Every evening at 7:30 p.m., Geo TV, the most watched TV channel in Pakistan, broadcasts an Islamic version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire." The show is called "Alif Laam Meem," three letters from the Arabic alphabet that can be found at the beginning of some suras (chapters) in the Koran.
"Salam Alaykoum (good evening)," says the presenter, Junaid Jamshed. A 36-year-old former singer, Jamshed used to be clean shaven. Now he wears a prayer hat and sports a long dark beard, evidence of his recent rediscovery of Islam. In the audience, women wear veils or niqabs.
Jamshed welcomes his first player. "Welcome Adnan, my brother." Adnan is a smiling but nervous 30-year-old man who used to be a Procter & Gamble executive before committing himself to studying the Koran. If he manages to answer the 15 questions, he will win an apartment, a pilgrimage to Mecca for two, and 2.8 million rupees, about 23,000 euros.
The presenter moves on to the first question. "How many pieces of fabric is the clothing worn by a pilgrim to Mecca made of?"
"Two," says Adnan without any hesitation.
"Is it your final answer?"
"Allah akbar. God congratulates you brother," says Jamshed.
Adnan fails to answer the fifth question and leaves with 20,000 rupee (160 euros). The fact that the game is difficult does not discourage the candidates. Geo TV received between 30,000 and 40,000 applications the first weeks it was broadcast, and estimates that 30 to 40 million people have been following the show: one out of every five Pakistanis. Alif Laam Meem is especially popular among women and young people between 18 and 25.
Muslim and proud
The success of the show suggests just how fascinated Pakistanis are with religion these days. "The Pakistanis practice their religion more and more, and want to show it in public," says Imran Aslam, the head of Geo TV.
Rifaat Hussain, a 59-year-old professor at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, shares this opinion. "In the 1960s and 1970s, I would travel throughout the country with girls," he recalls. "We could drink alcohol in public, eat during the day when it was the month of Ramadan. Now it's not well accepted." These days, women in niqabs are more numerous both on the university's campus and in the streets of Islamabad.
Pakistan is going through an identity crisis. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan was founded in 1947 to give the Muslims of the sub-continent a country of their own. The founding fathers thought it was impossible to integrate into India, a mostly Hindu country, but they never said explicitly that Islam should be part of the national identity.
The issue of religion became particularly tricky after 2001, when major divisions began to appear in Pakistan. In the Northeast of the country, the Taliban fight against the army in the name of Islam. They reproach the government for allying with the United States. "Religion is ubiquitous in the media. We hear about jihad, fundamentalism. So that's what people want to know about, especially the youth," says Mr. Aslam.
Two-thirds of Pakistanis are under the age of 30. It's a statistic Aslam is very much aware of, and as a television executive, very much interested in capitalizing on. He is already planning to run another season of Alif Laam Meem after the summer break.
Also from Worldcrunch:
In Protests Against The Pope, Evidence Spain's Youth Are Losing Faith And Patience
Hanging With Hackers: Inside Germany's Great 'Geek' Convention