Pakistani Televangelist Is Back On Air, Raising Fears Pakistan's most famous, and infamous, TV evangelist has been rehired by a top station. In 2008, Aamir Liaquat made on-air threats against a religious minority, the Ahmadis. Those comments were followed by widespread violence against the group. Liaquat's return to the airwaves has rekindled the controversy.

Pakistani Televangelist Is Back On Air, Raising Fears

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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.


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.


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


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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