Is Pakistan’s TV evangelism sprouting a dangerous creed of intolerance?


Pakistanis credit General Parvez Musharraf for liberalizing the media when he assumed power in a bloodless military coup in October 1999. In a few short years thereafter, Pakistan’s private TV industry boomed and channels sprouted everywhere, from news to entertainment, cooking and fashion shows to regional channels and religion channels.

After decades spent watching state controlled TV, even under democratically elected governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, Pakistanis woke up to a new era of no holds barred TV. Politicians were grilled by fearless journalists, events were reported live with no censoring of content -- at times making the average person squirm as scenes of death, destruction were beamed live into living rooms.

But as print journalists became media superstars, and film actors or super models became household names with day time talk shows, so did religious scholars and Islamization came to the forefront on screens, almost reflecting the rise of anti-American sentiment and religious zealousness that just didn’t have room for tolerance.

One man that stands out among a plethora of talking heads on TV is Aamir Liaquat, whose foray into televangelism began at Geo TV, Pakistan’s largest media house. There, Liaquat held forth on an array of issues, answering queries on seemingly inane matters like whether a prayer mat could be washed in a washing machine to bigger issues on spiritual matter. He was as reviled as he was beloved.

Liaquat has been a subject of intense scrutiny in the media, from his “fake” PhD (allegedly bought online just a few weeks after he reportedly got a Masters degree) to leaked video outtakes in which he was seen cursing profanities prior to coming on camera for a show. He was also hauled up by the police for driving a car with tinted windows in Karachi a few years ago, when it was illegal, but as a then parliamentarian, he was let off scot free, not before the press reported that he was caught with a woman in the car.

Despite the drubbing he received, his popularity was not affected until a show in September 2008 in which he castigated Pakistan’s minority Muslim community, the Ahmadis, The two guest scholars he invited on the show said anyone who called Ahmadis Muslims were “waajib al qatl” (worthy of death).

One day later, an Ahmadi was shot in Sindh, the following day another prominent Ahmadi was killed.

“I have no regrets because it has nothing to do with me,” he told BBC Magazine on July 14. “I’m hurt by what happened and I’m sorry for the families but it has nothing to do with me or anything that was said on my program.”

Not everyone brought it. The Asian Human Rights Commission filed a complaint against him saying his cajoling led to the death of the two men following his TV show.

Liaquat was also sacked from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, of which he was a member and had won an election ticket in 2002 with, for the anti-Ahmadi TV outburst, saying his beliefs clashed with the secular party’s ideology.

But Geo only suspended his live programs.

None of that has dented Liaquat’s popularity, or credibility, who, after a brief spell with a rival TV network where he hosted another religious talk show, signed up with Geo last month to return to his alma mater. Not just as a TV host but also in senior management position -- much to the chagrin of season senior journalists and management at GEO, one of whom, popular political analyst Sana Bucha, resigned in protest.

But it appears that Liaquat will ride the waves of this controversy out too, as he is now a brand, loved by cooking oils that he endorses to housewives who wait eagerly for his sermons, for which no one can verify his religious qualifications.

Who will take on the TV mullahs?

Liaquat is not alone in using TV as a platform to air views that cater to right-wing Islam in Pakistan whose presence is felt by the growing numbers of women wearing the niqaab on the streets to the rise in dars (religious sermons) especially tailor made for the elite.

Intolerance is evidenced in the collective silence of a democratically elected secular government of the Pakistan Peoples Party which has lost two of its stalwarts to violent and gruesome murders: Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer in January 2011 by his armed guard who murdered the man for the governor's support of a Christian woman languishing in jail on trumped up blasphemy charges to the death of the country's minorities minister a few months later, Shahbaz Bhatti.

Weeks prior to his death, Taseer appeared on a TV show with host Meher Bukhari who practically accused the governor of blasphemy as he tried to explain his defense of a Christian woman languishing in jail on what he said were trumped up charges. Taseer was leading a case for a presidential pardon before he was killed in broad daylight.

Then the politicians retreated to their corners, ostensibly sensing the mood in the country which had no room for tolerating anything perceived as blasphemous.

An innumerable amount of people have been charged in false cases of blasphemy that have led to murders, extra judicial killings and constant threat to lives.

Blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan.

Earlier this month a mentally ill man was dragged from a police station, beaten to death and his body burned by a group of vigilantes on charges that he had burned the Quran. The police stood by helpless.

“Very few people come out alive once there is a suspicion,” chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Zohra Yusuf told the Washington Post on Friday. “Even if they are not formally charged, they are killed. They have been killed in prisons, in hospitals. We’ve reached a stage where even talking about it is blasphemous.”

In this hostile environment, who will take the mullahs on? Lawyers hesitate before taking on blasphemy cases as their lives too are under threat.

Ask Pakistani actress Veena Malik who gained fame when she was called on a live TV show and challenged a cleric for his derision towards her. Malik was a contestant on an Indian version of a Big Brother in which she caused shock and outrage for her seemingly close relationship with an Indian contestant. On the show, she was attacked for defaming Pakistan but she fought back -- and attracted the usual ire but also support from the small group of liberals and seculars.

“I was speaking for myself when I said it is up to every woman what she chooses to wear,” she told BBC. “The struggle for women’s rights in Pakistan is completely linked to religious minority rights. There are few people that can speak out like this. I can so I did.”

Where are the authorities?

Pakistan Electronic Media and Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), has a code of ethics that critics accuse it of not applying. It is seen by many as a “toothless organization” as BBC reported for its failure to take strict action.

It fails to implement its policy on not showing images of death and destruction and it does not haul up people on TV for inciting hatred and intolerance -- issues it has the right to do.

While sex sells elsewhere in the world, in Pakistan it’s religion. So moderate scholars who want to promote peace and progressive values take a backseat, unable to find sponsors for a show that TV executives believe won’t sell. Instead management at stations like Geo are willing to put back on air a man like Liaquat who has been disgraced time and again but ultimately proves himself as the comeback king.

(For more on this read: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18729683)