A Superstar Televangelist in Pakistan Divides, Then Repents
(Note: a Murderer becomes repentant – Amir Liaqat Husain)
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 Mr. 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.
To the victors, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 ‘The Price is Right,’ ” said the studio manager, standing behind a camera.
Mr. 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,” Mr. Hussain said during a backstage interview, serving up a chicken dish he had prepared on the show. “And the people love it.”
Yet Mr. 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, one of them an American citizen, had been shot dead in Punjab and Sindh Provinces.
Many media critics held Mr. Hussain partly responsible, and the show so appalled American diplomats that they urged the State Department to sever a lucrative contract with Geo, which they accused of “specifically targeting” Ahmadis, according to a November 2008 cable published by WikiLeaks.
Now, Mr. 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, as he waited to have his makeup refreshed. “But tolerance is the main thing.”
IN some ways, Mr. 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 upstart, 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 Mr. Hussain to the attention of the military leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who was reportedly touched by its content. In 2005, General Musharraf appointed him junior minister for religious affairs, a post he held for two years.
Mr. 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 outtakes 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,” Mr. Hussain said. (Previously, he had claimed the tapes were doctored.)