Zaira Wasim’s personal choices should worry us all: Beyond crisis of identity, what teen actor's manifesto reveals

  • Millions of young Indians are today seeking to negotiate the unpredictable, morally-fraught real world using religion as a compass.

  • Events in our own region, from the Iranian revolution of 1979, to the carnage in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and now Myanmar, make clear just how easily extreme belief can sweep away the rule of law, with horrific consequences.

  • The inexorable consequence of the surrender of agency, of the kind advocated by Wasim, is the extinguishing of moral accountability.

  • The journey from neo-fundamentalist faith to the world of the jihadist or Hindutva cow-vigilante is a short one.

Eight hundred and thirty-two years ago, one summer day, a few hundred knights of the order of Templar and Hospitallers bravely — and unwisely — attacked 7,000 soldiers of Sultan Saladin in Cresson. The last to fall was Jakelin de Mailly, crushed, a chronicler recorded, under the sheer weight of his slain opponents’ bodies. Facing his fate, de Mailly was “not afraid to die for Christ”: it was “indeed a gentle death with no place for sorrow, when one man’s sword had constructed so great a crown”.

The great warrior’s genitals, the chronicler states, were cut off so they could be kept such “that even when dead, the man’s members — if such a thing were possible — would produce an heir with courage as great as his”.

For Indians contemplating teenage actress Zaira Wasim’s retreat from pop-film into pop-Islam, the bizarre story of de Mailly and his miraculous genitals is a useful lens with which to contemplate its meaning and significance.

Like the medieval crusaders who died and killed for no good reason, millions of young Indians are today seeking to negotiate the unpredictable, morally-fraught real world using religion as a compass. They believe that god points the way north.

People have variously reacted to Wasim’s decision with bemusement, ire, and in the case of Hindu-nationalist leader Swami Chakrapani, frank admiration. Fear for where India’s greatest-ever youth cohort is headed would be more appropriate.

“Every age,” the Scottish journalist and poet Charles Mackay wrote in his 1841 masterwork, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, “has its peculiar folly; some scheme, project, or phantasy into which it plunges, spurred on either by the love of gain, the necessity of excitement, or the mere force of imitation. Failing in these, it has some madness, to which it is goaded by political or religious causes, or both combined.”

The signs of precisely such an epochal madness are all around us, providing the cultural context to Wasim’s born-again Islam. The legions of young men making the Kāvad pilgrimage, the extraordinary numbers of educated young women drawn to cults like the Sanatan Sanstha, the appeal of pop-gurus like Ram Rahim Singh, the mass audiences for Sanskar and Aastha television: all these are signs of a great reordering of our culture.

Hinduism, it ought be underlined, isn’t the sole carrier of mass religious fantasy. Farhat Hashmi has persuaded thousands of women that they ought embrace what has been accurately described as “consensual enslavement”; televangelists like Zakir Naik have popularised Islamism across continents; in Karachi, the genteel, upper-class members of the al-Zikra network match-make for Islamic State jihadists.

Like almost every other teenage testament, Wasim’s manifesto begins with a crisis of identity. “For a very long time now,” she writes, “it has felt like I have struggled to become someone else.” To anyone who read Catcher in the Rye, this is familiar terrain: Holden Caulfield’s encounters with suicidal urges, alcohol, sex, relationships and social inequality have been the markers of the journeys of millions of young adults.

In Wasim’s world, though, there is no impulse to reorder the society that generates these traumas. Instead, there is guilt.  “I continued to put myself in a vulnerable position,” she writes, “where it was always so easy to succumb to the environment that damaged my peace, iman [faith] and my relationship with Allah.”

 Zaira Wasim’s personal choices should worry us all: Beyond crisis of identity, what teen actors manifesto reveals

Like almost every other teenage testament, Zaira Wasim’s manifesto begins with a crisis of identity. YouTube screengrab via Film Companion

The answer to her crisis, Wasim goes on, lay in a renunciation of her own intellectual agency. “I began to heavily rely upon Allah’s mercy for my help and guidance instead of valuing my own believability [sic., throughout].”

There is, of course, a particular, Generation Z malaise evident here. Earlier cohorts of élite, English-speaking Indians, confronted by the country’s wrenching inequities of class, caste and religion, turned to everything from neo-Gandhian NGOs to Maoism in efforts, however misguided, to build a more just world.

For Wasim, however, inequity is not a concern: it is, perhaps, significant that the personal pronoun ‘I’ figures 49 times in the manifesto’s 1,900-odd words, to 21 times for ‘Allah’.

But there is more to this manifesto that merits attention. Pietists — traditional religious believers — seek salvation through a personal relationship with god mediated, by traditions and cultural practices. The neo-fundamentalist is quite different: she, or he, embraces a new kind of faith, shorn of its specific cultural and historical moorings, to build a social and political order that rejects the both the individual freedoms and ideological uncertainties unleashed by globalisation.

Wasim’s intent, it is important to note, is political: her beliefs are not for her spiritual salvation alone. “Don’t look for role models or measures of success in the displeasure of Allah and the transgressions of His commandments,” she urges her readers. “Do not allow such people to influence your choices in life or dictate your goals or ambitions.”

“Neo-fundamentalism is particularly appealing to alienated youth because it turns their cultural alienation into a justification,” the scholar Olivier Roy has noted. “It appeals to the well-educated, and the disenchanted, offering a system for regulating behaviour in any situation.”

This is precisely what Wasim offers. She writes: “There are two types of diseases that attack the heart. One; DOUBT and Error and the second; LUST and Desire [sic. throughout].” For both, there is one cure: “position yourself away from your ego and arrogance and rely only on Allah’s guidance”.

In essence, Wasim seeks to eradicate desire and curiosity: indeed, one might say, to rip out from ourselves the things which us human.

Few things in human history cannot be distilled to just the two fundamental human impulses of sex and power. For tens of thousands of Europeans, we know from contemporary accounts, de Mailly’s holy war was a medium for securing both these ends. Pillage and rape were borne across Europe and the Levant by the Crusaders, freed by their bearing the cross of god from the guilt and moral conflicts they would otherwise have been vested.

Early-medieval Europe, torn by profound cultural and economic change, spawned a plethora of cults promising the imminent arrival of an earthly paradise — often involving sexual liberation, and violence.

Bohemia’s Adamites, a not atypical case, sought through the 1420s to implement god’s order on earth by building a society that rejected both private property and sexual exclusivity: indeed, the chaste were deemed unworthy to enter this earthly paradise. Even as they did so, though, they slaughtered children, women and men; blood, they believed, had to flow “as high as a horse’s head” to cleanse the world of god’s enemies.

Large youth cohorts, such as that of India and its neighbours, are particularly vulnerable to these millenarian tendencies: violence becomes one of few avenues to seek sex or power. Herbert Moller has shown that the emergence of children born between 1900 and 1914 on the job market — “a cohort,” he noted, “more numerous than any earlier ones” — paved the way for Fascism. Jack Goldstone has shown that this demographic phenomenon underpinned crises from the English Civil Wars of 1642-1651 to the European Revolutions of 1848.

Events in our own region, from the Iranian revolution of 1979, to the carnage in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and now Myanmar, make clear just how easily extreme belief can sweep away the rule of law, with horrific consequences.

The inexorable consequence of the surrender of agency, of the kind advocated by Wasim, is the extinguishing of moral accountability. The journey from neo-fundamentalist faith to the world of the jihadist or Hindutva cow-vigilante is a short one — which is why her personal choices should worry us all.

Updated Date: Jul 10, 2019 09:47:30 IST