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Death by Video

A televangelist, a TikTok bride, and the ever-present camera

The summers are always hot in Karachi, Pakistan’s most populous city. Temperatures hover above one hundred degrees and power outages are the norm. The wealthy use diesel or petrol to power large generators that keep their air conditioners running. Everyone else just suffers and tries to survive with little hope of respite until the monsoons arrive. June 9 was a day just like this. At the home of Aamir Liaquat Hussain, a member of parliament who was also a renowned televangelist, servants were figuring out what they should do. They had heard a cry of pain from his bedroom—but the door was locked, according to local media reports. They worried that something untoward may have occurred.

They were correct. When they broke down the door of the room, they found their boss lying unresponsive on his bed. They tried to revive him and called an ambulance. He was unresponsive and was taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. At the deceased man’s home, police carried out a search. Meanwhile, the family refused an autopsy—though, even after his burial, that matter was still being contested in court.

This was no ordinary man. Liaquat was one of the most recognizable television personalities in Pakistan. From 2004 to 2007, he had served as the minister of state for religious affairs. His fame came from his pioneering role in Pakistani media’s “Ramadan transmission” that took place during the fasting month of Ramadan. The transmission Liaquat inaugurated was a live event that would begin two hours before dawn and go until sunset, when the faithful could break their fast. He would provide religious guidance, interview guests, present stories from Islamic history, and generally exude his disarming charisma. It would be fair to say that for most Pakistanis regardless of political belief, Liaquat’s voice was the sound of the festive month of fasting.

In 2017 and 2018, Liaquat had been temporarily banned from Pakistan’s TV and radio broadcasts, due to accusations he used his several TV shows to spread religious discord. Liaquat has a checkered history of controversial statements, having supported fatwas, including one against author Salman Rushdie. He was also known for making some outrageous religious pronouncements—in 2011 he claimed that the Pakistani cricket team was on a losing streak because the green soles on their shoes were disrespectful to Islam, whose color is green. As part of his show in 2013, Liaquat began to hand over orphaned babies to childless couples on camera. When he was criticized for this, he simply said, “People love me.” But he’s also been a shape-shifter. After he hosted a show in 2008 that featured statements about members of the minority Ahmadi community deserving death—apparently leading to the killing of two Ahmadi leaders—he apologized and spoke in favor of peace and tolerance. Yet in 2014, he again hosted a Muslim leader who denounced Ahmadis as the “common enemy,” and again an Ahmadi was shot five days after the show.

In recent years his personal life seemed to be unraveling. When Liaquat separated from his first wife Bushra, his children, a girl and boy, stayed with their mother. He went on to marry a second time. Early this year, his second wife, the model and actress Tuba Anwar, revealed that she had been separated from Liaquat for several months and had filed for divorce. Then on February 10, Liaquat revealed that he had married Dania Shah, an eighteen-year-old from rural southern Punjab. He claimed she was from an esteemed religious family. The version of Dania that presented on TikTok was no pious shrinking violet. With Lolita-esque coquetry, Dania lip-synchs Bollywood songs and darts come-hither glances to her viewers. She gained more than seven hundred sixty-three thousand followers on TikTok and eighty-eight thousand on Instagram—and occasionally worked product endorsements into her videos, suggesting newfound celebrity was also a means of new income.

Liaquat would provide religious guidance, interview guests, present stories from Islamic history, and generally exude his disarming charisma. For most Pakistanis regardless of political belief, his voice was the sound of the festive month of fasting.

Pakistanis may have been used to some of Liaquat’s antics, but the third marriage seemed to have landed in the realm of the highly questionable. Liaquat was three decades older than Dania Shah. Nevertheless, she professed testaments of love to Liaquat on TikTok. In the time between his marriage to Dania and his death, Liaquat’s life imploded. The government in Islamabad, of which he had been a part, collapsed in a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Imran Khan. In April, Liaquat resigned from the governing PTI party after Khan attempted to dissolve the National Assembly. At the same time, there were rumors of divorce, which Liaquat denied, blaming political opponents in the PTI for spreading falsehoods.

The rumors turned out to be true. On May 7, it was reported that Dania had filed for divorce from Aamir Liaquat, who she now described as “worse than the devil,” their four months together nothing less than torment. She alleged that Liaquat kept her in a small room and often beat her while he was intoxicated or drugged. In her divorce filing she demanded jewelry and millions of rupees. The news was reported but was overshadowed by Pakistan’s political upheavals. In his defense, Liaquat posted tweets with some audio clips alleging that she had a Jekyll and Hyde personality.

Shortly after Dania filed for divorce a video appeared on social media. It showed Liaquat naked, sitting at a table that had what looked like narcotics on it. He appears to be in a bedroom with red light. It took no time for the video to become viral. A religious man can be forgiven many things but perhaps not this kind of shock and embarrassment. Liaquat recognized as much; in May he released a statement in which he blamed Dania for recording the video and said there was nothing left for him to do except leave the country. According to his friends who have spoken to the media, Liaquat fell into a depression and isolated himself.

This was the situation on June 9, when his servants stormed into the room and found him unresponsive. Police video taken afterwards shows a dark and shabby set of rooms that were in what looked like the basement of a building. There was a generator likely used to power electronics and air-conditioning. There was speculation about gas or smoke filling the house. As the day progressed, the police wanted to transport Liaquat’s body to where an autopsy would be carried out. That’s when Liaquat’s children said they did not want a postmortem carried out on their father. The two rushed to Karachi and got a court to grant them the right to take their father’s body and have it buried. The police complied with the court order. Liaquat was buried within the premises of Karachi’s famous Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine. Liaquat had booked the plot years earlier.

Emotional scenes were seen at the burial; streamed live on Pakistani television channels.  Liaquat was a victim of social media, declared television host Waseem Badami, who said he spoke with Liaquat about three weeks before his death. There was no doubt that he was claiming Liaquat had been victimized by revenge porn. “He completely isolated himself right after his leaked pictures and videos went viral on social media,” Badami said.

The case presents a dilemma. Cameras, which we all carry as a matter of course, create dynamics of power and surveillance. They possess the ability to make the weak powerful. In this situation, it appears that a teenager married to a much older man took a video of him in a vulnerable position, presumably without his knowledge. It is usually men who have the power in these situations, who blackmail young trafficked victims and make them do their bidding. What was the role of Dania in the humiliation of Liaquat? After his death the story only got murkier. Dania’s mother said that Liaquat had called the family after Dania’s divorce appeal, wanting a reconciliation. In recent TikToks posted after his death, Dania shows photos of Liaquat in happier times, set to music, suggesting grief and devotion. This has not prevented Liaquat’s many dedicated supporters from maligning her as the cause of the once-popular televangelist’s death.

If it is a case of revenge porn, it is an unusual one. But the proliferation of cameras and social media are creating victims all over the world. Here the perpetrator of the crime appears to be a young woman who exerted whatever power she had against a famous and much-loved man, acting perhaps impulsively without consideration of the potential for destruction. Opinions will differ about how culpable a lascivious victim like Aamir Liaquat is. Yet in this case, his death seems to have washed him clean of all his wrongdoings; he is being duly eulogized and mourned. He was, after all, the voice of Ramadan, and families were so used to his presence in the background of their dawn and dusk meals. Nostalgia forgets the details and forgives everything.