Spiritual Democracy
Ahmad, a famed guitarist and songwriter, is the founder of the illustrious Sufi rock band Junoon, one of Pakistan’s most famous musical brands. Image Credit: Supplied

Junoon se aur ishq se milti hai aazadi
Qurbani ki bahon mein milti hai aazadi

Rough translation:

Obsession and [absolute] love deliver liberation
In the arms of sacrifice lies liberation

These lyrics of Junoon’s iconic song Aazadi, also in the soundtrack of Jinnah, is quite an apt encapsulation of the cricket and political journey of Imran Khan, the protagonist of Salman Ahmad’s film Spiritual Democracy.

Ahmad, a famed guitarist and songwriter, is the founder of the illustrious Sufi rock band Junoon, one of Pakistan’s most famous musical brands. Junoon, an Urdu word, in the words of Ahmad is what “borders between madness, an uncompromising passion.”

Ahmad, a singer, a musician, a doctor, husband to a doctor, father of three sons, and a resident of New York state has a noteworthy curriculum vitae. In progress.

Currently working as the Skoll Foundation’s communication and advocacy ambassador for South Asia, Ahmad earlier served as the UN Global Ambassador for HIV and AIDs. As a Goodwill Ambassador for Rotary International, he also contributed to the efforts for reduction of polio in Pakistan. In 2008, Ahmad and his wife Dr Samina established the Salman and Samina Global Wellness Initiative, a non-profit organisation, and in 2009 launched it with a concert at the UNGA. SSGWI’s focus is “fostering harmony internationally by promoting wellness and music.”

Much of Ahmad’s work and activism stem from his “interest in the exploration of cultural and social bridges and promotion of transnational dialogue through literature, poetry, music, and cinema.”

The album Door (faraway in Urdu), a delightful 2016 Junoon amalgamation of synchronisation of old and new, thought-provoking poetry and shades of Sufism, includes a partnership with Peter Gabriel on the title song Ahmad wrote for Open Your Eyes, an inspirational HBO documentary directed by the Academy award nominee filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky.

Ahmad’s 2010 autobiography Rock & Roll Jihad: A Muslim Rock Star’s Revolution, published by Simon & Schuster, highlights among other things his lifelong mantra: the power of music, art, literature, and cinema to unite disparate people across faiths, borders, ideologies, and ethnicities. A teacher of music for seven years at New York’s Queens College’s Aaron Copland School of Music, Ahmad taught his students the value of the gift of music to bridge differences, mend hearts, lessen enmities, strengthen bonds, and spread love.

I asked Salman Ahmad a few questions:

What is the story behind the idea of making Spiritual Democracy?

The journey of Spiritual Democracy begins with COVID. In April 2020, I was diagnosed with COVID-19. After quarantining myself at home in New York, I was among the lucky few to survive the first wave of this monster virus that has now killed millions around the planet. I had many questions about life and my purpose [in life], and I wanted answers.

An opportunity arose when Jeff Skoll, an Academy award winning Hollywood film producer [An inconvenient Truth, Charlie Wilson’s War, Syriana, Contagion, Spotlight, Roma, When They See Us, a few titles from a long, celebrated list], and the Skoll foundation to help South Asia raise awareness about COVID-19 and develop communication strategies and research data.

It was the unique and successful handling of the first wave of COVID-19 by Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government in a country of 220 million with a poor health infrastructure that compelled me to fly to Pakistan. During that visit I had the opportunity to understand the multiple crises that PM Khan’s government had inherited: an economic meltdown, corruption, terrorism, food shortages, effects of climate change. And now Pakistan, like almost every other country, was dealing with the most dangerous global pandemic in the last one hundred years.

I recorded the interview for Spiritual Democracy on November 12, 2020 at the Prime Minister House on a day where there were reports of serious security threats. Spiritual Democracy focuses on a leader in the line of fire; Pakistan’s numerous crises; how PM Khan handles extreme pressure; what lessons he can learn from his past to navigate the present; how he sees the future; what his dreams are.

What is your definition of a spiritual democracy?

I first read the phrase “spiritual democracy” in Allama Mohammad Iqbal’s lectures. To me, it encompasses a holistic, compassionate and knowledge driven approach to democratic leadership. But I wanted to discover what PM Khan meant when he used this phrase in his speeches.

You have known Imran Khan the cricketer and Imran Khan the politician for almost three decades. What was the first thing that you thought was inspirational about him?

Time magazine called Imran Khan a “long shot”. His critics predicted his political demise from day one. But Khan’s 22-year long journey from a legendary cricketer to Prime Minister of Pakistan has been an epic rollercoaster ride. My film illustrates Imran Khan’s journey of self-discovery. He embodies the motto of his alma mater Aitchison College: “Perseverance Commands Success.”

Khan’s journey from one of cricket’s most distinguished legends to Pakistan’s prime minister, what are some of his qualities that have remain unchanged?

Despite constant roadblocks and threats to his life, Khan has remained fearless, incorruptible, and passionately idealistic. He is focused on transforming Pakistan into the kind of welfare state envisioned by Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) in Medina.

As a leader, Khan is persuasive, intuitive, and ideological. This gives him and his Pakistan Tehreek-Insaf a huge edge over the opposition’s dynastic parties.

Do you visualise a special connection between the spiritual evolution of Khan and Pakistan becoming a spiritual democracy?

PM Khan’s life journey has brought him face-to-face with huge challenges, setbacks, failures, and crises. Most individuals would have given up, but as my film Spiritual Democracy illustrates, Imran Khan’s patience in adversity has only grown deeper and stronger. Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s principles of unity, faith and discipline have also inspired PM Khan to mature into a 21st century statesman.

(Interview’s note: Aazadi Mubarak, my beloved Pakistan)