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Carols For Allah
By AGHA AKBAR
Outlook, Oct. 3, 2005
Photo: Yousuf Youhana and Tania, henceforth Mohammad Yousuf and Fatima
Why did the sole Christian in the Pakistan cricket team embrace Islam? Was it coercion or a career move?
Mohammad Ali Jinnah's dream of a secular Pakistan has taken yet another shattering blow in an unlikely arena: cricket. Yousuf Youhana - the only Christian in the current Pakistani cricket team, its mainstay of many years, its veritable Mr. Dependable who has attained fame for his batting prowess - declared last week that he and his wife Tania had embraced Islam and adopted the Muslim names of Muhammad Yousuf and Fatima. For long a symbol for those who claimed Pakistan wasn't biased against non-Muslims - that at least on the cricket field, performance mattered more than the player's faith - Youhana's conversion to Islam leaves behind Hindu leggie Danish Kaneria as the only non-Muslim in a team which increasingly has members who wear their religion on their sleeves, or more visibly, on their faces.
Ordinarily, a person's change of faith ought not to be subjected to public scrutiny. But many here wonder whether Youhana's leap of faith was indeed prompted by a genuine change of heart. There's enough evidence to suggest that Youhana was more or less a pariah in the dressing room who would eat and drink separately; his views were rarely sought on issues of import to the team. And Tania, too, experienced the pangs of isolation: wives of other cricketers hung out together on tours, leaving her solitary.
Earlier this year, Youhana was replaced by Younis Khan as vice-captain for the tour of India. The Pakistan Cricket Board (P.C.B.) justified the decision claiming it wanted to tackle the malaise of complacency supposedly afflicting the team. Ironically, Youhana was made a scapegoat for the team's poor performance against the mighty Australians playing on its own turf; Inzamam-ul Haq retained the captaincy even though Imran Khan thought the Pakistan skipper had taken the ruse of a bad back to duck the Australian fast bowlers.
Youhana's tale of woes did not end with that unkind cut. He was sent back from the West Indies in May this year, apparently after an ugly altercation with some senior players. Publicly, though, it was claimed Youhana had returned to Pakistan to tend to his ailing father. It was another matter that Papa Youhana wasn't sick enough to be admitted to hospital. Then one fine morning, after his return, Youhana's Mercedes was pelted with stones, at his home in a posh Lahore locality.
Coincidence or coercion? Well.
Each of Youhana's mates has warmly welcomed his conversion to Islam. And why not, most of them are born-again Muslims. This process of rediscovering Islam started when Saeed Anwar in 2002, then emotionally vulnerable owing to his toddler daughter's death, came under the influence of the Tablighi Jamaat, a conservative Islamic missionary group. He started sporting a beard and found solace in spreading the Word. What better place to start than the Pakistan dressing room.
Almost the entire Pakistan team was then recovering from match-fixing allegations. Call it pangs of guilt or a desire to reform, Anwar found a receptive audience in Waqar Younis, Inzamam, Shahid Afridi, Saqlain Mushtaq and Mushtaq Ahmed. The entire milieu around the national team witnessed a dramatic change. From indulging in carnal pleasures, they began to spread the mat in the dressing room for prayers. Interestingly, none of these born-again Muslims, some of whom had a dishonourable mention in Justice Qayyum's Judicial Report on match-fixing, publicly confessed to their dalliance with the bookies.
Younhana's conversion has shocked the Christian community already reeling under jehadi bomb attacks. 'After all, he was a role model for the entire community, perhaps the best known Christian here. He was an inspiration to those who wanted to strike it big,' said a Christian journalist. An official of Pakistan's National Council of Churches (P.N.C.C.) thought it was abominable if Youhana converted under peer pressure or to save his career. Dismissing Youhana's claims that he had converted three years ago and was only making it public now, the official asked, 'If he had done it three years ago, why was he making the sign of cross whenever he reached a fifty or a hundred as recently as the West Indies tour?'
I.A. Rehman, director of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission [P.H.R.C.], is concerned about the star batsman's conversion. 'It seems to me that Youhana was finding it difficult to keep his place in the side. Everyone is free to change one's religion but to my mind, there is apparently an element of coercion here,' Rehman told Outlook.
For Pakistan cricket officials, Youhana's conversion could turn into a P.R. disaster. A top P.C.B. official feels the British media which will accompany the English team's tour of Pakistan next month could turn the spotlight on the Youhana affair - and consequently on the status of the Christian community in Pakistan. 'It could become Pakistan cricket's Mukhtara Mai,' he said.
Youhana himself, though, is demonstrating the zeal so typical of new converts. Not only has he been pictured praying with team members, he has shifted his children to a school supposedly better suited for Islamic education.
But his parents are aghast at the proselytisation. His mother has been cursing Saeed Anwar and his brother, the two who had been preaching to Youhana, and had even threatened to disown her son. She has since relented and is back to talking to her son. Youhana's father is livid, more so because his other son, Tariq Youhana, too might follow in his elder brother's footsteps. 'Yousuf has been a good son; he has been kind to his family all along. We have lived on one floor in his house and he has bought houses for his brothers,' said Youhana's father Masih, who insisted he wouldn't convert even if each of his sons did. He added, 'But Yousuf has sinned by converting. God will punish him for that.' For the Pakistani team, you hope it isn't on the cricket field.