Dr Aamir Liaquat Hussain returns this Ramadan to win the blindly obeying hearts and minds of Pakistani citizens
A plethora of delusional televangelists can be found across Pakistan’s media landscape. A cursory flick through the nation’s channels during the holy month of Ramadan reveals all manner of self-styled religious scholars giving the feeble minded advice on issues ranging from preferential trouser length to whether it’s alright to work alongside women. Foremost amongst these for quite some years now has remained mini-fatwa specialist, Dr Aamir Liaquat Hussain.
In Pakistan last summer, an aunty of mine would practically perform wudhu, ablutions, and don a headscarf prior to tuning in to his show – Alim Online – every night, where Dr Sahib could be found adorned in sparkly sherwanis, imparting knowledge to the masses. It wouldn’t take long for the eminent scholar to be wailing, shaking, with hands pointed towards the heavens, making supplications for the population. Millions nationwide, transfixed by his seeming piety would wipe tears from their eyes in unison. Laughing at the spectacle, I was regularly tutted at for failing to show respect – for close to God this man assuredly was. Could I not see the noor, heavenly light, emanating from his face? Had I not heard of the miracles? Take, for example, his doctorate in Islamic studies, which he was able to complete within three weeks of finishing his master’s degree. ‘Subhan’Allah!’ I hear you scream.
In 2006, Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission declared his degree, master’s, and doctorate unrecognised. It materialised that his certificates were purchased from a degree-mill in Spain. Not a big problem, you might suggest, considering the Chief Minister of Baluchistan and close ally of the President once remarked, ‘A degree is a degree, whether real or fake’. Indeed the incumbent president Asif Ali Zardari isn’t in possession of one either, after being caught with his pants down on the issue several times – his naming of an imaginary London college was a particular highlight.
Returning to our esteemed scholar, the more sensible among us saw right through his facade from day one. On billboards everywhere could be found his airbrushed face, often starward gazing; the sight would make you want to hurl something at him. Or simply hurl.
Formerly part of the Mutahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), and once enjoying the position of Religious Affairs Minister in the cabinet of Shaukat Aziz, he was booted in 2010 out of his party for fanning religious hatred. Intolerance and fantastical conspiracy theories happen to be some of Liaquat’s specialties, aided by nifty oration, pretentious Urdu, and a melodious voice. Famously, in late 2008, he and two guests on his popular show declared members of the smaller Ahmadi sect of Islam, Wajib-ul-Qatl, deserving of death. Within two days of its airing, two prominent Ahmadi community leaders were shot dead and many more were forced to flee their homes. When later grilled about the incident, Liaquat point blank refused to accept any responsibility. Is it any wonder minority groups are doing all they can today to flee the country?
His official website continues to describe him as a ‘symbol of love, peace and harmony’, a ‘spokesperson of the oppressed’. In fact, so high from the aroma of his own flatus is the great scholar, that his badly written ‘About’ section is entitled, ‘The Profile of a Legend’. Qur’anic verses stressing the importance of modesty seem to have eluded him thus far.
Among other spectacular acts of stupidity, in an episode aired in January 2010, Liaquat asked whether the national cricket teams losses against Australia were due to team members having green soles in their shoes; the colour of both Islam and the national flag. Clearly, a desecration deserving of divine punishment. In a comical piece for the Pakistani daily, Dawn, columnist Nadeem Paracha pondered whether the team should thus abstain from playing on grass, or walking on most of Pakistan’s landmass for that matter.
With Pakistanis nationwide continuing to lap up his sermons and melodrama, it wasn’t until a video leak on 14 August 2010 that many thought his career might finally be over. The nine-minute video gave viewers an insight into his holiness’ off-air antics during commercial breaks. Sitting comfortably in his studio with his trademark hair, a side partition with enough tarka, oil, for you to fry Ramadan samosas in, Dr Sahib receives a phone call from a desperate sounding woman asking about the permissibility of committing suicide. Such is his concern for this woman that seconds into a commercial break he bursts out laughing. Next, he expresses his appreciation for a certain ‘marvelous’ Bollywood rape scene, asking two bemused guests repeatedly whether or not they’d seen the film Ghalib. Effing and blinding throughout, he also sporadically breaks in to Bollywood numbers: ‘Ghalib film dekhi hai apne?’ (‘have you seen the film, Ghalib?’) became a favourite line for bloggers, many of whom now dubbed his programme Jahil (Simpleton) Online. The entire episode had me clapping my hands in glee, his bubble now assuredly burst.
Not soon afterwards, the respected doctor accused his former employers of hatching a dastardly plot against him. Jealous of his ratings during Ramadan, Geo, a rival channel with the special effects prowess of an underwhelming five-year-old with crayons, of course managed to cook up the hand gestures, mouth movements, facial expressions, and voiceover in their studios. How could we ever have doubted him?
Shortly after the debacle, George Fulton, writing for the Express Tribune lamented Pakistani society would no doubt continue to support and believe this charlatan, which sadly is precisely what happened. And so, after a lengthy hiatus, Liaquat returned this Ramadan. The Jahil is back online with a new show, Pehchan Ramzan, joining other demagogues such as morality expert Maya Khan, who spends her days chasing couples in public parks in order to establish whether or not they’re married, and the charismatic red-capped Zaid Hamid, whose eclectic mix of religion and politics takes the art of conspiracy peddling to entirely new levels.
The country’s passion for televangelists and conspiracy pushers is, George feels, explained by a lust for simple answers to complex problems, as well as an inability to accept unsavoury truths. The Zaid Hamids and Amir Liaqats of the world make us feel good, safe even. It isn’t easy to accept shades of grey in religion, especially when you’re averse to utilising brain cells. We expect the answers to every question conceivable to be provided to us on a platter, a list of can-dos and can’t-dos, halals and harams, at most a twenty-second telephone call away. Neither is it easy to accept that your country’s going down the proverbial gutter. Whacky television hosts must be at hand to point the finger at clandestine foreign forces bent on destroying Islam and the country as we know it, every time an explosion rips through a bustling city centre.
Sadly, religion in the country often seems to have regressed to a matter of symbols and rituals. Lying, cheating, and stealing remain forgivable offences, but fail to don the right attire and you attract the perpetual ire of the ghairat, decency, brigade. And so it is that shady individuals like Babar Awan, the former Federal Minister for Law in a kleptocracy so corrupt it felt the need to dismiss Transparency International, is able to host his own Qur’an show. For Urdu speakers, here he is at his most shameless, defending Mr 10% himself against Imran Khan back in 2008. The idea of being taught Qur’anic exegesis by a once central character in arguably Pakistan’s most corrupt government to date is beyond laughable, akin to Bibi Netenyahu teaching human rights law. Yet somehow it flies; viewers can today regularly tune in to Qasas ul Qur’an on ARY digital, where they will find Awan, dressed like a pimp in a pinstripe suit, dropping religious dictats by the minute. Interestingly, it is widely acknowledged that Babar Awan’s doctorate too, is fraudulent, an issue that has recently come back to haunt him at the Supreme Court. A pattern seems to be emerging here?
But where opposition lacked towards this programme’s airing, it came in ample supply for another proposed Ramadan programme. Some weeks ago, popular furore erupted following Hero TV’s announcement that a certain Veena Malik would be hosting an Iftaar show. Once a witty television actress with quite some promise, Mrs Malik fell from grace following an appearance on season 4 of Indian reality show Bigg Boss, in which her antics with small time actor Ashmit Patel were deemed indecent. On her return to the country, she became the darling of leftists, liberals and women’s rights activists alike, following an appearance on a current affairs programme in which she took on a brain-dead mullah who accused her of shaming the nation. ‘We have bigger things to worry about’, she reminded him. Subsequently however, a new-found penchant for shedding clothes wherever possible and appearing in men’s magazine spreads saw her back to square one in national morality ratings. Such were the level of complaints against her proposed show that Hero TV eventually pulled it.
In the run up to the show’s cancellation, hilarious memes were buzzing around Facebook. One that had me rolling on the floor contained the caption, ‘Mai kholoungi aap ka roza, iftari se pehle’ – ‘I’ll be opening your fast, before dusk’ (I won’t elaborate, I’m fasting myself). In and of itself, the reaction was perhaps understandable, but stepping back somewhat, why the double standard? Why is it that cheap self-publicists like Mrs Malik are bitterly rejected, yet those guilty of massive corruption, fraud, and deceit are accepted with open arms? If anything, the former is a saint in comparison.
I figure I might as well start my own religious show one of these days. Writing doesn’t pay anything. And telling commoners how to behave seems fairly appealing. All I need now is a sparkly sherwani, a plasticky studio, a bucket of tarka for my hair, and a little more melody in my voice. Must watch that Ghalib film too.
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