A Superstar Televangelist in Pakistan Divides, Then Repents

Evangelist Aamir Liaquat Hussain (Credit: photos.aag.tv)

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.)

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,” said Shahida Rao, a veiled Karachi resident, as she entered a recent broadcast, accompanied by her 6-year-old grandson. “We like him a lot.”

Senior colleagues at Geo are less enthusiastic. After an accumulation of controversies, including the Ahmadi show and on-air criticism of sex education material in school textbooks, he left the station in 2010. But Geo struggled to find a replacement and last June brought him back, causing consternation among senior anchors and managers, several of whom threatened to resign, senior executives said.

“It created a lot of noise,” said one, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Many of us wanted to know what he was coming back as.”

The answers were provided by the network’s chief executive, Mir Ibrahim Rahman, a 34-year-old Harvard graduate who argues that Pakistan needs people like Mr. Hussain, who hold water with Islamic conservatives, to incrementally change society.

“We are still recovering from the Zia years; we can’t move too fast,” Mr. Rahman said, referring to the excesses of the Islamist dictator Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s. “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,” said the channel’s president, Imran Aslam, referring to a variety of controversies involving the station. “It’s an important start.”

But commercial imperatives also loom large, and in that arena, Mr. 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 seminude 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, Mr. Hussain’s show seemed a model of restraint, though the set’s extravagance may have suggested otherwise.

The centerpiece 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 Aug. 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.

Mr. Hussain, unsurprisingly, has become rich.

Although his salary is a closely guarded secret, Geo sources said top names can earn $30,000 a month — income that, in Mr. 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 armored vehicle, since his acrimonious departure from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a political party at the center of Karachi’s often violent power struggles, in 2008. A senior party official said Mr. Hussain had “nothing to fear” from the party.

Mr. Hussain hopes to shrug controversy off in his latest incarnation. “Even the liberals will love me,” he said, a touch optimistically. He has even developed a soft spot for the United States, the bête noir of Pakistani conservatives. After a family vacation 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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