August Issue 2010
Interview: Atiya Khan, documentary filmmaker and designer
“I think something happened after 9/11. There was a shift in energy and the collective human consciousness”
Q: At what point in your life did you turn to religion? What brought about this change?
A: It started when I was 16. I was in college in Canada, and a lot of people would ask me about Islam, but I didn’t know much. I wasn’t brought up in a religious household. In fact, till 2001, mine was more of an intellectual pursuit. I read the Quran and a lot of different interpretations and translations and then I started reading about the Sufi masters and got attracted to their philosophy.
Q: Where and with whom did you study religion?
A: I got back from Canada when I was 18. I was modelling in Pakistan and directing TV commercials for some advertising agencies. In 2001, I met this gentleman called Sheikh Nazim Al Haqqani, based out of Cyprus (Turkey) and is part of the Naqshbandi school of thought. I joined the tareeqa and took him as my teacher.
Q: Earlier, you were Pakistan’s top model. How did your religious beliefs impact your lifestyle?
A: I started modeling when I was 15 and quit at 21. I left because there was a conflict of interest with my work behind the camera. Besides, I didn’t find modelling challenging at all and it was purely a career choice.
Q: You went into hijab for a while and then you took it off. How do you explain this?
A: This was after I joined the tareeqat. Sheikh Nazim did not encourage me to wear the hijab. He tried to explain to me that I was in the media and I had to be accessible to all. But at the time, it was like the ‘new convert syndrome;’ when one gets into something initially, one is over-enthusiastic. In Cyprus, I met women from all over the world who were working and intelligent and they all covered their heads. At that time I was already into energy dynamics and they explained to me that the male gaze could steal my energy. They said covering your head prevents them from doing so. Those days all my friends were from the fashion world and very modern, and the hijab helped me put up a certain barrier and to make them realise that they couldn’t push me anymore, for example if I didn’t want to dance, I didn’t have to dance.
Q: Do you feel people have become more religious post September 11?
A: I think something happened after 9/11. In 2001, there was a shift in energy and the collective human consciousness reached a point where they thought there has to be another way, otherwise everyone was doomed.
Wahhabism and the fundamentalist penetration started before 9/11, during the Zia era. The militant form of Islam was promoted for a political purpose. The Wahhabis managed to spread their ideology through our mosques, preachers and economic assistance. They would provide food and education for poor families. They had an amazing method through which they would spread Islam. And a lot of people bought into it.
Q: You are a fashion designer and a filmmaker. Is there a consolidation between your profession and your religious beliefs?
A: I was running a TV channel in Canada called soultv.net. The western media is controlled and journalists have to toe a certain line, and so our channel was an alternative news channel about conflict resolution and so forth. Now that I’ve come back I’ve made two documentaries — one on Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalandar and one on Sheikh Nazim. I am giving it to a few channels to see whether there is any point in going further and doing more programming on these topics. I have also done 13 episodes called CafÃ© 1 for TV 1. My clothes collection is basically luxury prÃªt with pure fabrics. They have an Arabic feel to them and they are sheer with an abaya cut.
Q: There is the assumption that only poor people are part of the jihadi culture. But Faisal Shahzad and the Times Square incident have disproved all that. What is your take on the subject?
A: This is a political phenomenon and has nothing to do with class, religion or spirituality. It’s mostly the middle and the upper classes that are being held captive by Wahhabi ideology. This ideology is very effective because all Muslims feel that the West has been unfair to them, cheated them and targeted them, and this, to a certain extent, is true.
The problem arises when you make this into a holy jihad. Firstly, the only person who can announce the holy jihad is the Khalifa under whom the Muslim Ummah is united. Such a person does not exist so these individual people have no right to give a fatwa on jihad. Problems should be addressed through pressure groups and the media, etc.
Maheen Bashir Adamjee is an APNS award-winning journalist. She was an editorial assistant at Newsline from 2010-2011.