For decades, the Edhi Foundation has been the top performing charity in Pakistan. It operates a huge network of ambulances, nursing homes, hospitals, shelters for the homeless and rehabilitation centers. Despite receiving around 2 billion Pakistani rupees a year (around $20 million) Mr Edhi has been a symbol of honesty, humility, and above all selflessness. Spending his life in a tiny two bedroom apartment on top of his office, with two pairs of clothes and a battered old pair of shoes, Edhi built this monumental organization on the back of hard work and unwavering support of Pakistanis from all walks of life. From business owners to street sweepers, Edhi was the automatic no-questions-asked choice for millions of Pakistanis.
And that irked his competition.
The ‘charity business’ in Pakistan is dominated by religious organizations. Many of them do put your money to good use and having worked with some of them in the past – providing meals, medical aid and shelter to victims of conflict and natural disasters – I have nothing but respect for their good work. They are needed in a state which is unable to provide these basic services to its citizens.
From local mosques to nationwide and international missionary networks, there are many who use religious scripture to prove themselves or their charities most deserving of your donations. For these organizations donations equal survival, and more importantly – growth. It pays their bills and salaries. In some cases it also pays for big, luxury mansions, bulletproof SUVs, and foreign travel. The benefits of donating to religious cause are drilled into the populace in sermons, through television lectures and paid advertisements. Threatening people with hellfire and abusing their minds with the fear of God, handing over your money for their cause is advocated as a way to wash one’s sins. Donating a bag of cement to their expanding mosque is promoted as more honourable and rewarding in the afterlife rather than donating a bag of flour to a hungry household. And specially to that ‘Godless’ Edhi.
Edhi, despite being a simple, humble and honest man – qualities every religion promotes – was never overtly religious. There are no photos of him praying for the cameras. His ambulances didn’t ask the religion of the injured they helped. His staff treated people from all religious and ethnic backgrounds with the same commitment and dedication. Humanity – he often said – was bigger than religion. Being a good human – he proved – was possible without being expressively religious. And that is where, to some, he committed blasphemy.
With no financial irregularities or evident corruption in Edhi’s operations, some have tried to bash Edhi for helping or even encouraging runaway girls and women (often escaping domestic or sexual abuse) and for his orphanages providing shelter to unwanted children born out of wedlock – both being grave sins to those who try to justify locking women up in their homes and beating them. When this also failed, they used his lack of religiosity against him. They labelled him apostate and an infidel, and only stopped short of issuing fatwas against donating to Edhi as any breakdown of his services would have caused complete chaos – so dependent is the state on his organization.
Edhi’s success became an existential threat to many of these organizations once he proved that it was possible to reach the pinnacle of humanity and virtue, and to do good on an unimaginable scale without subscribing to Mullahism. The de-linking of morality and beneficence with the extremes of religious fervor strikes at the very foundations these religious charitable empires are built upon. Hence they discourage people from donating to him and label him an apostate, an infidel, a godless person. And when he dies, they refuse to mourn or even lead his funeral prayers, and stay away in case they don’t end up unintentionally legitimizing his organization to their followers. Its not personal, it’s just business.