If you live in an urban-setting in Pakistan, you’ve likely contemplated on the mystery of why we keep finding individuals in our society becoming ‘mullahs’ virtually overnight; men - young, old or in-between - going from being poster-boys of the laidback lifestyle to appointees of a higher calling.

To those with secular leanings, such individuals can appear eccentric, and if they’re around you sufficiently enough, be quite hard to bear; to the religiously motivated on the other hand, they can leave one troubled.

As such, the aforementioned had greatly troubled myself, a very religiously motivated young man, for many years. The reason for this was that I’d witnessed this phenomenon in a number of people I knew, and found it quite undeniable that this newfound religiosity (at least so in appearance and form) had made many of these individuals less likeable and intellectually coherent. For the sake of my own self-concept thus, a resolution of this dissonance had to be sought.

Failing across many years, it was only recently, after I read of two kindred concepts in psychology, that I was able to weave together a concrete hypothesis. 

The first of these was Austrian psychotherapist Alfred Adler’s theory of ‘overcompensation’ - the idea that some individuals will attempt to cover up a sense of inferiority associated with a particular trait of theirs by assuming outward signs of its superiority - in other words, ‘dominance of the inferior organ.’

This theory also serves as a parent to the second concept, the more recent ‘pendulum effect’ - which an increasing number of social scientists are beginning to employ to refer to characteristic changes in concept-behavior that occur alongside post-traumatic stress. This is typified by individuals, after having participated in an event that results in severe distress, fear or embarrassment, taking extreme measures to nullify the chance of a repeat incident. This usually comes through resorting to behavior diametrically opposed to what they ascribe as the cause of the former (i.e. severe distress/fear/embarrassment.)

With these tools in hand then, I recapped the themes observed in the overnight mullah:

Prior to their swift turnaround, most of them had been exceedingly liberal, with a very experimental approach to life.

The swift turnaround came, quite manifestly, after a highly stressful incident. In one case, it included the severe illness of the only child of one gentleman, where, across a period, the former lingered between life and death.

All individuals seem to exhibit a characteristic intellectual confusion: they seem to be unable to reconcile the conservative stance of their faith with otherwise leftist-leanings; in some cases, they even take a liking to radical literature e.g. Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Player Piano.’ Another individual, a fully bearded fellow always found in Islamic dress, was referred to as ‘pseudo-maulvi’ by colleagues, given his concurrent leaning towards various fingerprints of Western culture (including a suspiciously foreign accent) and frequent appearances at rock concerts!

Most importantly, their religiosity virtually always fails to endure, with the individuals reverting to their previous ways or a close-mirroring thereof within typically a few years - curiously in a measure (of time-span) highly correlated with the magnitude of the initial traumatic event.

The overnight mullah syndrome as I’ve chosen to call it posits that this effect is driven less by any genuine and enduring love or understanding of religion and more as a product of the individual rescuing their self-esteem after the traumatic or, equally likely, mortifying event. Thus, one is actually attempting to offset the guilt or shame by (over) compensating with the obverse of everything identified as the transgressions that have brought upon them this kind of trauma or embarrassment.

As the post-traumatic stress and guilt, respectively, begin to fade, the religiosity too, now devoid of both fuel and function, fails to endure. 

The overnight mullah syndrome-afflicted usually present with a fair share of comical and idiosyncratic behaviors. In one case, it was greeting others with an ‘assalamualaikum!’ that sounded less like the disarming greeting ‘peace be with you’ and more along the lines of the demand: demonstrate to me the appropriate response, you misguided fool!

Certainly, the overnight mullah is not very companionable. Even then, now that we have some understanding of the inner turmoil most such individuals have likely encountered, and what their corresponding motivations are, let’s adopt a more therapeutic approach towards them.

It’s really quite similar to what psychotherapist Samuel Shem writes in his article Fiction as Resistance, “To take what seems foreign in a person, and see it as native. This is healing. This process is what the healing process is.. This is what good doctors do.”

Let’s be the doctors.

Let the overnight mullahs run their course, and, not the least, let them not be viewed as ambassadors of a faith already sufficiently misunderstood.

n    The writer is the head of Scholars by Profession, a local research-initiative.