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Misplaced Jest

by Benazir Shah

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In conversation with Junaid Jamshed, cultural lightning rod.

Junaid Jamshed became a household name in the 1990s as lead singer of Vital Signs, Pakistan’s wildly popular boy band. In recent years, the former heartthrob has reinvented himself as a born-again Muslim, televangelist, entrepreneur, and a central figure in the country’s culture wars. Late last year, he was forced into self-exile following his double-take comments on women—including the youngest wife of Islam’s Prophet—which had many crying blasphemy. Jamshed is back in Pakistan and back on TV screens. We spoke with him recently about his views on women, his public feuds, and more. Excerpts:

You spent eight months in London after you were accused of blasphemy. How difficult was the decision to finally come home?

I returned in July for the Ramzan transmission of a show I cohost. Security wasn’t the only reason I stayed out of the country for this long. My elders had advised me not to come back. They did not want me to be a reason for clashes between the Muslim Ummah. Recently, however, they sat me down and told me to take God’s name, pack up, and come home. And here I am back in Karachi. Everything is fine. What is even more amazing is that I never realized how much people love me. That love has increased tenfold because of how I handled the controversy. People respect me more now. There are groups in Pakistan whose entire purpose of existence is to pit people against each other. Such people have no beliefs. They can call themselves Deobandi, Barelvi or Shia but they are all lying to gain fame. These people don’t even know the basic verses of the Holy Quran. Who are they to accuse me of blasphemy? I could have retaliated against their accusations. I could have exposed these people. I could have taken them to court, and I could have even come out on the streets. But that is not the way of my Prophet.

The Sunni Tehreek held several rallies in Karachi last year calling for your arrest. How have they responded to your return?

It was a personal dispute. The controversy had nothing to do with religion. There were paid hooligans within the Sunni Tehreek who took to the streets [against me]. The Tehreek backed out as soon as I returned. There are a few people in Pakistan who are against me as well as against my organization’s [Tablighi Jamaat] stand on extremism. I frighten these people. We have made a concerted effort to unite Muslims of various sects. In my television programs, I have had Shia, Sunni and Barelvi [Muslims] praying together, side by side.

Televangelist Aamir Liaquat Hussain also berated you on live television.

He has a personal enmity with me. His fame is dissipating. People are no longer interested in watching his absurd antics on television. I have a religious background while Hussain has no religious qualifications. My show is watched not because I am Junaid Jamshed but because of my understanding of Islam. I have always believed in forgiving those who attack me, and after he made those derogatory comments about me, I phoned him. I asked him why he spoke that way about my mother. He began to stutter and promised to take back his words the next day. He never kept this promise. In fact, he went on to twist what I had said to him. I have admitted that my statement about the Holy Prophet’s wife was unbecoming… and have apologized. Even the smallest mistake by a high profile personality can have far reaching consequences. I wouldn’t call this exploitation of my words a “media war” either. My reputation cannot be enhanced by one media channel, nor can another taint it.

What became of the blasphemy case against you?

The case has been nullified. There was no case. I want to return to Aamir Liaquat. In the past, he has also used words about the Holy Prophet’s father-in-law that no true Muslim can even imagine uttering. But here is the difference between him and me: When I met him on Haj, I asked him why he had said those things. He said he had already asked Allah for forgiveness, which made me very happy. The truth is that this man wants to have me killed—he wants to have Junaid Jamshed killed—this is the extent of his hatred. Amir Liaquat’s associates registered the blasphemy case at a police station. If he really thought that I had erred, he could have called me and cleared it up personally. All this talk about how Junaid Jamshed admonishes women… I don’t even know where it started from. There is only one enemy of mine and he has hired a few people who sit and defame me on social media. Recently, [actor-singer] Ali Zafar asked me for a clarification on Twitter about my stance on women. I sent him an explanation and he was satisfied. That is the mark of a sincere person.

Having faced charges yourself, do you believe the blasphemy law should be repealed?

I am not an authority on law. I cannot tell you why this law was made or for what reason. But I will say this: lodging a first-information report at a police station on charges of blasphemy is a serious matter. In 2011, there were 13 reported cases of blasphemy in Pakistan. In 2014, there were 1,800 cases. This law is being criticized around the world. People asked me why I had not raised my voice earlier and why I had not challenged the charges against me. Had I, it would have further defamed Pakistan and Islam. My detractors wanted me punished. Their excuse was that if we let Junaid Jamshed go, then that would set a precedent for everyone to start disrespecting Islam’s Prophet and his family. That logic is insane.

What about people like Aasia Noreen still languishing in prison for alleged blasphemy? Did being a public figure help your defense?

No, not at all. I never committed blasphemy. There is no proof to this day. On the contrary, being a high profile personality further complicated things.

Your views on women are widely considered misogynistic and continue to irk many.

People around me know that I am neither a misogynist nor am I sexist. I have never intended to underrate women. When I returned to Pakistan recently, I insisted my wife accompany me. She is not just my partner but is also my best friend. In fact, she is shocked to read some of the responses my comments receive. She often laughs at how my words are misrepresented. My fault, I must admit, is that I joke often on camera. I need to be more careful about what I say in humor.

But in one controversial video you argued against women driving. You don’t consider that sexist?

I never said women should not drive. I was asked a funny question. The host said marriages in show business don’t work out and then asked me how come mine has lasted this long. Does that sound like a question that demands a serious answer? I replied, in jest, that this is why I did not teach my wife how to drive. Just to be clear, my wife knows how to drive. I’ve begged my wife to get behind the wheel again and put up pictures on Facebook just so people know. My daughter is now learning to drive. Funnily, I didn’t even know the meaning of the word misogynist until my daughter explained it to me. It was shocking. In the early days, when I was still performing music, people began to tell me about the Holy Prophet’s life. My first question was, ‘How was the Holy Prophet with his wives?’

What’s next for Junaid Jamshed?

Just recently, Salman Ahmad, Shahzad Hassan, Shoaib Mansoor and I have collaborated on a project for the children of the Army Public School that was attacked last year. Salman wanted to make a feature song, but I told him I would not be able to sing. He has my voice, and he can do as he pleases with it. But I will not get up on stage and sing. This venture, “Chand Sitara,” was released on Aug. 14. This is the same team that put together the iconic “Dil Dil Pakistan” several years ago. Another project very close to my heart is the purification of drinking water in Pakistan. I worked with U.K.-based NGO Human Appeal to raise £1 million, which is now being invested in Pakistan. Did you know 80 percent of hepatitis in Pakistani children is caused by polluted water? It is an astounding figure. Just a few miles outside Faisalabad people are forced to use water that contains alcohol and chemical waste. We are working to provide people with clean drinking water.

From our Aug. 29 – Sept. 5, 2015, issue.

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