By Ali Waseem Hashmi –
Televangelism and the cult of religious personality
There is a certain natural attraction between religion and television. We’ve seen it unfold in the lands of Christianity, western countries having beaten us to the private media revolution by a good many decades. Church pastors turned preachers turned television celebrities and eventually million dollar capital assets.
We’re getting a firsthand glimpse of it now in Pakistan. A decade ago, religious television channels were struggling to get licenses, and there were scant few personality driven religious shows on local cable. The media houses hadn’t picked up on the potential yet, fast forward to this Ramzan and you can’t unfurl a prayer mat without knocking over a religious celebrity. The prime time slots are filled with religious talk shows, game shows, religious music, shows discussing the finer points of Islam and Ramzan themed cooking shows.
The two front-runners, as far as ratings go, are ARY’s Shan-e-Ramzan with Waseem Badami and Express’ Ramzan Pakistan with Amir Liaquat Hussain. ARY’s offering, while an extravagant and colourful affair with gifts and quizzes and sing-along Naats with appearances by Junaid Jamshed, pales in comparison to Amir Liaquat’s surreal mix of religion, reality television and burlesque.
Dr. Amir Liaquat, as he calls himself, has over the years, become both the preeminent and the most notorious religious celebrity of this country. Last year he was doing a similarly over the top Ramzan transmission for Geo called Pehchaan Ramzan, this year he’s jumped channels to Express, slotting into a presidential position at the new media network, something that he was allegedly denied at his previous one, where he felt he was too big and Geo was treating him too small.
The history of this man both on and off the airwaves is somewhat of a saga in itself. Born in 1971 in Karachi, Amir Liaquat Hussain is the son of Sheikh Liaquat Hussain, who was an MNA from an MQM ticket in 1997. The young Amir followed in his father’s footsteps, joined the MQM and also won a seat in the National Assembly in the 2002 elections which were held under the dictatorial regime of Pervez Musharraf.
He served as a minister of religious affairs till 2007. It was with this MQM clout that he got his first programme on Geo, a religious talk show where people could phone in with their problems and get scholarly advice from Muftis, Aalims and of course Amir Liaquat himself. It was called Aalim Online and gained immense popularity at the time.
In those days he was still known as Dr. Amir Liaquat, an epithet he had to formally do away with after it was found that his educational degrees were fake, in 2005. Two years later he would have to resign from his ministry and assembly seats as well, as the MQM had grown weary of his controversies, his declarations against Ahmedis and the general antics he displayed on his show.
A video was leaked on YouTube showing him abusing and insulting people while he thought he was off the air, during the many recordings of Aalim Online. The video went viral and Amir, instead of losing his job or status as a religious personality, became even more famous. As they say, there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Meanwhile, the MQM formerly kicked him out of the party in 2010. Around this time he quit Geo to join ARY as an executive director, where he imitated his own religious talk show with title that now read Aalim aur Aalam. Two years later he would quit ARY to rejoin Geo and the rest as they say, is history.
Last year on his Geo based Ramzan stint, he tried giving away babies on national television, insulted the elderly, rode a motorbike on set, draped snakes around his guests and gave away cheap souvenirs for his show’s contestants (it was essentially a religious game show with Naatkhwani and question answer sessions).
This year, he’s topped that by asking a man to strip naked on national television, stuffed a mango into the face of another, insulted women, insulted children, insulted many historical and religious figures, and generally insulted anyone who’s appeared on his show (it’s still a religious game show, but with even more antics and this time, much more head scratching questions than answers).
The Sunnis deny that he’s one of them, the Shia’s deny that he’s one of them, even the normally all welcoming Barelvis deny that he has anything to do with them. Nobody seems to own his bizarre version of history or Islam, no one seems to like his particularly egotistical, crass, vulgar brand of televangelism, and yet, no one can seem to take their eyes off him.
His show remains a huge pull on the prime time slot. It’s second in numbers only to the aforementioned ARY show, and his cult of personality just seems to grow larger and larger every year. It’s interesting though that PEMRA, an organization so unnaturally swift at censoring liberal, secular or anti-establishment sentiments from the air waves, has been standing by idly watching this strange man making a mockery of his culture, his religion and himself.
Perhaps the sponsors and advertisements his show draws are just too much to turn down. Or perhaps PEMRA only regulates what is threatening to powers that be, and not what is threatening to human decency and rational thought.
The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad