Junaid Jamshed had it good in Pakistan. For more than a decade he made Pakistanis of all ages dance to his tunes and voice. And when he decided to turn overtly religious, he was doing commercially well. In a Pakistan where the market-based economy defines the media’s interests, he could be sold to the public easily — precisely because he already had an established market. Here was a man who used to be on the ‘other’ side and then he realised how meaningless a life without embracing religion was.
The media did not need to sell him. He was famous because he was Junaid Jamshed of Vital Signs. He was now just striking a different chord in Pakistan, i.e. Islam — and one that resonates even more deeply than Dil Dil Pakistan. In this way, he joined the Inzamams, the Imrans and the Saeed Anwars in enhancing his market reach: rising to prominence through a talent and then using religion to cement commercial and/or political viability.
It soon became clear that Junaid Jamshed understood what he needed to sell. Being a ‘born again Muslim’ was not enough, since the market for religion rewards the ultra-conservative even more. His patriarchal views about women and driving, as well as advising men to never let their wives leave the house, were not the random ramblings of someone. These were carefully crafted stances to increase his appeal to the conservatives. Maybe at times he felt that the conservative Muslims’ market saw him as a ‘burger bacha’, i.e. an outsider now trying to make it big in a place where the faithful had invested much more than him. Hence he was always going the extra mile to appease the right-wing. Did he care that he insulted women and their intelligence in the process? Absolutely not. But there was good reason for not caring. The women were not his market. Without prejudice to the morality of his actions, he was being a rational economic actor — or so he thought.
Insult women on TV and all you get are a few Facebook posts. And maybe the lack of accountability for repulsive views emboldened someone in the position of Junaid Jamshed. He thought he could be as informal or irreverent as he wanted — since he had the market on his side. Little did he know.
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The violent reaction to his comments regarding the wives of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) reveals a lot about Pakistani society. As I have written before, blasphemy or even the allegation of it in this country destroys your life. A lot of people were initially unsure whether it was blasphemy or just irresponsible speech that hurt the sentiments of many Muslims. But such was the fear, and the threats from the conservatives added to this, that even his intellectual and commercial partners immediately distanced themselves from him. It is now reported that he has left Pakistan and will probably not return in the foreseeable future.
It was sad to see the reaction of many liberals in Pakistan to Junaid Jamshed’s plight. Many mistakenly assumed that he was being threatened because of his patriarchal stances. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was being hounded because in the eyes of those who wield the power to wreck violence he had committed blasphemy. Whether or not the charges of blasphemy are true is for the law to determine. However, what was and remains true is that the threat of violence by private non-state actors caused Junaid Jamshed to fear for his life. In this vein, anyone celebrating the threat of violence against him is in effect celebrating the mindset that has shed so much unnecessary blood in Pakistan in the name of religion.
Junaid Jamshed might have been the representative of a mindset that is repulsive in its own — considering its lack of regard and respect for women and other marginalised groups in society. But this does not mean that we completely ignore the intellectual and physical violence being perpetrated against individuals accused of blasphemy.
Of course Junaid Jamshed should have known better. He should not have pushed the wrong buttons of his market. He was doing well enough by appeasing his market and did not need to invite violence. This is not meant to endorse any of his positions but merely to explain where he went so terribly wrong. However, success (whether morally appealing or not) reaps its own victims. The lack of accountability made him think that he could get away with anything. And he felt that he was such an accepted commodity in the market that his credibility was beyond challenge.
What Junaid Jamshed said about women as well as the holy personalities was wrong. It was needless and irresponsible. However, we must retain a nuanced approach to such matters. This is essential to ensure that we remain cognizant of the distinction between repulsive conduct and the way it should be punished.
Junaid Jamshed faced no legal process. He ran away not because of popular sentiment or pressure or because of the threats of legal process. He had to run for his life—literally—and only because of the threat of violence from non-state actors. No one deserves that. And in our attempt to further the discourse protecting women and other marginalised communities, we must not forget this.