The Exorcism Industry in Pakistan

When I started this article, it was a fun filled rendition of what I knew about exorcists in Pakistan. By which I mean to refer to nothing more than characters used mostly for comedic relief in local media that exorcise Jinns with brooms and other dramatic means. It wasn’t until I started researching on the subject that I learned of the true horrors that plague this industry. I unearthed its world of scammers and its menacing reality that is almost as dark as the evil it claims to expel.


The media portrays exorcists in an almost comedic light. Typical portrayals include completely black or white attire adorned with heavy jewels, outgrown hair, and shrouded-in-smoke effects. They are depicted as speaking in confusing tones, and using funny methods to exorcise Jinns such as beating possessed persons with a broom, shouting dramatic and loud incantations, and practicing other absurd rituals. To a layman these acts may seem hilarious but like most things that are the basis of comedy, these depictions are in fact, much closer to reality than you would expect and definitely darker, and even more dangerous.


Belief in supernatural creatures such as Jinns is an integral part of the Islamic faith, and possession by such creatures is a common explanation for all kinds of otherwise inexplicable phenomena by all classes of people in Pakistan. It is of course a deterministic explanation that removes accountability of social wrongdoings and saves face for most respected families.

Despite the belief being supported in Islamic faith, there is doubt and confusion around how possession actually takes effect, whether the possessed individual becomes controlled or influenced. Similarly there is no scriptural support of exorcising such influences and it is supported by hadith that are categorised as zaeef (Hadith that are weak in terms of reliability). This suggests that there is no religious backing for the exorcising practices and the methods used to remove evil spirits that are popular in Pakistan.


Many Pakistani families have that one baba or peer they trust to take their stories to and ask for treatment against the supernatural. To label them as exorcists might be considered inaccurate but as they are defined as “people that attempt to expel a supposed evil spirit from a person or place”, it is the label that best fits them. These exorcists use extreme methods such as beating ‘possessed’ individuals, tying them up, or forcing them into seclusion. Some use methods of ruqyah - intended to ‘bring peace, to protect and to heal’, which actually have more grounding in religious faith. Other people may resort to visiting shrines of pious people and leaving the individuals there for a period of time. The concept of nazar is a belief held closely by most Muslims and from home remedies like burning red chillies to constant visits to babas and peers, they try all measures to rid of it. Most exorcists request livestock or black chickens to help exorcise nazar and charge a hefty sum for each visit. It is a convenient practice to label a string of bad events and fortune as nazar since invisible forces such as it are impossible to prove and thus impossible to question.


In Peshawar, exorcisms were performed during baithaks where the primary role of guiding spirits out of possessed women was played by mirasins. As detailed by Mumtaz Nasir in a publication on Asian Folklore Studies; it can be conjectured that since belief in the supernatural brought sympathisers closer, it kept traditions such as baithaks alive, but as education spread in most areas, these beliefs and traditions began to die. This suggests that at its root, ignorance is what causes symptoms of illnesses to be misidentified and then exploited.

It is true that most symptoms of mental disorders are misidentified as signs of possession in the rural areas of Pakistan. Catatonic behaviours and negative symptoms like flat affect which most psychologists would identify as features of the schizophrenic spectrum are proclaimed signs of possessions. Of course, this misdiagnosis benefits exorcists the most - who under the guise of spiritual healing recite various verses, sprinkle holy water, and swindle thousands of hard-earned rupees from worried relatives.


Scammers are so prevalent in the exorcism industry that it is impossible to differentiate who would want to help you and who would want to harm you. From numbers and names painted on almost every wall along Karachi streets to advertisements under memes on Instagram, these ‘exorcists’ are everywhere. Claiming to help with not only Jinn possession but distress, love lives, pregnancy, revenge - the list goes on. They attract vulnerable individuals and scam them. Harbouring groomed appearances of extreme piety, these scammers revel in misguiding troubled people and abusing them under the name of exorcising evil. Whipping and screaming at victims is common practice and for those who prove to be more aggressive, extreme methods like tying them with iron chains are used. Individuals under prior distress, suffering from inexplicable symptoms are subject to violence in such ways that their symptoms become further aggravated and this can cause their conditions to worsen. After such exorcism sessions, individuals are traumatised. As one islamic forum user detailed how aggression inflicted by ‘fake raqis’ acted as a trigger for them and later caused them to suffer from PTSD.


In a society where possession is more believable than mental health disorders - especially within the less educated masses - it is scarily easy to find such exorcists. In times of distress, anyone offering hope is readily accepted, any price is worth the safety of a loved one, and thus any scammer can become an exorcist. Taking advantage of their vulnerability, the scammers ask for large amounts of money as payment for ‘healing’ their loved ones; however, most people are unaware that leaving them to the mercy of such ‘exorcists’ is likely doing more harm than their possessed condition. Yet, this is not where it ends. With the advancements in technology, this industry continues to grow exponentially. Instead of locations where they can be caught, these scammers now operate through phone calls requesting money transfers to begin treatment and then blocking customers’ numbers. Individuals like Haq Khatteb under the guise of piousness have gathered large followings and hold large crowd gatherings where they ‘pray’ upon rosaries and blow into microphones to create loud echoes. Through such methods, he claims to heal people, an act which, according to him, even works through the internet! These days there are more ways than ever for the spread of misinformation. Youtube and Facebook live streams have become an infamous method for exorcists to showcase their ‘healing’ sessions such as the ones done by Raqi Abu Tharr which are watched by thousands of unassuming believers.

People are continuously being manipulated, misinformed and scammed, and this is not limited to a social class. Other than the obvious, this is also incredibly dangerous as it prevents people from ever finding the right treatment and causes their conditions to worsen, sometimes even leading to death. Due to the assumed religious nature of both the possessions and the exorcisms, to question them is looked down upon. This, combined with the stigmatisation of mental health issues allows this industry of scammers to grow uncontrollably. There is no way to stop them without challenging their unfounded faiths which is as dangerous a territory as the scammers themselves. Such is the true darkness of the exorcist industry in Pakistan.

 

Nur Us Sahar Kamran is an in-house writer at Perspective.

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