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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The Zaid Hamid Enigma


Zaid HamidA great deal of confusion persists about the whereabouts and condition of self-described defence and security analyst Zaid Zaman Hamid, a familiar face on Pakistani TV channels and in cyberspace. On Wednesday, media outlets here began reporting that the outspoken commentator had been sentenced to eight years in prison as well as 1,000 lashes by authorities in Saudi Arabia.

That Hamid had been in the kingdom over the past few weeks is undisputed. For example his official Facebook page had featured pictures of Hamid posing in the Grand Mosque in Makkah. However, there has been no credible confirmation of the harsh sentence allegedly meted out to him, reportedly for criticising the Saudi regime’s policies in Yemen.

Sources in the kingdom say what can be confirmed is that Hamid was picked up from Madina around two weeks ago by Saudi authorities, who also took away his laptop. Other than that, those familiar with the workings of the Saudi justice system say it is doubtful he could be sentenced in such a short duration. Despite repeated calls to the embassy in Riyadh and consulate in Jeddah, Pakistani diplomats there also remain tight-lipped about developments surrounding Hamid’s case, while there were reports on Thursday that the Foreign Office would contact the Saudis in order to secure consular access.

Attempts to reach Hamid’s Rawalpindi-based consultancy, BrassTacks, were also not fruitful as there was no response from either the landline or mobile numbers listed on his numerous websites. However, on Thursday there was a vaguely-worded update on his Facebook page pointing to his present predicament: “We always knew such times will come upon us when we will be tested to our limits and also those who claim to be with us. Successful are those only who remained steadfast, patient and waited for Amr-e-Rabbi.”

It is clear, however, that if Hamid did indeed indulge in any political or religious activities (outside what the Saudi government permits) in the kingdom while on his visit there, he would have been asking for trouble. Anyone with even the faintest idea about how Saudi Arabia works will tell you that the kingdom has a zero-tolerance policy where political and religious activities are concerned. And if a resident foreigner is found to be involved in these activities, this usually means a one-way trip home. Yet those familiar with Hamid’s style know he is no stranger to courting controversy and quite vocal about both politics and religion.

In the world of Pakistani media personalities, he is truly a strange combination, bringing together elements of Sufi-jihadi Islamism, revanchist ultra-nationalism and an unabashed pro-military stance. His fans swear by him, hanging on to his every word, while critics dismiss him as a brash conspiracy theorist. However, if social media is anything to go by, people are listening to what he has to say, no matter how controversial or politically incorrect his opinions. For example, he has 108,000 followers on his Twitter account, while Hamid’s official Facebook page has over 573,500 ‘likes’.

Most often seen sporting a red beret, Hamid is the son of an army officer and studied computer systems at Karachi’s NED University. He also claims to have fought in the Afghan Jihad; interestingly, his take on ‘jihad’ is quite close to that of Pakistan’s military establishment: while Hamid favours the Kashmir-centric jihadi outfits, he is vehemently anti-TTP, terming the banned terrorist group khawarij, a term from early Islamic history indicating those that have been ejected from the mainstream body of believers.

Hamid has appeared on various TV channels, including PTV, and it is due to his exposure on television that his profile has risen tremendously, especially amongst young Pakistanis. He is dismissive of democracy and politicians while often calls upon the military to ‘save’ Pakistan. In fact in 2013 a former employee of his alleged that he had run a campaign urging army officers to revolt.

The colourful, impolitic commentator has also been linked to Yousuf Ali, a controversial individual sentenced to death in 2000 for blasphemy for apparently claiming prophethood. Termed Yousuf Kazzab (liar) by the media, the man was killed in jail by a fellow prisoner after his conviction. However, Hamid has gone to great lengths to distance himself from Yousuf.

Hamid claims to be inspired by Allama Iqbal and has published an English translation of the great poet’s works, translated by former Balochistan governor Owais Ghani. In fact, apart from his broadcasting, activities and consultancy, Hamid appears to be a prolific writer and publisher, having authored/published tomes on his experiences of the Afghan Jihad, as well as on religious and historical topics and personalities such as ‘Ghazva-i-Hind’, Khalid bin Waleed, and Ottoman Sultan Mohammad Fateh. Yet the academic standard of his publications remains unclear.

While in this country Hamid promoted a hyper-militaristic, anti-India, revisionist religious vision for Pakistan and termed those critical of his view as “snakes” and “traitors”. However, on his Saudi sojourn he has perhaps discovered the limits of free speech. Only once the state is successful in convincing the Saudis to give it access to him will we know Hamid’s version of the events that have transpired over the past few weeks.

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