It is the story of the summer in Pakistan: A popular televangelist, Dr Aamir Liaquat Hussain, has stunned the world by giving away babies on his marathon seven-hour Ramadan transmission, Amaan Ramazan. (Update) According to industry sources, it raked in revenue of Rs300,000,000 or $3 million for one month, the highest ever for any programme in the Pakistani media. The ratings have broken all records.
(Update) This is not, however, the first show to do this. Apparently Shaista Wahidi has also done it and Fahad Mustafa's show on HUM TV, but I was unable to confirm this.
In Pakistan, where life is often stranger than fiction, television is the stage where it plays out. CNN, BBC and international publications have reported it.
The two baby girls, one of whom has been named Zainab, are barely two to three weeks old. They were reported to have been rescued from garbage dumps by the Chhipa Welfare Association, a non-profit started by a man named Ramzan Chhipa (see more on this group below). The association says it receives up to 15 abandoned babies a month.
The non-profit claims to have its own vetting procedure, the first lucky couple, said to be trying for 18 years, was registered with them and they had already had four or five sessions with them. But CNN reports that the couple didn't know they would be handed a newborn when they were invited to take part in the show and paperwork was not processed before the live broadcast.
The show is rumoured to be giving a baby boy away next.
On the show, Liaquat performs for a live audience at the time of the breaking of fast (dusk) and the keeping of the fast (dawn). There are recitations from the Holy Quran, exegesis, hymnals, sermons, tributes to holy personalities. For children there is story telling in a garden set with real animals, even snakes.
Liaquat cooks, sings, hugs audience members, rides a motorcycle around the stage before giving it away. In addition to the babies, the giveaway bonanza includes microwave ovens, washing machines and fridges. For the poor members of the audience, this is a boon.
The problem is that Pakistanis are debating whether the show's decision to give babies away is ethical or not. Opinion is divided.
In a country where infanticide exists at some level, abortions are illegal, premarital sex is taboo and girls are still considered a financial and social burden in certain sections of society, babies are abandoned in garbage dumps. As a result, charities such as The Edhi Centre, the country's largest non-profit network of its kind, puts small steel cradles outside its buildings.
According to the centre, up to two babies turn up each week. But, surprisingly, demand for abandoned babies far outstrips supply. The Edhi Centre's
Bilquis Bano Edhi, who is in charge of the adoption process, puts the number of such forms in the range of 6,000 to 7,000 (2011 data).
Our newspaper reported in 2011 that since they set up the centre in 1951, about 19,600 babies have been given to foster parents.
About 80% of these unwanted babies are girls. This is why the adoption form says you have to wait longer if you want a boy. The process takes from two to 12 months.
Samia Saleem reported for us: "There are 13 conditions for adopting a child. The first one is that the decision of the chairman, Bilquis Edhi, cannot be challenged. The details of the biological parents and adoptive parents are kept extremely secret. The law in Pakistan does not allow adoption – only ‘kifala’ is permitted in which monetary and emotional care can be given to the child, but not obligations or rights. An abandoned baby has no legal identity and the state does not register such a child as a citizen. (A petition has been filed recently to challenge this).
"Adopting through Edhi is therefore ‘closed adoption’ (confidential or secret adoption), whereby the record of the biological parent is kept confidential and the child is given the name of the adoptive parent. Most of the abandoned babies are found with slips which mention the name and the religion of the baby."
Dr Liaquat and Mr Hyde
You can read all about the show and the baby on CNN or BBC but what you won't find there perhaps is some historical perspective on the man. A few refresher points about 'Dr' Aamir Liaquat, who is not all that he seems. Just so we're clear, to me, he looks like the god Pan, a cloven-footed, horned imp.
The doctor comes from an MBBS degree in medicine he claims to have completed at the Liaquat Medical College. It was reported that he secured a PhD degree reportedly three weeks after obtaining a Masters degree, just in time to contest 2002’s general election. His PhD came from The Trinity College and University of Spain whose website reads ‘get your degree today’. A freelance journalist, Maria Kari, wrote a blog about his qualifications.
A subsequent 2012 investigation by my newspaper's reporter Noman Ahmed revealed that Liaquat had enrolled in an MA programme at the Urdu university but had never sat the exams. He told us that someone had used his name and social security number.
But if you want to know if he really makes sense consider this: Liaquat once commented that Pakistani cricket team was defeated because the soles of their sneakers were green, a colour associated with Islam.
But it was in 2011, that the most damning evidence of his two-facedness surfaced. A video was posted on YouTube showing Liaquat swearing while prepping for his religious sermon that quoted from the Quran.
"Oh mo$&er-f%@k it, read the [...]," he says in Urdu to someone off screen while referring to a numbered holy verse. There was much more salty language than that, but I can't print it here.
All copies of the video have been removed from YouTube and other video-sharing sites but some smart people had already downloaded it. You'll find a copy here at this blog.
In the video you will see him making fun of a caller asking about the legality of suicide in the context of protecting a woman’s honour. Columnist George Fulton wrote about this in more detail here.
For whatever it is worth, a poll on The Express Tribune's website showed that 88% out of 5,437 voters did not think the tape of doctored as Liaquat has claimed.
The televangelist and hate speech
In September 2008, the political party Liaquat belonged to, kicked him out over making incendiary sectarian-hatred inspiring speeches on his television show and at events. This referred to the Sunni-Shia divide as well as hate speech against Ahmedis, a persecuted minority. Shias are also a persecuted minority in Pakistan.
Liaquat's party responsibilities were ended one and a half years earlier and his membership was suspended as well. But the 2008 sacking of a man who became a federal minister from the party's platform came as the party further distanced itself and didn't want to be “responsible for any of his words and deeds”.
There was some claptrap from him about resigning from office over the British government’s decision to knight writer Salman Rushdie. But most people didn't buy this. "Since this doesn’t stand to reason," said an editorial in the Daily Times newspaper on Sept 11, 2008, "it is more likely that he was forced to resign because he sided with the vigilante gangs of Lal Masjid and made it public on a TV channel."
In his programme, he proposed that it was justified to kill members of the Ahmedi community, a minority group declared non-Muslim in Pakistan. After that broadcast, an Ahmedi doctor was shot and killed in Mirpurkhas in the south and another person heading the community in Nawabshah was also murdered. The Asian Human Rights Commission filed a petition in court against Liaquat.
The welfare trust that gave the babies
The Chhipa, pronounced ch'heepa, welfare group was set up to rival that of Edhi's, Pakistan's most revered philanthropist. Chhipa runs ambulance services, soup kitchens etc. Its ambulance drivers fight with Edhi's staffers over collecting bodies from bomb blast scenes; whoever gets the most 'wins'.
Press photographers have told me that they have been offered bribes and known photographers and cameramen who accept them so make sure they photograph (only) the Chhipa staffers at a rescue scene or disaster site. The aim is ostensibly to be more visible in the newspapers and on TV and attract more charity donations. Chhipa is said to be well supported by the political party that Dr Amir Liaquat was associated with (until he was kicked out in 2008).
Adoption should be kept private for the baby's sake, as it is done the world over. Perhaps the Pakistani media regulatory authority would do well to consider if the show violates certain rules. Many people have questioned whether it behooves a religious 'scholar' to behave in such a fashion during the month of Ramadan, whose core spiritual message is supposed to be one of restraint.
Pakistanis seem not to know how to judge the effect of television on their lives when it is used to further religious agendas. Many people felt in their gut that something was very wrong about this. As someone tweeted: I also want to make baby clothes that say "I survived the Amir Liaquat show."
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