The Rise of Pakistan’s Televangelists
Islamic groups in Pakistan were initially hostile to cable TV because of concerns about “obscene” foreign imports, but religion now dominates the airwaves. A new breed of Islamic TV evangelist has emerged, leading to a confrontation with liberals.
On any day of the week, television in Pakistan is a potent cocktail of soap operas, fiery political debate and, increasingly, pop-Islam.
This last strand of programming has a set format. Viewers call up to ask questions about Islamic rulings on everything from hair removal to ethical mortgages. The anchors - part celebrity, part religious leaders - dish out bite-size fatwas (theological rulings) for audiences with a seemingly insatiable appetite for religion on TV.
Controversy has surrounded many of these programmes and the pious presenters that front them.
Farhat Hashmi has been accused of embezzling funds from her television show and fleeing to Canada to avoid prosecution, although she denies any wrongdoing. And Mehar Bukhari, known for her political interviews, sparked outrage by declaring the politician she was speaking to was a heretic.
Another mullah clashed with a Bollywood actress on live television after condemning her behaviour - that clip subsequently became a viral hit.
But the best-known of all the TV evangelists is Dr Amir Liaqat. From a glossy television studio above a parade of run-down shops in Karachi, he had an audience of millions for Alim aur Alam, a live one-hour show that went out five days a week across Pakistan.
The programme allowed Dr Liaqat to play the role of a religious “Agony Uncle”, remedying the religious dilemmas of his audience.
In September 2008, Liaqat dedicated an entire episode to exploring the beliefs of the Ahmedis, a Muslim sect which has been declared as “un-Islamic” by much of the orthodoxy. In it, two scholars said that anyone who associated with false prophets was “worthy of murder”.
Dr Khalid Yusaf, an Ahmedi Muslim, watched the programme with his family, and says he was shocked that a mainstream channel would broadcast this kind of material.