Around a dozen years ago, during a visit to my ancestral village in Pakistan, I joined my brother for Friday prayers at the local mosque. At the time, the country’s military dictator, President Pervez Musharraf, was busy explaining to Pakistanis that they were in the middle of a do-or-die battle against militants—although it seemed that, for ordinary people, this mostly involved dying. People all over the country were wary of prayer leaders preaching about jihad or creating pretexts for others to wage it.
My brother, who runs a business in a fruit and vegetable market, served on a committee of mosque leaders that had recently hired a new imam. Before offering him the job, the committee had checked him out to make sure he was not a radical. “The new imam is not a troublemaker,” my brother assured me. “Times are bad, and what goes on in the mosque affects people’s minds, so we wanted to be sure.”
That day, the imam’s sermon was suitably vague: health and wealth for everyone, sweet words about the ummah (the global community of Muslims), and no calls to arms or support for holy wars. The imam did take a jab or two at those who preached “enlightened moderation”—a meaningless label that Musharraf had apparently picked up during his numerous visits to think tanks in the United States and that he had begun using to describe the ideological direction of his dictatorship. Musharraf was at the height of his double game: allowing the United States to use Pakistani military bases to bomb the Afghan Taliban while signing peace deals with the Pakistani Taliban. The new imam might have been a moderate by my brother’s standards, but he had no appetite for Musharraf’s brand of enlightenment. I wondered if this imam could help stem the tide of radicalism or whether he was part of it.
I found my answer around midnight, when a loudspeaker attached to the mosque’s
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