The “Islamic” answer to the Food Crisis

Tazeen Javed

While the Pakistani government has been organizing road shows in Dubai to shamelessly give away its farmland to foreign clients, the food crisis at home has reached new heights as even the most basic food items have become unaffordable for the vast majority of Pakistanis. The dire state of hunger and poverty of the Pakistani poor became glaringly visible on September 14th 2009, when 19 women were killed in a stampede at a charity event in Karachi where hundreds had gathered to obtain free flour. 25 more were reportedly injured in this terrible incident, which took place in the holy month of Ramadan.
Even more shocking was the way in which this tragedy was discussed by musician-turned-maulana, Junaid Jamshed, in an episode of Aalim Online on Geo TV. Aalim Online is a religious talk show hosted by Aamir Liaquat, the former Minister of State for Religious Affairs. Judging from the callers, the show seems to be especially popular in the poorer and lower-middle class sections of Pakistani society.

Among other things, Aamir Liaquat discussed the stampede incident and his guest Junaid Jamshed – the famed Vital Signs pop singer who is now an Islamic televangelist and owner of a posh clothing chain – came up with a very interesting theory about class differences, hunger, stampede, self-respect and religion.

According to Mr. Junaid Jamshed, it is ok if rich Muslims do not follow religious precepts. But if poor Muslims let go of sacred religious teachings, the whole society would collapse. Junaid Jamshed repeatedly made references to “Ghareeb ka Imaan” (poor people’s faith) and “Ameer ka Imaan” (rich people’s faith), as if different levels of faith and piety have been prescribed for different classes. He went on to say that when poor people embrace the true values of Islam, they are endowed with the gift of self-respect, restraint, and integrity. His theory was that even if people are poor and hungry, they should be patient and cultivate self-respect through following Islamic teachings. This will prevent them from begging, and consequently, they will be saved from the possibility of stampedes. Around minute 16.17 in the video, Junaid Jamshed further said that if poor people just practice restraint and stay hungry for three days, Allah will take the responsibility for providing food for them for one whole year. He goes on to suggest – almost out of anger at the poor, needy masses – that this is an easier and more respectable way to deal with hunger, and it is better to die than to seek charity food to fill stomachs. If all this was not enough, he also added that when poor people beg and go kill themselves in their struggle for food, they also make us – the elite and proper Muslims of Pakistanis – look “zaleel” (disgraced) in the eyes of the world.

This is ironic and wretched beyond belief.  A man who probably never had to stay hungry or see his kids hungry and charges Rs. 2000 for a shalwar (loose Pakistani trousers) in his clothing store, is preaching hungry and poor people about self-respect and telling them that they are going against Islam by trying to seek free food. He is completely oblivious to the fact that such self-respect and integrity are luxuries that only the rich can afford, not those who are suffering from chronic poverty and hunger. Imagine what would have been his and his ilk’s reaction had they been suffering from lack of food? I am not sure what I find more offensive when watching him explicate his theory: his obvious, elitist aversion to the poor themselves instead of anger at the conditions that have produced their poverty, or his presumptuous use of Islamic discourse to dismiss the severity of the very real problems of hunger faced by the country’s masses. 

Not only did Junaid Jamshed blame the victims of the stampede for their eventual death, he was also annoyed at the beggars who knock on his car windows for alms and blamed them for making the likes of him more indifferent to their plight through such constant haranguing. While I too wish I did not have to face beggars, one has to mobilize to do something about the poverty and structural injustices that are producing the problem of begging and hunger, instead of talking about the poor and needy with disgust and blaming them for making our elite lives oh so uncomfortable.

According to the World Food Program, 24 per cent of the population of Pakistan is under-nourished and 38 per cent of Pakistani children under the age of five are under weight. It calls the state of hunger in Pakistan “alarming.” Should we debate and organize to address this problem, by discussing for example issues of access to land, livelihood, and food, or should we take the Islamic advice of Junaid Jamshed to heart, and just sit around in self-restraint, allowing the situation of hunger to exacerbate further?

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