Monday, 15 August 2011

Fake Shaikhs and Engineered Aalams!

On the 14th of August, while Pakistan was basking in the glory of its Independence day Celebrations, a whole new brand of high Drama was slowly unfolding for the country, a drama that would take the internet by storm, and that would cause the Muslim world to debate the ethics and standing of one of Pakistan’s biggest modern-day scholars!
Every one is talking about Amir Liaqat, and as has become common place; their talking for the wrong reasons!
For those of you who are not Urdu speakers, and therefore not familiar with the man; let me go back a little! Amir Liaqat Hussain is a former politician, turned TV personality. He was born to a Shia father and Suni mother, and the intersectarian nature of his life affected his judgements considerably (though it is debatable whether in a positive, or negative manner!). Amir Liaqat was a member of the MQM, even rising to the position of Secretary for Religious Affairs in 2005. He was in post at the time of the ‘Red Mosque crisis, where he was criticised strongly for his leniency towards the militants, even though verbally, he spoke out against extremism and terrorism. He was promptly demoted from within the MQM, thus initiating a new Chapter of his life, the Chapter which relates to the incident in question. He became heavily involved in sectarian/interfaith dialogue, as a result of joining Geo Television, where he became lead presenter of ‘Aalam online, a show featuring scholars from both suni/shia schools, inviting debate/questions and answers from the viewing public. The show brought Amir Liaqat a meteoric rise to fame, generating public speaking engagements from the likes of the Saudi King and the Arabian Interfaith Council!
I first came to know of Amir Liaqat when I joined Geo back in 2003. Though I did not work directly for Aalam Online, I did work within the team that produced it, and Amir was one of those larger than life figures who is impossible to ignore! I was interested in him, not least because of his apparent passion for interfaith! However, as is often the case when faced with such charisma, the myth did not cut the mustard when under scrutiny! Amir Liaqat was quite the showman, a trait which is arguably par for the course when broadcasting across 4 continents to the Muslim Nations of the world! However, he took the show/drama of the whole thing to the extreme! He seemed obsessed with inducing shock and violent reactions, he once presented a programme sitting inside a grave (you’ll find clips of it online), in order to highlight fear of death. He would also stir up a frenzy of tears and anguish while performing duas, particularly during Shaban and Ramadhan, only pausing to ask the staff in his control room “kessa tha mera drama?”. It was when I saw for myself his question about whether or not he had generated enough hype during a show, that I began to wonder if the man was all that he seemed! I often watched him bating suni/shia clerics off against each other, almost urging them on to fight! Such things might seem trivial to those reading this from outside of Pakistan, but in a country where sectarian differences run deep, and where literacy levels are still dangerously low, such ‘bating can potentially have devastating consequences! He began bating shia scholars well in advance of Muharram, on popular suni misconceptions regarding Azadari, the Caliphate of Muawiya and the events of Ashura. His blatant denunciation of shias created hysteria in the community, causing mass attacks on Geo TV Offices in Karachi. Glass was broken, offices looted and staff members injured! The channel desperately wanted rid of him, but what could they do? How can a private channel, already walking a precarious tightrope with the government take an Independent stand against such a huge figure? For all Liaqat’s enemies, his supporters had the potential to generate equal hysteria in their own way! His Production team were helpless. I lived in a shared flat in those days, and it was always filled to capacity each Sunday with journalists who came over to eat parathas and drink a whole lot of masala chai! Liaqat sadly formed the bulk of many a Sunday debate! While many hands were tied, emotions ran high and people were already planning ‘direct action! I clearly remember standing in my Goolshin Flat, waiting for another kettle of tea to boil! A Famous producer (you know who you are, I heard you in the video and I know you read this blog!), was with me and commented “I have so much behind-the-scenes footage of this man you wouldn’t believe it! Roshni, all I have to do is release it to the public, and then watch!”.
Now, I’m not saying this individual was responsible for last night’s events, however its easy to see the touch paper for the video was born way back then. I left Karachi in 2005, thus leaving Jang to fight their own battles with Amir Liaqat! It would be another 3 years before Geo could finally put Amir’s drama to bed! In September 2008, Amir held a TV Debate on the subject of Ahmadiya Muslims, and whether or not they fall within the boundaries of what is considered Islam. His views were extremely encyteful; with one of his fellow scholars saying that Ahmadiyas could legitimately be killed by Muslims for their ‘false beliefs! 24 hours later, 2 Ahmadiyas were shot dead in a district of Rural Sindh! Only then, were the real questions asked, MQM Finally revoked his membership, thus granting Geo the green light to close the door on Liaqat once and for all!
Amir’s story didn’t end here however; and within months, he was appointed Chief Executive of Q TV (the Islamic Channel owned by the ARY Group), where he presented ‘Aalam or Aalam, which was essentially a rebranded version of Aalam online with extra added Liaqat! His bating went on pretty much as before, only with the International power of ARY behind him, he appeared invincible once more! That is, until last night! Just after midnight on August 15th, a video appeared on the Leading Social networking sites entitled “Behind the Scenes with Aalam Online”. The film was composed of a series of uncut clips, depicting Amir’s behaviour on set, but away from the eyes of his viewers! The film shows him using some of the most fowl Obscenities, making crude hand gestures, making fun of Islam/scholars and certain schools of thought, swearing with religious texts before him or in his hands and verbally abusing members of his staff! Despite having allot of direct contact with Liaqat, the footage was allot worse than any thing I had ever seen before! To say I was shocked, was an under-statement! I might have expected this 5 years ago, but why now? And who had been sitting on this material for this long? Within hours, the film had gone viral! Amir appealed via his lawyers to have The video removed by Geo, given that technically the material belonged to them, however Geo were fighting a battle they had already lost! The film was every where; and people reposted links as quickly as they were taken down! Today, Amir Liaqat devoted around 15 minutes of his TV show Aalam or Aalam, to condemn the film and say it is fake, that it is an inside job made by a “certain channel”, designed to create enmity and prevent Islam spreading! If you’ve seen this film, I welcome your thoughts! As a journalist however, I do have to question how/what he means by calling the film fake! Of course, it has been edited; but it is a series of clips from incidents that did take place involving Liaqat, many of which have been witnessed by 7 plus people from his production team, not including guests or any one else who may have been on set. At least one of the incidents highlighted took place in my presence. A woman had telephoned to ask a question regarding suicide in Islam. I should point out that, because the programme is recorded, all of Liaqat’s calls were screened and only recordings of the questions played! A woman rang to ask if suicide was forgiven for a woman who performed it to save her own honour/modesty, doubtless connected to the practise of honour killings which still exist in parts of Pakistan. The Aalam present began to answer the question, while Liaqat burst in to uncontrollable fits of laughter and could not be consoled by any of his team! Interestingly, the accompanying scholars did not offer any Nasiha or try to stop him; whether out of fear or collusion, I don’t know, but they remained quiet! I did not think too much of the incident at the time, other than to recognise that it reaffirmed my disgust in the man! However seeing it before me on the net today reminded me of sitting in the MCR watching it happen! There was also the “kessa tha mere drama?” question which I also witnessed. Whether it was the same clip I don’t know, however a close friend of mine was present in the clip uploaded. The thing is, to say the film is “fake”, would suggest someone had engineered/created images that did not take place, did not exist in real, but significantly, Amir Liaqat has not implicitly denied being the subject in the video, of course: it would be impossible for him to do so! Say for example someone got hold of my 2 wedding films. They made a simulated film of my first marriage and my marriage to Reza, and mixed up the order. They may try to say this is proof I married my first husband last year. The statement from the film would be inaccurate, however it would not detract from the fact that 2 marriages had taken place! Its impossible to tell what will happen to Amir Liaqat; on one hand his superiors at ARY may choose to take a blind eye! After all, any one who’s worked in Pakistani media knows how charged life is, what’s a few ma/ben gaalian among friends! On the other hand, it seems the evidence against Liaqat keeps on piling up, and I doubt those behind the video will give up now! Even if they try; the video has already gone viral online; and in many respects, the damage is probably done!
The whole scandal also brings in to question the status enjoyed by these individuals, re: the title of this post!
There is no denying that Amir Liaqat is in the wrong here, but, who elevated him to such a position where his wrong-doing would create outrage on epidemic proportions?
Geo took him on, but his political position alone was not enough to make him stick; Amir rose to fame, quite simply because the international community gave him a lisence to do so! I’ve heard of at least 3 well known Islamic scholars in the past week or so who have been engaging in, lets say, questionable behaviour, yet should we really expect any different? After all; we are all human, we are all prone to sin and error. While we might expect knowledge to generate higher levels of conduct, I’m personally inclined towards the view that the higher you climb, the harder you fall!
5 years ago, a Pakistani newspaper investigation in to Liaqat found his degree certificates (both BA and PHD), were fake, yet this didn’t appear to impact upon his mass popularity. What do we learn about a society that puts personality over knowledge, that places rhetoric above fact, confidence above legitimacy?
I wonder if what really hurts about the Liaqat drama is the knowledge that we created aspects of it with our own hands! I can only pray that the TV officials and the inner sanctum around Amir Liaqat find the courage during this blessed month to do the right thing, and that the rest of us start to serve as the yard stick to measure excellence, rather than the measure of self-made success!

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