As a brand in the West, Islam is, for many, pretty much at one of its lowest points, given the Woolwich attack and violent turmoil in many Muslim countries.
Even when you read an article published that defends Islam as a “religion of peace”, you can gauge the scepticism of readers from comments below.
One of the problems is those who endorse the religion have not been the most savoury of human beings – the likes of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
Yet like any other major religion, Islam has its share of positive role models including politicians, sportsmen and business leaders: think about individuals such as James Caan or Mo Farah, for example. Awareness of positive role models among Muslims is important in order to educate both Muslims and non-Muslims – to give an alternative to the tribalistic “us” and “them” options offered by fringe extremist groups such as the EDL and Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
One positive role model who comes to mind is Abdul Sattar Edhi, the Pakistani philanthropist who has been called the “Father Teresa” of Pakistan. His Edhi Foundation has held the Guinness Book of World Record for operating the largest volunteer ambulance service in the world. He has saved more lives than Bin Laden could have hoped to end.
For example, his Foundation has rescued 20,000 abandoned infants, rehabilitated over 50,000 orphans and trained more than 40,000 nurses – yet most people around the world have not heard of him.
There have been campaigns by Pakistanis to get this selfless man, now 85, awarded a Nobel Prize. Recently an Indian writer, Aakar Patel, compared the Nobel committee’s ignorance of Edhi to its similar treatment of Mahatma Gandhi: “Both made this work their life – Gandhi for 60 years, till a fanatic took him away from us, and Edhi for even longer. Both lived in austerity and both were uncompromisingly secular. Both were ignored by the Nobel committee, to its shame.”
Yet the fact that he is a Pakistani, with a long white beard, may be enough to fit him into the profile of a potential extremist. Indeed, in his travels he has faced long detentions at US and Canadian airports on a number of occasions, and had his passport confiscated one time. “The only explanation I can think of is my beard and my dress”, he remarked.
Edhi bought his first ambulance back in the 1950s. He wrote on the side of it “Poor Man’s Van.”
He used it to transport the sick and the dead. It was the start of decades of humanitarian work. “So many years later there were many who still complained and questioned, ‘Why must you pick up Christians and Hindus in your ambulance?’ And I was still saying, ‘Because the ambulance is more Muslim than you,’” goes one of Edhi’s famous quotes.
I think it increasingly in order for the media to counter the narrative of extremists on both sides. It is a curious fact why such a great philanthropist remains unknown in the West. I believe part of the reason is his profile does not “fit” into the prevalent discourse on Muslims. If the media can create so much hype about “bad” Muslims, we also hold some responsibility in presenting “good” Muslims.
• Syed Hamad Ali writes for The Scotsman on Pakistan