Pakistanis spend a lot of time reacting on religious issues. I do not blame them, for their spirituality and sexuality have always been arrested by clerics. Both spirituality and sexuality are intimate aspects of a person’s life and by forfeiting control of these aspects, one becomes enslaved by others. What is unfortunate is that apart from clerics who use others as cannon fodder for their political objectives, motivational speakers have increasingly made inroads to benefit financially from the insecurities and existential angst of the people. Social media and the monetisation associated with it allows such speakers to lucratively sell their wares just as unscrupulous merchants would regale their audiences with exotic tales in the Middle Ages.
This phenomenon is not unique to Pakistan, as people follow fads that emerge from the culturally dominant West, where the net worth of motivational speakers runs in millions. The unique aspect for Pakistani motivational speakers is that they infuse religion to meet the specific consumer demand of the Pakistani market. With an above average intelligence, they are able to enter the market and create a brand name for themselves that earns them monopoly profits. With their words they mould a captive audience through their oratorical skills. While the hallmark of a good teacher is that the student surpasses them, why would motivational speakers want to render themselves obsolete, when they stand to profit from the insecurities of their minions?
What such speakers sell is nothing more than what people already know. One does not need an intricate discourse to be a good human being. Although, just as people willingly part with their money for a physical trainer to tell them to exercise, so too they fork out money for the likes of Jordan Peterson to tell them to make their bed and clean their room. In a Pakistani context, they also want such speakers to help them address their never-ending dissonance that arises from age-old issues such as theological disputes over the history of early Islamic communities, or Dajjal (the anti-Christ) with Gog and Magog at the End Times – all of which take time and effort away from the pressing issues of our times. Little attention is left to be devoted to issues like economic inequality, climate change, the challenges of automation and weakening democracy.
However, motivational speakers are nothing more than snake oil peddlers of contemporary times. This is because there are no elixirs, and any solution is not externally foisted but emerges from within. If a person really needs to pay someone to motivate oneself to exercise, clean one’s room or address the dissonance between ancient texts and contemporary life, then does such a person really have a vision of their own?
There is a resurgence of a conservative streak of Muslims who want to uphold the literal ancient texts and simultaneously not be branded as misogynists, anti-Semites, or homophobes. This is where highly intelligent motivational speakers enter the market to provide them nifty ways to uphold their prejudice. What gels with their worldview is rationalised with fanciful arguments and what goes against their worldview is rejected despite established evidence to the contrary. One such case is that of Sahil Adeem, who, for instance, appears to claims Gog and Magog are some aliens, etc.
Such speakers cater to the specific prejudice of their followers, and also call out competing speakers to remove competition from the market. In contrast, a true scholar, avoids such theatrics and to borrow Amin Ahsan Islahi’s words, abides by the truth even if his shadow deserts him.
True scholars do not chase “likes”, have a fanfare following, or charge obscene amounts to sell their wares. They do not create dependency, as it is often quoted that a good teacher is like a candle, that consumes itself to light the way for others. This is reminiscent of Iqbal (d. 1938), who requested the British government to offer a title to his teacher Syed Mir Hasan (d. 1929), who had written no books, stating that he was the book that his teacher had produced. In contrast, motivational speakers create dependency for they have to milk the audience for financial gains. They make minions out of people.
Finally, from the eschatological Hadith texts, we know that knowledge would be lifted near the end times, as true scholars would be replaced by the ignorant who lead people astray. Perhaps, then, chief among these are motivational speakers who know that religion sells. But we are free to have our own narrative on life, without the dictation of clerics and least of all motivational speakers, who are nothing but snake oil peddlers of our times.