The Talented Mr. Liaquat

Published in The Express Tribune – photo by Diego Ibarra Sanchez/NYT

He urges austerity while wearing the most violent floral patterns. He breaks character – his zen, side-parting, heavy-breathing character – to sing Rishi Kapoor songs. He gives away free mangoes, at other times free babies. Aunties swear the light of heaven has touched his face, even as he swears something filthy at the studio help. His television show turns the holy month into a high-glitz free-for-all, and in spite of it (or because of it) is the most watched in the country. He’s a scholar without schooling, a doctor without a degree, part priest and part prima donna. He’s a star they could only make in Pakistan, and we’re all much poorer for it.

To paraphrase John Lowy, Aamir Liaquat’s truth is too strange for credible fiction, and yet it all somehow fell into place for Pakistan’s first true televangelist. For a brief moment in the mid-2000s, his stars aligned: the MQM was running Karachi, General Musharraf was shaking his fists at passersby, and a loosed media was exploding all over the place. As golden boy of all three, Mr. Liaquat took ‘enlightened moderation’, those weasel words everyone was repeating back then, and turned it into Aalim Online. He never looked back. We could never look away.

And there lies the problem. Musharraf is gone, and his liberal Moslem shtick is gone with him – window dressing for neocon lizards abroad, and dewdrops for an arid stretch of military rule at home. Yet Mr. Liaquat remains; his Ramazan viewership is massive and growing. A fraction may watch his show to write snarky op-eds afterwards; the majority runs the risk of taking him seriously. This lends Mr. Liaquat a giant megaphone into society, with ideas that range from dangerous to highly dangerous. This also makes him a cash cow – the fattest one this quarter – one that network executives are finding hard to sacrifice purely for ethics’ sake.

Like most gentlemen with white collars, the studio bosses have tried whistling away the doctor’s grimy early days, when our airwaves were filled with primetime hate for minorities. Part of this is down to Mr. Liaquat’s skill at reinventing himself. The other part is media spin; a fresh narrative where Aamir Liaquat helps us achieve another, more worldly nirvana: Soft Pakistan. In a warm and fuzzy profile by the New York Times, one TV exec argued that it would take an Aamir Liaquat to lead society away from the extremist abyss, admitting ‘we need people like him to ease us down the mountain.’ Earning his keep, Mr. Liaquat played his adorable self, returning from New York with something he called ‘his Manhattan sauce.’ A character arc so convincing, it almost makes us forget so much money’s at stake.

But even shorn of his past, Aamir Liaquat 2.0 remains as unhealthy for society as the original. His show needs to be pulled, or at the very least overhauled. Since only network chiefs can exercise the first option, chances are low. If high ratings can justify giving away human babies – amid motorbikes and clothes irons – studio heads certainly aren’t taking their viewers’ sensibilities into account. Overhaul would require Mr. Liaquat to change, preferably back to the gentleman that pushed for a fatwa against suicide bombing some years ago. But even in that incarnation, Mr. Liaquat was neither enlightened nor moderate. He changes according to climate.

It’s left to the viewers to set that climate for him. There are growing signs of disgust: at the gaudiness of the show, at his vicious rants against critics, in giving away orphan children on national television. The longest-running casualty is Ramazan: besides fasting, the holy month is a time we lower our voices and open our minds. It’s meant for restraint and reflection, a spiritual experience that tells us there’s a higher calling. But Mr. Liaquat’s every intention, it seems, is to upend that higher calling and drive us ever further into life’s rat race – flinging home appliances at kids and abusing adult participants over whom he has nauseating levels of power. Mr. Liaquat has smothered the spirit of Ramazan in Firdaus lawn. And for a society already more materialistic than measured, it’s the wrong message to be receiving.

More recently, it was Mr. Liaquat’s treatment of singer Taher Shah that revolted people to anger. It was a rare moment of clarity: for someone who claimed that his degrees were real, that his outtakes were fake, that the cricket team lost because their shoe soles were coloured the green of Islam, there was finally nothing left to lie about. The essence of Aamir Liaquat was in sharp relief. Like a toe-curling inversion of Britney Spears, Mr. Liaquat whirled around Mr. Shah with a snake slung across his shoulders. He was physical and cruel. Mr. Shah, meanwhile, showed us the kind of humility befitting a Ramazan special.

If Mr. Liaquat’s target audience still requires dissuading, it’s hard to skip over the outtakes released during one fateful Ramazan sehri-time. In one of the clips, in a question alluding to rape, a caller asks if religion would permit a woman to take her own life beforehand. Steadying himself, Mr. Liaquat’s guest mufti begins, ‘Jee, bohat naazuk surat-i-haal hai,’ before Mr. Liaquat starts snorting, then giggling, then finally losing his breath. The mufti is laughed into silence, laughter that seems to be coming from the depths of Mr. Liaquat’s soul. By now, convulsing with laughter, Mr. Liaquat manages to wheeze, ‘Bohat naazuk surat-i-haal hai?’

It’s all there; the schoolboy sadism, the screwball sense of humour. The authentic Aamir Liaquat, same as the old Aamir Liaquat. It’s not too hard to imagine a similar reaction whenever his ratings come in. We could do our part and change the channel.

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