creed' and ritual, as 'being something merely between a man's heart and his God' (Rahman, 1984: 227-228). This brings me to what made me nervous about the congregations. That over time Al-Huda would enforce a 'uniform guide' to religious interpretation. Could Hashmi's lectures become the 'one truth fits all' that worries me about religious belonging in Pakistan today? Al-Huda students are moving away from the 'multiple dialects' of being Pakistani towards one that is a more Arab-inspired interpretation of Islam.

Dr.Aneela Zeb Babar has over the past ten years been involved with several non-governmental and international developmental agencies in South and South-East Asia. Her academic research work spans several diverse areas including studies of gender, migration, transnationalism, religion, multiculturalism and intercultural relations.



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