By Lauren Frayer
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.