I was at my biweekly Urdu class before work with Dr. Safia at a fly and police-infested canteen next to my office. Batting away a fly from her left eye, her lip, her cup of tea, Dr. Safia turned her eyes slowly to me. She gave me the stern look that a discontent anthropologist gives paying students when she wants to scuttle off for a cigarette and spend the rest of the day in the depths of her own mind. She pointed to an adolescent with a fluffy beard. “Speak to that one. He will give you good practice.”
I invited the adolescent to sit with us. As it turned out, he was managing the canteen for his father.
“What is your name?” I asked.
“My name is Osama.”
“And what do you want to do when you grow up?”
“To make people do good.”
I became excited. “Me too. That’s why I’m working for women’s rights. What do you want to do? Do you want to become a policeman? A judge? A human-rights lawyer?”
Dr. Safia, catching Osama’s drift, interrupted. “He wants to be a preacher.”
“Yes,” affirmed Osama in English, betraying a shy smile.
“Well, how will you make people do good?”
“I will make them pray.”
“And what if they don’t want to?”
“Well, I’ll be a big man. I’ll be an engineer. And I’ll make them.”
He looked at me as if I should know.
“Will you beat them if they don’t listen to you?” asked Dr Safia, helpfully.
From that point on, Osama became my project.
To start with, I contradicted his notions of right and wrong by using the Qur’an as the common basis for morality. I took him to an exhibition of handicrafts produced by women from all over South Asia, organised by my employer, showing him the economic potential of women. I gifted him a book, like a good women’s rights activist: What is a girl, what is a boy?, questioning gender norms. I had him spend time with my Turkish girlfriend. We watched the movie Osama together at my house, about a girl struggling to help herself and her mother survive in a pre-9/11 Taliban-governed Afghanistan. The following morning he told me, “People should leave others alone. If they don’t wish to do something, they shouldn’t be forced to.”
The source of Osama’s misunderstanding of Islam wasn’t Islam – he hadn’t learnt what he had in the Qur’an. I suspected its provenance lay in violent secular culture. My evening pupils in a Christian mohallah, afterall, hand me a heavy metal rod with which to beat their siblings every time they speak in Punjabi.
While Osama may have been a liability to society when we met, he didn’t remain so. Nurtured the right way, his like – young men ready to devote themselves to the good of society, inspired by the selfless teachings of Islam – are what Pakistan desperately needs to develop, and to counter selfishness, greed and corruption. In Tanzania, the NGO Care International used Islamic principles to encourage Muslim fishermen to use more environmentally-friendly and sustainable fishing methods. The result was that the fishermen’s catches increased, and they felt like more committed Muslims as well.
Later in the week we enjoyed each other’s company as we lost ourselves in dream worlds created by the Sufi qawwals sung by Rustam Fateh Ali Khan.