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Smokers’ Corner: It fell from the heavens
By Nadeem F. Paracha
Sunday, 18 Apr, 2010
Recently religious programming on TV channels has come under scrutiny for various reasons. One of the biggest concerns is how some of these programmes have gone on to advocate violence against so-called minority sects and religions, and the way they use obscure traditions and biased interpretations of the scriptures to deride certain events and personalities.
Though both sides of the main sectarian divide (the ‘Barelvi’ and the Salafi/Deobandi) are given equal space on the channels, unfortunately, the preachers and TV hosts of both the sides have usually taken extreme positions on various issues. This includes exhibiting animated armchair radicalism by indirectly siding with monsters such as the Taliban and scoffing at the concept of democracy and liberal Islam, attacking them as misguided constructs worthy only of ridicule.
But the proliferation of conservative and at times rather demagogic religious shows on television is not exactly a new phenomenon. Its roots lie in the sudden growth of religious programming on the state-owned PTV from 1979 onwards, or two years after General Ziaul Haq’s intransigent military dictatorship started to find some firm footing following the toppling of a democratically elected government in 1977. According to a former PTV man Burhanudin Hasan’s book, ‘Uncensored’ (2000), there was almost a three-fold growth in religious programming on PTV in the 1980s.
This kind of programming was mostly sculpted to propagate the Zia regime’s Islamic credentials and laws, and to also justify and glorify the concept of armed jihad in the wake of Pakistan’s involvement in the anti-Soviet manoeuvres of the (US/ISI-backed) Afghan mujahideen. But is it possible to pinpoint an exact moment that triggered the whole trend of politically-motivated religious programming in Pakistan? It seems there is.
In July 1979, America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) announced that its ‘Skylab’ satellite that had been orbiting the planet since 1973 had developed a fault and was expected to fall to Earth. Nasa was not sure exactly where it would crash, but experts believed that the burly satellite was likely to fall either over Australia or over the Indian subcontinent. Though the same experts also stated that the satellite would start burning after it entered Earth’s atmosphere and most probably end up in the sea, the story took a life of its own in Pakistan.
PTV started running regular bulletins on the latest whereabouts of Skylab, usually read by Azhar Lodhi — a newscaster who would go on to become a ubiquitous presence on PTV across the Zia years. Lodhi maintained a sombre tone in the bulletins, and then started to punctuate them with equally sombre pleas for urgent prayers. Suddenly, most Pakistanis who till then had taken the affair lightly began using apocalyptic overtones while speaking (to PTV and newsmen) about the event. Many even went to the extent of wondering whether the fall of Skylab (on Pakistan) may announce the beginning of the Day of Judgment.
A tense strain of fear cut across society. It was as if the Zia regime was purposefully using the occasion (and TV) to instil fear into people’s minds by allowing Lodhi to use an apocalyptic tone, sermons and pleas for prayers, perhaps alluding that in such a testing hour Pakistan required a pious and Islamic regime (which, of course, the dictatorship was pretending to be). Interestingly, in those days, more Pakistanis visited Sufi shrines than mosques, with much of the urban populace going to the mosques only on special occasions such as Eid and sometimes for the Friday prayer.
However, with Zia’s Islamic laws coming into force, many Pakistanis saw themselves being led (mostly by fear) to the mosque as Lodhi continued to dramatically announce the closing in of the falling Skylab. It eventually fell on July 12, 1979, over the ocean and the deserts of Australia, and once the feared day did not come, the episode was forgotten but the apocalyptic outlook that it had triggered lingered. This grim point of view worked well for the Zia dictatorship to intensify its ‘Islamic’ manoeuvres and appeal, in which religious programming played an important role.
Interestingly though, the number of religious programmes actually fell after Zia’s death in 1988. But with the emergence and success of new, more modern sounding — albeit equally conservative and traditionalist — preachers in various urban drawing rooms from 1995 onwards, the new trend was picked up by various TV channels that erupted in the early 2000s.
What we see today on these channels as religious shows is directly linked to the said trend, but this trend’s roots too lie in that bizarre Skylab incident that first triggered and shaped the kind of conservative and alarmist mindset required for such programming to flourish.