It’s the same every year. Cashing in on — and stoking — the fervent religiosity that fleetingly grips most Pakistanis in this holier-than-thou month, media networks have rolled out ostentatious “religious” shows that invariably draw large audiences, high ratings and a substantial advertising windfall. Religion is suddenly chic. It’s just another commodity to sell. In the scramble to bag the greatest viewership and its attendant proceeds, networks resort to all the modern gimmickry at their disposal: live calls, SMSs, contests winning you Umrah tickets, gaudy sets decked with gilded arabesques, various product tie-ins and spinoffs and, of course, seasoned hosts-cum-proselytisers who glibly wax lyrical, poetic and even musical about the faith, taking televangelism to new heights.
We all know one such personage. One hoped his recent spat with the major network that made him the demagogic legend he claims to be would result in his proverbial good riddance. But no, he’s back on another channel, equally feted and sponsored. His current show, like the one before, doubles as a vehicle to promote his own brand-named CDs, videos, books and extravagant designer wear, the latter garishly displayed on his own person in each episode. Yes, in the process he fields genuine religious queries from callers and SMS-ers and elicits answers from apparently authentic religious scholars, but that seems increasingly beside the point. Given his dubious background (the self-proclaimed “doctor” is a med school dropout and holds a reputedly spurious degree) and past controversies (handpicked by the former president as a state minister but subsequently dumped by his own party; his infamous endorsement, on live TV, of the edict of murdering members of a minority group; his fomenting sectarian tensions by allegedly ridiculing one sect’s revered figures), it would have been better if he’d no longer been allowed to inflict himself on people’s sensitivities. Alas, no such luck. The networks’ profiteering instincts and kowtows to populism override rationality.
His replacement in his previous network is quite a character in his own right. His official website describes him as a “heart throb (sic) of millions of people. Glittering face of Pakistan, has a fan frenzy appearance (sic)” whose admirers “not cynically or ironically but with fervent and zealous love, refer to him as a Super King (sic)”. A two-bit actor, a one-time radio jockey, and lately the flamboyant host of a decidedly secular — and often vulgar and lowbrow — late night TV show, the man now lectures us on Islamic values. Wearing heavy makeup and embroidered silk couture. Please, give our sensibilities a break! His cohort in the same network is a born-again Islamist, a former pop star-turned-expensive fashion label, who regales us with smug pronouncements on our lifestyles and exhorts the nation to repent for its immense sins or face more floods and/or eternal damnation. Once a successful vocalist, he no longer believes that music is food for the soul, yet sings melodious, musically-endowed naats in each show.
I’m not against religious broadcasts per se — in moderation. I remember a TV show presented by a soft-spoken, moderate and respected religious scholar, one Dr Ghulam Murtaza, who was later deplorably gunned down — a hapless victim of the kind of brutal sectarian bigotry that has since become rife. He was able to convey the basics of Islam without resorting to any of the razzmatazz of today’s shows. No, he didn’t endorse multinationals selling potato chips or cooking oil, nor did he croon commercially-viable naats or brandish any bigotry and condescendence while explaining the religion to his viewers. But he got his message across.
His show was about religion. What we have today is exploitation of sentiments and rabid commercialism. It’s televangelism, Pakistani style.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 8th, 2010.
Correction: September 8, 2010
The photo of A A Sheikh has been removed upon the writer's request.