Saturday, September 15, 2012

Pakistan's repentant TV superstar says he is now a voice of tolerance, writes Declan Walsh in Karachi.

A billboard of Aamir Liaquat Hussain.
Popular ... a billboard promoting Liaquat Hussain in Karachi.

The audience erupted as Aamir Liaquat Hussain, Pakistan's premier televangelist, darted around the television studio, firing off questions about Islam. ''How many gates are there to heaven?'' he challenged.
Children leapt from their seats, their mothers yelled answers, fathers strained forward, all hoping to catch the eye of Hussain, who worked the crowd like a circus ringmaster - cajoling, teasing, rewarding.

''Show me the tongue of a snake!'' he commanded a bearded man, as part of a question about symbolic serpents. The man obediently stuck out his tongue, prompting hoots of laughter.

Come on down ... a studio audience watches Aamir Liaquat Hussain on set. He calls his controversial show a combination of religion and enterainment. 
To the victors, Hussain tossed prizes: mobile phones, tubs of cooking oil, chits for plots of land, shirts from his own clothing line. Then he vanished, briefly, only to return on a purring motorbike, also up for grabs.

When a shy-looking man answered Hussain's theological teaser correctly, the preacher grabbed the man's hand and thrust it high in the manner of a prizefighter. The audience applauded.

''It's the Islamic version of The Price Is Right,'' the studio manager, standing behind a camera, said.
Hussain, 41, is a broadcasting sensation in Pakistan. His marathon transmissions during the recent holy month of Ramadan - 11 hours a day for 30 days straight - offered viewers a kaleidoscopic mix of prayer, preaching, game shows and cookery, and won record ratings for his channel, Geo Entertainment.

''This is not just a religious show. We want to entertain people through Islam,'' Hussain said during a backstage interview, serving up a chicken dish he had prepared on the show. ''And the people love it.''

Yet Hussain is also a deeply contentious figure, accused of using his television pulpit to promote hate speech and crackpot conspiracy theories. He once derided a video showing Taliban fighters flogging a young woman as an ''international conspiracy''. He supported calls to kill the author Salman Rushdie.

Most controversially, in 2008 he hosted a show in which Muslim clerics declared that members of the Ahmadi community, a vulnerable religious minority, were ''deserving of death''. Forty-eight hours later, two Ahmadi leaders were shot dead in Punjab and Sindh provinces.

Now, Hussain casts himself as a repentant sinner. In his first Ramadan broadcast, he declared that Ahmadis had an ''equal right to freedom'' and issued a broad apology for ''anything I had said or done''. In interviews, prompted by his own management, he portrays himself as a torchbearer for progressive values.

''Islam is a religion of harmony, love and peace,'' he said. ''But tolerance is the main thing.''

In some ways, Hussain is emblematic of the cable television revolution that has shaped public discourse in Pakistan over the past decade. He was the face of Geo when the Urdu-language station began broadcasting from a five-star hotel in Karachi in 2002. Then he went political, winning a parliamentary seat in elections late that year. The station gave him a religious chat show, Aalim Online, which brought together Sunni and Shiite clerics. The show received a broad welcome in a society troubled by sectarian tensions. It also brought Hussain to the attention of the military leader General Pervez Musharraf, who was reportedly touched by its content. In 2005, Musharraf appointed him junior minister for religious affairs, a post he held for two years.

Hussain's success, with his manic energy and quick-fire smile, is rooted in his folksy broadcasting style, described as charming by fans and oily by critics. By his own admission, he has little formal religious training, apart from a mail-order doctorate in Islamic studies he obtained from an online Spanish university in order to qualify for election in 2002.

''I have the experience of thousands of clerics; in my mind there are thousands of answers,'' he said.
That pious image was dented in 2011 when embarrassing out-takes from his show, leaked on YouTube, showed him swearing like a sailor during the breaks and making crude jokes with chuckling clerics. ''It was my lighter side,'' Hussain said. (Previously, he had claimed the tapes were doctored.)

But that episode did little to hurt his appeal to the middle-class Pakistanis who form his core audience. ''Aamir Liaquat is a warm, honest and soft-natured person,'' Shahida Rao, a veiled Karachi resident, said as she entered a recent broadcast, accompanied by her six-year-old grandson. ''We like him a lot.''

The network's chief executive, Mir Ibrahim Rahman, a 34-year-old Harvard graduate, argues that Pakistan needs people like Hussain, who hold water with Islamic conservatives, to incrementally change society.
''We need people like him to ease us down the mountain.''

To placate internal critics, Geo has just published a code of conduct for its journalists. ''We've taken stock of the excesses that have been committed,'' the channel's president, Imran Aslam, said referring to a variety of controversies involving the station. ''It's an important start.''

But commercial imperatives also loom large, and in that arena, Hussain's value is unquestioned.

Competition for ratings at Ramadan is fierce among Pakistan's television stations, and this year the race had a feverish feel. One station hired Veena Malik, a racy actress better known for posing semi-nude for an Indian magazine, to present its religious programs. One of her shows featured a live exorcism of a supernatural spirit that, conveniently enough, had called the station by telephone. Another station broadcast the conversion of a Hindu boy to Islam, drawing wide criticism.
By contrast, Hussain's show seemed a model of restraint, though the set's extravagance may have suggested otherwise.
The centrepiece was a giant boat that represented Noah's Ark, but closely resembled a craft from the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise. Live animals wandered the set, including flamingos, peacocks and deer. 

Studio guests included Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapon program, and Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned-conservative politician. Ratings peaked on August 12 when the studio moved to a cavernous exhibition hall that held 30,000 people - the largest studio audience in Pakistan's history, executives said.

Hussain, unsurprisingly, has become rich.

Although his salary is a closely guarded secret, Geo sources said top names could earn $US30,000 a month - income that, in Hussain's case, is increased by lucrative product sponsorship deals, his clothing line and by leading religious pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia.

He keeps tight security, including bodyguards and an armoured vehicle, since his acrimonious departure from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a political party at the centre of Karachi's often violent power struggles, in 2008. A senior party official said Hussain had ''nothing to fear'' from the party.

Hussain hopes to shrug off controversy in his latest incarnation. ''Even the liberals will love me,'' he said, a touch optimistically. He has even developed a soft spot for the US, the bete noire of Pakistani conservatives. After a family holiday in New York last year, he returned with a honey sauce that he uses during his cooking broadcasts.
''I call it my Manhattan sauce,'' he said.

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