During the Islamic month of Ramadan, different networks try to attract viewers with special shows, as the TV ratings war in Pakistan intensifies. Controversial religious broadcaster and former politician Aamir Liaqat is back on Pakistan's leading network Geo TV and risqué entertainer and model Veena Malik’s Astaghfar program never made it on air.
But the latest controversy is about a Ramadan special show in which the TV-anchor Maya Khan invites a religious scholar to convert a Hindu boy named Sunil to Islam. The whole conversion process was telecast live.
This live show has started a debate once again about media ethics, along with a conversation about the role of ratings-driven religious programming and the use of non-stop advertising in Pakistan.
In this video [ur] Maya Khan introduces the religious scholar, who asks the Hindu boy why he wants to convert to Islam. Sunil replies [ur], “I work at Ansar Burney Trust (a human rights organisation) and I like the environment there.”
Not getting a straight answer, the scholar rephrases the question and asks him what drew his heart towards Islam. Sunil replies [ur], “I have been fasting the last two years during Ramadan too.”
Then the scholar asks him if he is being forced to convert by anyone. Young Sunil replies [ur], “I am not giving into any pressure, I am converting to Islam of my own free will.” [note: time code: 01:00-01:25]
The scholar proceeds to convert the boy, and then a prayer and sermon follows. The camera pans the room and shows a few dozen young boys, women and some other scholars on set.
After the show was telecast, Ansar Burney, a well-known human rights activist and Sunil’s employer tweeted that it was a ‘forced conversion'. He also said he fired his own brother Sarim Burney from his organisation because he was present on the TV set with Sunil:
@AnsarBurney (Ansar Burney): My staff Sunil is a young man, who I was informed was forced to convert, though it seems now the actions were not by ARY TV.
Burney also tweeted that he was taking the matter to the court:
@AnsarBurney (Ansar Burney): The ‘Burney Legal Solicitors’ London is going to send legal notice to Anchor Maya Khan and TV owners of 10 million sterling pounds.
Maya Khan, the show's host was recently hired by Geo TV's main competitor ARY TV to do a Ramadan special show. She was fired earlier this year from another private channel Samaa TV, after a successful public campaign was launched in reaction to her ‘moral policing’ young couples in a public park in Karachi.
Here are some other Twitter reactions:
@TahaSSiddiqui (Taha Siddiqui): #MayaKhan is bk to her intolerance cuz she has audience, sponsors and a broadcaster for her show. We need to hold them responsible too!
@NadeemfParacha (Nadeem F. Paracha): Breaking Wind News: Maya Khan kisses an infidel and turns him into a believing frog.
The boom in the electronic media has also brought boom in religious TV shows:
@ammarakh (Ammara Khan): #MayaKhan live converting a non-muslim boy to Islam. Shame on our channels for their endless theatrics in the name of religion.
Farooq Tirmizi in the Express Tribune Blog raises questions about reactions to the conversion:
The first is this: being happy about somebody converting to Islam means that you fundamentally believe that the person’s previous religion is inferior to Islam. Here is my question to all those Muslims who get excited about religious conversions: how much do you know about other religions of the world? How much do you know about your own religion? Do you even know why you are Muslim?
Trimzi also questions the constitution of Pakistan that forbids conversion of Muslims to other religions:
This brings me to my second problem: how a lot of fundamentalist Muslims are utterly convinced of the superiority of Islam – and seek legal codification of that superiority in Pakistan – while demanding equal treatment in other countries. Sunil converting to Islam was perfectly legal, but what if a born Muslim wants to convert to another faith? Why is that illegal under Pakistani law?
The reality of reality shows is summed up by Farzana Versey in her blog Cross-Connection:
These are all circus acts, and one does not expect better from reality television and that includes news channels. Part of the hot air is possibly because this is a competitive game, where ethics are the flakes of pistachio on the phirni, not an ingredient. This is borne out by the fact that the editorial is worried about how just to spice things up ‘religion is now fair game too'.