Aamir Liaquat Hussain has passed away in Karachi at 50. The larger-than-life and controversial figure has come to embody some of the trends that have shaped 21st-century Pakistan. He operated at the intersection of televangelism, politics and entertainment – thrice making it to the Jordanian Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre’s 500 Most Influential Muslims list.
This was a media figure made possible by the country’s unique intersection of ostentatious religiosity, mass media, mercurial personal preferences and consumer culture. Aamir Liaquat leaves a major imprint on the television industry and the consciousness of the Pakistani public in the age of social media.
As a cultural icon, he was known for his personal charisma, crisp Urdu, command over religious, poetic and literary references, and evocative renditions of devotional hymns.
Shooting to fame initially for his programme Aalim Online, the televangelist became a household name for his unique blend of eloquent speech, dramatic displays and willingness to court controversy. That willingness escalated over the years, as did the contradictions of his persona.
On one hand, he stood accused of inciting murderous sentiments against the persecuted Ahmadi minority, while on the other hand, at various occasions he issued calls for reconciliation between various religious and sectarian groups. His hosting of Aalim Online, though not free of its share of controversies, did see religious scholars from across the two major sects sitting together in one frame and expounding various religious matters: a scene that was otherwise increasingly uncommon as sectarian tensions rose in Pakistan over the years.
In his later years, as a host for political commentary programmes, he presented himself as a crusading man of the people, taking a stand for morality. Yet he also became part of vicious campaigns and incidents of slander against journalists and dissenting activists after 2017. He went so far as to use accusations of treason and blasphemy against those who he targeted, while also maligning their characters and not sparing women from such attacks.
In the past few years, his Ramzan transmissions had become a major phenomenon on TV and social media, marked by giving out lavish prizes and some outrageous antics. The charismatic presence and shenanigans on screen made him both a wildly popular entertainer and someone who irritated certain audiences. Leaked videos of him purportedly using foul street-style language added to the mischievous and willingly inappropriate persona – an image that he seems to have cheerfully embraced.
It seems that the desire for ratings and popularity that has characterised much of Pakistan’s mainstream media led Aamir Liaquat Hussain into some dark places – which included hyper-nationalist posturing and bigoted statements. His willingness to court controversy meant that he fell afoul of PEMRA among others.
He brought a similar persona to politics: beginning with the MQM in Karachi – a relationship which despite ups and downs he maintained from 2002, when he won Karachi’s NA-249 constituency in general elections, up till 2016. During the tenure of Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz in the Musharraf era, he served as the Minister of State for Religious Affairs from 2004 to 2007.
After 2016, with the Pakistani state cracking down on MQM due to the positions taken by its chief Altaf Hussain in London, Aamir Liaquat found himself in hot water alongside other leaders. He distanced himself from the MQM and after a prolonged political courtship, joined Imran Khan’s PTI. His time in PTI from 2018 onwards had been full of ups and downs too, marked by dramatic declarations of loyalty to Imran Khan and vociferous criticisms of the party from time to time. In the end, he chose to throw in his lot against Khan in this year’s vote of no confidence: a process marked by acrimony, accusations and much melodrama – especially reflected in some of Aamir Liaquat’s videos on social media in the past few months.
But perhaps what garnered him the greatest controversy in recent years was his personal life: marked with a number of marriages, televised romances, accusations and highly publicised breakups. His last marriage, in particular, drew much attention and criticism alike, due to the immense age gap between himself and his latest wife – which was made more controversial due to doubts about whether she was legally of age. This marriage foundered within weeks of the wedding, with both Aamir Liaquat and Dania Shah leaking recordings meant to ‘expose’ each other.
Aamir Liaquat Hussain spent his last weeks dealing with the fallout of this marriage and related disputes. As purported intimate videos of him floated on social media, he responded with tearful videos and a commitment to leave Pakistan forever. In his final videos, he appeared to resent the distribution of these intimate videos, and expressed hurt over how social media and the meming community had treated him.
Little did anyone know that the man who had sailed through many controversies with an impish grin and blasé attitude towards criticism would pass away in the midst of his final brush with publicity and notoriety.
He is survived by two children from his first wife.