Preachers on Prime Time
Avid fans of religious programme host Aamir Liaquat Hussein were reeling from shock several weeks ago when his doppelganger behaved improperly behind the scenes. Liaquat, reputed to be extremely conscious of his image, was troubled after his ratings on the popularity chart dipped, and he tried to convince all and sundry that the video clip doing the rounds was doctored and intended to malign him. But this man’s impropriety often pales into insignificance when compared to some of the politically, or should we say religiously incorrect information on his television show.
While some Pakistanis question the presence of such televangelists, wondering how freedom of speech has been compromised and is (mis)used instead to spew hate on television, or to propagate incorrect information, most people who are avid fans of personalities such as Liaquat, are often duped in the name of Islam.
Religious TV programming has increased rapidly over the past few years, and clerics who previously preached morning, noon and night in mosques now sermonise on the airwaves. (Read Mohammed Hanif’s The Power of the Pulpit.) Many of country’s top channels have cultivated their very own stylised clerics for prime time television. In Pakistan, it appears as if there is no special qualification required to be a religious expert on television. From a famous ex-pop singer to the clerics from mosques, the job description is fluid, and much of the information they disseminate, questionable. Additionally, Pakistan’s largely deregulated media allows cable television operators to give Pakistanis access to clerics and scholars in other countries.
Earlier in the year, research conducted by Sahar Gul and commissioned by the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) carried some shocking revelations vis-à-vis the content of these religious broadcasts shown in Pakistan. The research unit monitored 17 channels available locally and via cable operators over a period of four months. These channels included Peace TV (Urdu) and Peace TV (English) that are broadcast globally from Dubai, Saudi Arabia and India.
The Pakistani channels monitored were ARY’s QTV, Geo News, ARY News, PTV Home, A-TV, TV One, Samaa TV, Haq TV and Madni TV, the interfaith channel Al Rehman Al Rahim, and Noor TV, which provides programming to Europe. The multi-lingual satellite and Internet Islamic channels included Arab channels such as Hadi TV and Iqra TV, Labaik TV from Iran and Huda TV from Egypt/UAE. These channels boast well-designed websites that carry programme blurbs and schedules, speakers’ bios and their overall mission. The Madni TV website also allows fans to do an online Istikhara.
The aim of the report, writes the author, was to record religious messages conveyed on television mainly on women’s rights and the status of non-Muslims in Pakistan, among other pertinent issues. The report’s findings are alarming and raise questions about the authenticity of the speaker/scholar’s sources and the scope of their knowledge and scholarship. It is disturbing to know that the entertainment-starved middle-class watching such religious programming believes most of what is fed to it. And while religious channels perform the task for which they have been set up, even the news and entertainment networks like Geo, ARY, Samaa and Dunya TV follow a schizophrenic agenda featuring ideologues from both ends of the ideological divide performing under the same banner.
In the passages extracted from the report by Newsline, content from religious programmes illustrates the disparity in the opinions of the speakers/scholars and the dissemination of factually incorrect information. In the sample of programmes viewed for the report, the first subject under scrutiny is the status of Muslim women. Speakers use the terms momin and momina for good Muslims and list out the qualities that constitute a believing Muslim woman, asserting also that only Islam considers women equal to men in rights and duties.
Mumbai-based Dr Zakir Naik of Peace TV ranks third in a list of the ‘Top Ten Spiritual Gurus of India. This comparative religion expert and Da’wah scholar, who is also the president of the Islamic Research Foundation in Mumbai and author of three books, maintains that the cover of a momina is the hijab (headscarf). A momina should keep her eyes bowed in front of men, and hide her beauty from all ghair mahram men, he says. Defining obligatory/customary purdah in Islam, he concludes that a woman’s entire body should be covered, but her hands can be left uncovered, by choice, and the clothes she wears should not be too tight so as to “tempt the heart of man.”
Amina Sajjad, the head of the Quran School, an Islamic madrassa in Islamabad, takes a moderate view and disagrees with Dr Naik, saying that even after covering the body, certain body parts of a woman cannot be hidden and are naturally evident, e.g. her breasts and overall body structure. Abdur Rahim Green, a UK-based Da’awah practioner who embraced Islam in 1988, says on Peace TV that girls should comply with the decision of their schools concerning the headscarf, even in countries where the headscarf is prohibited. Differing on this point, Dr Naik ventures that a true momina would never follow what women of other religions wear. He attributes the high ratio of rape cases in America to western attire, which entices men, and says that rape never takes place in Saudi Arabia, where women cover themselves.
It seems Dr Naik has not heard of the several rape victims in Saudi Arabia, including the case of a 19-year-old, who was gang-raped by seven men in Qatif and then went public with her story. Moreover, Dr Naik does not provide any source for his information, neither could his findings be substantiated by available statistics or research.
Other scholars, too, have their bit to add on the subject of a woman’s manner of dressing and related topics. Dr Muhammad Salah on Huda channel says women are not supposed to show their adornments – gold and silver jewellery, bracelets, anklets, “glittery scarves of rainbow colours,” tight clothes and perfumes – to announce their presence and attract people around them. Zeenah and adornment should only be shown to their husbands, specifies Dr Salah. And, in fact, special care should be taken to refrain from such indulgences during Ramazan, as such acts can nullify the fast. However, Amina Sajjad and other moderate clerics reject the view that prayer or fasting is invalidated if one is wearing embellishments.
Polishing one’s nails, says Sajjad, is allowed since on one occasion the Prophet (PBUH) said that the hand of a woman should look different to that of men. But according to Dr Mohammad Salah of Huda TV, beautification in the form of plucking eyebrows, filing teeth, or being tattooed on the body are all major sins and invoke the wrath of God. As for plastic surgery on the face, this is permissible in Islam only in the event of an accident or if one is born with a deformity – not for beautifying the skin.
Adornment and embellishments aside, on the subject of employment Dr Naik, in one of his programmes, remarks it is not compulsory for women to work as pre- and post-marriage their mahrams (fathers, brothers, husbands and sons) are responsible for bearing their expenses. A woman can, however, share financial responsibility, while remaining within the boundaries of Islam. According to him, a woman must remain with her mahram, and that Islam does not permit her to live away from her family even for work. This, he says, is not meant to be a constraint but is ordained to guarantee a woman protection. Dr Naik’s statement cannot be correlated with the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) famous saying that education is equally obligatory for both men and women, and that every person must go to the corners of world, even as far as China, in pursuit of learning.
Further, how a woman can realistically earn her share is not clear as Dr Naik leaves very few professions in the realm of possibility. He believes that secretarial work for a male boss is forbidden, and talking unnecessarily to men at the workplace can “entice Satan between the two.” Women can be gynaecologists and teachers, but dancing, singing and modelling are not jobs acceptable in Islam. Even a female newscaster fully covered in hijab is forbidden, as Dr Naik vehemently states that “the day all the Muslim men die will be when a Muslim woman appears on TV.” Perhaps news bulletins or talk shows aired on several channels including those on his host channel ARY, which feature female anchors, have all escaped his vision.
There are other scholars who harbour a different point of view on what women can or cannot do. Renowned Pakistani Islamic scholar-in-exile, Javed Ahmad Ghamdi disagrees with Dr Naik’s statements saying that women can play a role in society equal to that of men. Similarly, Amina Sajjad maintains that if women (half of Pakistan’s population) were forced to stay home, then “we as a nation would regress.” She says that Lebanon and Egypt have a high ratio of working women and the headscarf is not compulsory. According to Sajjad, there is no need for either gender to prove its superiority over the other, as each is created with distinct attributes. In fact, she advocates that the responsibility for cooking and cleaning the home doesn’t just lie with the woman, for there are several examples of the Prophet (PBUH) performing domestic chores. However, Ghamidi and Sajjad are rare voices in this modernist interpretation of major Islamic precepts.
The second very important component of the NCSW study is its analysis of the views of television clerics on the rights of non-Muslims in Islam. Pakistan’s founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah provided a template for the status of minorities in Pakistan, stating this in his famous address of August 11, 1947: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the state…” However, 64 years later, the state seems powerless to control the manner in which the religious freedom of those belonging to faiths other than Islam is not only stifled and curtailed, but how some clerics use platforms such as national television to run down other faiths, spread hatred and even incite murder.
Condemning the practices and beliefs of other religions and giving them a satanic/infidel status is a common theme. Dr Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips of the Islam TV channel claims that Catholic Christian priests and nuns who never marry can be the cause of children being sexually abused, concluding that celibacy ultimately results in satanic deeds such as child sexual abuse or paedophilia.
One peculiar story pertaining to Hinduism, heard on ARY’s QTV, is included in the report. The speaker narrates that Hindu djinns can tempt Muslim believers to follow the Hindu belief system. He quotes an example of a newborn girl who screamed like an adult and died while being fed milk by her mother. A butterfly entered the home of the deceased baby and the mother felt her daughter had returned in the guise of a butterfly. The family subsequently asked a religious scholar whether the deceased girl was actually the butterfly. The religious scholar replied that the butterfly was not the soul of the child but, in fact, a Hindu djinn who was tempting the Muslim home to believe in reincarnation.
Dr Muhammad Salah on Huda channel says a Muslim can eat and drink in the same plate/glass with non-Muslims. He says that the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) provided a precedent for Muslims by inviting Jews and Christians to his house and treating them with kindness until the Jews, in particular, attempted to assassinate the Holy Prophet (PBUH). The Prophet (PBUH) specified that as long as they (people of other religions) do not declare war against Muslims in the battlefield, and as long as they do not ridicule the Prophet (PBUH), God, and religion, it is necessary to deal with them with kindness.
Answering a question regarding whether non-Muslims can touch or read the Quran or not, Nisar Nadiadwala, a regular speaker at the Islamic Research Foundation (IRF), India, says on Peace TV that the Quran can be given to non-Muslims to read, or anyone else for that matter as it is for all mankind. He says that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) sent letters with excerpts from the Quran to ruling kings of other religions. Amina Sajjad, who also takes a moderate stance, says that Islam did not rate anyone superior or inferior and that “all are equal in the eyes of Allah, therefore it is not Islamic to compare one’s religion with the other and prove one’s own as the best.” She suggests that Muslims should be sensitised to the feelings of others, for if the situation were reversed, Muslims would be hurt if people of other religions were insensitive to their beliefs.
And while some scholars such as Abdul Hakim Ali on Al Huda TV and renowned Indian Islamic scholar Maulana Abu Zafar Hassan Azhari Nadvi on Peace TV (Urdu) endorse the Quran as a book of law and state that Islamic Shariah is complete and everlasting while other systems are not, there are others who talk about the future of an Islamic Caliphate and flout state law in favour of religious edicts. Zaid Hamid, known mainly as a political commentator and a regular speaker on TV One, raised a widely contentious issue stating that the Khilafat-e-Rashida, or the United States of Islam (the Islamic Caliphate) could possibly come about in the 21st century and would be the best example of good governance. All political models other than Islamic models were systems of kufr (infidels/non-believers), he adds. He goes on to brand the Federal Reserve Banking system, capitalism, political democracy and even socialism as nothing but kufr.
Criticising Darwinism, liberalism, secularism, freedom of speech, women’s liberation, democracy and capitalism, Hamid states that these concepts have enslaved humans. He terms democracy and capitalism as “Zionist-Christian systems.” He says Pakistan should be turned into an Islamic welfare state and adds that only a miracle (the Khilafat) can save humanity.
On another note, Dr Zakir Naik contends that every human is a Muslim by birth and opts for another religion only after being influenced by other faiths. In a lecture aired on Peace TV, a participant asked the late Ahmed Deedat, the South African scholar who lectured most frequently on D’awah (inviting people to Islam), whether there were any Muslims during the time of Jesus Christ. His response endorsed Islam’s existence since the birth of the first human on earth, saying that those who followed Jesus Christ were, in fact, Muslims. He went on to state that Jesus was also a Muslim and Christianity did not exist.
Efforts to revert people to their original faith are zealously underway. According to their statistics in 41 sequential programmes of Da’wat-e-Islami, hundreds of non-Muslims converted to Islam. While missionary preaching to convert is a common practice in every religion, in Pakistan preaching to convert has deeper connotations since non-Muslims do not have the freedom or right to preach their religion fearlessly – this, despite the fact that Articles 19, 20 and 22 of the Constitution of Pakistan ensure freedom to preach and profess one’s own religion.
The NCSW study quotes the Constitution of Pakistan which safeguards the rights of non-Muslims in its Articles 19, 20 and 22. But the study reveals that there are loopholes in the legislation. Article 19 stipulates that citizens have the right to freedom of speech and expression, but states that this is “subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam.” Articles 20, 21 and 22 of the Constitution of Pakistan safeguard the freedom of professing and propagating one’s religion and the right to establish religious places. However, there is no law that directly defends non-Muslims against hate speech, even though the freedom of practicing and propagating one’s religion means a religion cannot be questioned or condemned by others. Ironically, Article 31, the “Islamic way of life,” which has often been misread and misinterpreted due to its linguistic weakness, states that the government of Pakistan should help the Muslims of Pakistan be better Muslims in conjunction with the Quran. However, there is no mention of non-Muslims. Article 36 also ensures the protection of the rights and interests of minorities, even though in reality this clause is rarely implemented.
Another topic undertaken by the report, which seems to be a favourite on religious television, is the concept of reward and punishment, and the significance of fear in Islam. The report gathers several examples of the speakers’ opinions about the rewards for good Muslims after death. A member in the audience, referring to the Holy Quran, asked Dr Naik on Peace TV, that if in the afterlife pious Muslim men were promised Hoors (beautiful women) as a gift for their good deeds, what would pious Muslim women get? Dr Naik immediately avoided a direct answer saying that sensitive questions relating to women were not discussed socially and, similarly, God also avoided such a discussion in the Quran. He stated, however, that every man and woman would have their partners in jannah (heaven).
Discussing the concept of punishment in Islam on Peace TV (Urdu), Maulana Abu Zafar Hassan Azhari Nadvi, president, Tehreek-e-Zakat, India, remarked that the severity of punishments in Islam prevented Muslims from perpetrating a crime or sin. Elaborating on the punishment for zina in Islam the Maulana said: “For a man the punishment is to be buried till his waist and be stoned till his death” and for a woman the punishment is to “bury her till her chest and stone her till death.” Nadvi quotes an example from the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) lifetime when a woman caught stealing was punished by cutting off her hand. One of the Prophet’s (PBUH) disciples requested him to forgive the woman but the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) gathered people in a nearby mosque and said, “If Muhammad’s Fatima had stolen, she too would have been given the same punishment.” Several other Hadith though prove that the Prophet (PBUH) forgave the perpetrators of adultery and theft. The report states that throughout the course of the research on religious programming, the speakers did not provide a single such example pertaining to redemption or forgiveness and, on the contrary, only talked about a range of shocking punishments.
The report also dwells on how many speakers postulate that the devil is responsible for the wrongdoings of men. They believe that Satan, phantoms, djinns, apparitions and black-magic practitioners have the ability to snatch human faculties from individuals who are rendered helpless in front of these creatures. Some bizarre examples are provided. Dr Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips, a regular speaker on Peace TV (English) with a doctorate in Islamic Theology from the University of Wales, says extremism, exaggeration, laziness, false hopes, forgetfulness, lethargy, excessive fear and negligence are all satanic tricks. The report notes that while speakers appropriate blame for evil deeds, they completely exclude the concept of free will, ignore the concept of responsibility for one’s actions and do not view actions as conscious choices. One gentleman goes as far as to say that Satan even tries to separate a wife from her husband and cause divorce.
Freedom of expression takes a huge blow when it is misconstrued as the freedom to say whatever one wants. The findings of the NCSW report give readers a rundown of the misinformation and hate-mongering taking place in the name of religion. Religious commentary in the public realm on Islam should be in line with the conjunctions of Islam as a religion of peace and disseminators of information on religion should play a responsible and progressive role. Instead, as the report reveals, religion is used as a tool to promote one’s own religious views or further personal agendas.
For progressive Muslims, the report’s findings raise several questions on the portrayal of women’s rights and minorities by the religious right. Among the recommendations made in the report, it is the duty of the state to provide individual liberty to women in the spirit of progress in the 21st century. But that will not happen if the discussion on the rights of women is one-sided and misogynistic and narrow views dominate discourse.
The report also accurately records several examples of hate speech in each speaker’s content and states that this will create a dangerous precedent for the future. Umbreen Saleem, a practicing psychologist and an Australia-based Pakistani native, says that hate speech in religious programming reinforces discrimination, enhances hatred for other religions and creates insecurity among Pakistan’s minorities. She believes that since non-Muslims in Pakistan are too scared to react to hate speech for fear of being targeted, they develop a passive aggression, while bigotry among Pakistani Muslims is buttressed, leading to cases such as the allegations levelled against Aasiya Bibi or the murders of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer and Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti.
The report concludes that it comes under PEMRA’s jurisdiction to take notice of the content that is aired. According to part (c) of Article 20 of the PEMRA (Amendments in 2002 Ordinance) Act 2007, the licensee shall “ensure that all programmes and advertisements do not contain or encourage violence, terrorism, racial, ethnic or religious discrimination, sectarianism, extremism, militancy, hatred, pornography, obscenity, vulgarity or other material offensive to commonly accepted standards of decency.” The report advises PEMRA to take action against hate speech in accordance with the above Ordinance. However, even though the legal provision presents itself, PEMRA’s monitoring is weak especially with regard to rules and regulations for cable operators. Cable operators blatantly air channels that are not PEMRA-licensed, and air recordings of religious TV channels from Saudi Arabia that promote the Wahhabi version of Islam. The question is, whose agenda are they following?
The onus is on the relevant authorities to exercise their mandate and take necessary action against all perpetrators of misinformation and hate speech, which should be sooner than later, before it is too late. But will it be done? The responsibility also lies on the shoulders of learned scholars to check and counter misinformation disseminated as fact. Their role is key to countering the wave of extremism.
Sahar Gul worked as a research coordinator at the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) during 2009-2010. She produced two research studies for the NCSW. The first related to the perceptions of Pakhtun women on the Taliban, drone attacks, radical Islam and the military operations, for which she travelled to sensitive areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Her second research assignment involved a critical examination of religious TV programmes aired in Pakistan and their portrayal of women. Ms Gul’s research on religious TV channels unveiled the intellectual poverty of the Muslim clergy in Pakistan and abroad, which look down upon empowered women.
This article was the cover story in the October 2011 issue of Newsline.
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