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Asia

Pakistani Televangelist Is Back On Air, Raising Fears

Originally published on Thu August 23, 2012 3:32 pm

As Pakistan's media has expanded in recent years, there's been a rise in Islamic preachers with popular TV call-in talk shows. And they've had their share of scandal. One famous TV host fled the country after embezzlement allegations. Others are accused of spewing hate speech.

That's the case for Pakistan's most popular televangelist, Aamir Liaquat, who's just been rehired by the country's top TV channel despite accusations that he provoked deadly attacks in 2008.

Liaquat, 41, is once again the face of Pakistan's biggest and richest private TV station, Geo TV. He also appears in commercials for everything from cooking oil to an Islamic bank. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, he's been broadcasting live 11 hours a day — while fasting — and drawing record ratings.

"I say peace be with you, from the deepest core of my heart, with all sincerity and respect," he says warmly to viewers.

But the beaming TV personality has not always sounded so benign.

Four years ago, Liaquat did an hourlong special on a religious sect known as the Ahmadis. They consider themselves Muslim. But under a constitutional amendment in Pakistan, they are banned from calling themselves Muslim.

They believe in the Prophet Muhammad. But they also believe in Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, a 19th-century figure they believe was the messiah. Many Muslims call that blasphemy.

On live TV in 2008, Liaquat condemned the Ahmadis' messiah.

"He was like a dead body in terms of morality and character," Liaquat said. "He never spoke the truth and never kept his promises. He was a coward. His speech and writings make me vomit."

Then he sat nodding in approval while a guest mullah said people like the Ahmadis' messiah should be killed.

"Anyone who claims to be a prophet is an infidel, and deserves to be murdered," Maulana Muhammad Ameen said.

A Surge In Targeted Killings

Since that broadcast, violence has left hundreds of Ahmadis dead. Ahmadi Najm's husband — a pediatrician with his own clinic — was one of them.

"It was the 17th of August, 2010," Najm recalls. "He was closing his clinic, and had just started his car, and they came — some unknown people. They fired. At the spot, he was dead. He got about 30 bullets in his chest."

The 33-year-old widow speaks from a safe house in Karachi, where Ahmadis hide during bouts of violence against them.

Behind a padlocked door, Najm and her three children huddle together. Her baby girl was just 2 1/2 months old when her father was killed.

"My relatives called me, and they said, 'Your husband ...' " she stops, sobbing. "He was a very good husband, a very good friend of mine, and a very good father. And a very good doctor, also."

And there are many others at the safe house: a man whose 80-year-old father was gunned down while watering his garden. Another whose 30-year-old son was killed after a newspaper published his address. And a survivor — 34-year-old Mohammad Aslam Bhatti, whose jaw is wired shut after a bullet passed through his head.

"I put my hands like this, to ask, 'Why are you killing me? Please spare me," Bhatti says. "They just opened indiscriminate fire. And then I fell down."

Fired, Then Rehired

No suspect has been arrested in any of these cases. Ahmadis have long been persecuted in Pakistan, but community leader Masood Ahmed Khan says targeted killings surged after Liaquat's broadcast.

"So we as a community always blame him. You know, the blood on his hands doesn't mean that he killed somebody directly — but he instigated it," Khan says.

Liaquat refused multiple requests from NPR for an interview, but sent a message through his manager emphasizing his popularity in Pakistan.

He lost his job at Geo TV over the Ahmadi program and the violence that ensued. But a rival channel scooped him up before long. And this summer, Liaquat returned to Geo TV with fanfare — and an even bigger salary.

Nadeem Paracha, a Pakistani journalist, says the way Liaquat's comeback was advertised was "just sickening."

"How can you bring back a person who's been accused — not only by the Ahmadi community, but by a lot of people? There's so much evidence there," Paracha says. "How can you call the same guy back?"

That's a question for Liaquat's boss, Imran Aslam, the president of Geo TV.

"He is a broadcaster par excellence. But he must know his parameters," Aslam says.

He says he rehired Liaquat on the condition that he sign a new code of ethics.

"We wanted to know whether he had, I wouldn't use the word 'repented,' but certainly [would be] a little more careful," Aslam says.

Minorities Are Wary

Still, the TV executive acknowledges that bringing Liaquat back could be a gamble.

"Not only the Ahmadis, but there's a large section of the liberal population of Pakistan, which is fearful of what he could unleash. So it's a double-edged sword," Aslam says. "The guy could become a Frankenstein monster — I don't deny that. But I think he's been chastised a bit — and chastened a bit, too."

So Liaquat is back on TV, more popular than ever. For the slain pediatrician's widow, Najm, that's scary proof that intolerance is accepted — even rewarded — in Pakistan's mainstream media.

Najm says her children face it in schools, from classmates as young as 6 or 7.

"Their fellows ask, 'Are you Shia or are you Sunni? Oh, you're Ahmadi? Ahmadis are not Muslims,' " Najm says.

Pakistan's government has a media regulation group whose job is to police the airwaves for hate speech. But the group, which goes by its acronym PEMRA, has opened few investigations in its 10-year history — and none in defense of religious minorities. Critics accuse the agency of bowing to popular media figures like Liaquat, rather than doing the job it was created to do.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Pakistan has its own version of TV evangelists. They're Islamic preachers who hold call-in shows on cable television. Like some of their Christian counterparts in the United States, they have had their share of scandal. One host fled Pakistan after embezzlement allegations. Others are accused of spewing hate speech.

NPR's Lauren Frayer has this profile of Pakistan's most popular televangelist. He's just been rehired despite accusations that he has blood on his hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEO TV BROADCAST)

AAMIR LIAQUAT: (Foreign language spoken)

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Aamir Liaquat is once again the face of Pakistan's biggest and richest private TV station, Geo TV. He's also on commercials for everything from cooking oil to an Islamic bank. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, he broadcast live 11 hours a day, while fasting, and drew record ratings.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEO TV BROADCAST)

LIAQUAT: (Through translator) To all my viewers, I say peace be with you from the deepest core of my heart, with all sincerity and respect.

FRAYER: But this beaming TV personality once struck a sinister tone.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEO TV BROADCAST)

LIAQUAT: (Foreign language spoken)

FRAYER: In 2008, Liaquat did a one-hour special on the Ahmadis, members of an offshoot sect of Islam who are banned in Pakistan from calling themselves Muslim. They believe in the Prophet Muhammad, but also in a 19th-century figure they believe was the messiah. Many Muslims call that blasphemy. On live TV, Liaquat condemned the Ahmadis' messiah.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEO TV BROADCAST)

LIAQUAT: (Through translator) He was like a dead body in terms of morality and character. He never spoke the truth and never kept his promises. He was a coward. His speech and writings make me vomit.

FRAYER: Then he sat nodding in approval while a guest mullah said people like the Ahmadis' messiah should be killed.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEO TV BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) Anyone who claims to be a prophet is an infidel and deserves to be murdered.

FRAYER: That broadcast unleashed a wave of violence that's left hundreds of Ahmadis dead in the past four years. Ahmadi Najm's husband, a pediatrician with his own clinic, was one of them.

AHMADI NAJM: It was the 17th of August, 2010. And he was closing his clinic, and just started his car, and they came - some unknown people. They fired. At the spot, he was dead. And he got about 30 bullets in the chest.

FRAYER: I met the 33-year-old widow at a safe house in Karachi, where Ahmadis hide during bouts of violence against them.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

FRAYER: Behind a padlocked door, Najm and her three children huddle together. Her baby girl was just two-and-a-half months old when her father was killed.

NAJM: My relatives called me, and they said your husband, he was a very good husband, a very good friend of mine. He was a very good father, and a very good doctor, also.

FRAYER: Also here, the man whose 80-year-old father was gunned down while watering his garden, another whose 30-year-old son was killed after a newspaper published his address, and a survivor - 34-year-old Mohammad Aslam Bhatti - whose jaw is wired shut after a bullet passed through his head.

MOHAMMAD ASLAM BHATTI: (Through translator) I put my hands like this, to ask: Why are you killing me? Please spare me. They just opened indiscriminate fire. And then I fell down.

FRAYER: No suspect has been arrested in any of these cases. Ahmadis have long been persecuted in Pakistan, but community leader Masood Ahmed Khan says targeted killings surged by 70 percent after Liaquat's broadcast.

MASOOD AHMED KHAN: So, we as a community always blame him. You know, the blood on his hands doesn't mean that he killed somebody directly, but he instigated it.

FRAYER: Liaquat refused multiple requests from an interview, but sent a message through his manager emphasizing his popularity in Pakistan. He lost his job at Geo TV over the Ahmadi program and the violence that ensued. But a rival channel scooped him up before long. And this summer, Liaquat returned to Geo TV with fanfare, and an even bigger salary.

NADEEM PARACHA: The way his comeback was advertised was sickening.

FRAYER: Nadeem Paracha is a Pakistani journalist whose newspaper, Dawn, censored him from writing about Liaquat's case, though he's managed to blog and tweet about it.

PARACHA: How can you bring back a person who's been accused, not only by the Ahmadi community, but by a lot of people? There's so much evidence there. How come you can call the same guy back?

FRAYER: That's a question for Liaquat's boss, Imran Aslam, the president of Geo TV.

IMRAN ASLAM: He is a broadcaster par excellence, but he must know his parameters.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Aslam says he rehired Liaquat on the condition that he sign a new code of ethics.

ASLAM: We wanted to know whether he had - I wouldn't use the word repented, but certainly a little more careful.

FRAYER: Still, Aslam acknowledges that bringing Liaquat back could be a gamble.

ASLAM: Not only the Ahmadis, but there's a large section of the liberal population of Pakistan which is fearful of what he could unleash. So, I mean, it's a double-edged sword. I mean, the guy is - could become a Frankenstein monster. I don't deny that. But I think he's been chastised a bit, and chastened a bit, as well.

FRAYER: So Liaquat is back on TV, more popular than ever before. For the slain pediatrician's widow, Najm, that's scary proof that intolerance is accepted - even rewarded - in mainstream media here.

NAJM: We went in school and, like, my doctor says that there are fellows ask are you Shia or are you Sunni? Oh, you are Ahmadis. Ahmadis are not Muslims. Like seven years or six years children talk about this.

FRAYER: The only other player in all this - or rather non-player - is the government. Pakistan has a media regulator tasked with policing the airwaves for hate speech. But the group, which goes by its acronym PEMRA, has opened few investigations in its 10-year history, and none in defense of religious minorities. Critics accuse the agency of bowing to popular media moguls like Liaquat rather than doing its job. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Islamabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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