(Photo: Reuters/Athar Hussain)
A Muslim preacher turned television host is receiving criticism after he gave away abandoned babies on his Pakistani television talk show during Ramadan, although the preacher claims he is doing charitable work by giving the babies a safe home.
Controversial host Aamir Liaquat Hussain is being criticized for commercializing the children to win TV ratings, but he has defended himself, saying he gave the babies away in a charitable move to show "real Islam."
"We are trying to create an environment in the society for those people who are needy, and want to adopt babies," Hussain told the Agence France-Presse in a recent interview. "It is not commercialization, it is not showbiz. It is real Islam [...] It is not like parents come in the show, and [we] deliver the baby like a prize. What prize? It is rubbish to say, 'Who wants to win a baby?'"
Hussain, a former Muslim preacher turned talk show host, holds an eleven-hour talk show each day during the month of Ramadan, during which he reportedly interviews celebrities and clerics, cooks, entertains children, and gives away prizes in a game show format for those who answer questions correctly about Islam. Prizes often include cell phones and motorcycles, among other things.
The Ramadan month is a competitive time for television ratings in Pakistan, as many talk shows host a "30 days of Ramadan" event that rakes in even more viewers than cricket in the Middle Eastern country. Hussain's show, known as "Amaan Ramzan," incorporates the teachings of Islam and the Ramadan observance into its daily entertainment.
In the past two weeks, Hussain has reportedly given away two baby girls, both under a month old, to parents who couldn't conceive naturally. The infants are given away on live television, adorned with pink and red bows. Hussain has said the show plans to give away a baby boy in the upcoming episodes.
Some see the giveaway of children as a desperate and exploitive attempt to raise ratings during the competitive Ramadan season.
"The baby was given away the same way as a gift," Seema Jamali, assistant director of child welfare for the Sindh provincial government, told BBC News. "Though it was good to find parents for her, the baby was given like a car, laptop, or motorcycle. It's an insult to the baby and the parents. It should have been done quietly."
Hussain argues, however, that his television show is doing charitable work by giving the children a home with parents wanting to adopt, calling it a "noble cause." The television host has told media outlets that by giving away babies, he hopes to dispel the trend of parents abandoning unwanted babies in garbage heaps, or men divorcing their wives because they cannot conceive.
The Pakistani aid organization which provides the children for the show, Chhipa Welfare Association, argues that the babies would have been eaten by wild animals or left to die in the streets of impoverished Pakistani cities had they not been rescued and given to wanting parents. The charity organization performs a two week vetting process on eligible parents for adoption.
"Our team finds babies abandoned on the street, in garbage bins -- some of them dead, others mauled by animals. So why not ensure the baby is kept alive and gets a good home?" Ramzan Chhipa, who runs the organization, told CNN. "We didn't just give the baby away. We have our own vetting procedure. This couple was already registered with us and had four or five sessions with us."
The couples receiving the babies have expressed their thankfulness for the show and the charity organization.
"When the baby came into my arms on the show, it felt like another soul had entered my body, like an angel came. She has brought us so much peace. She means more to me than my own soul," Riaz, the new father to infant Fatima, one of the babies given away on the show, told BBC News. Riaz and his wife Tanzeem were one of the couples featured on the show. They have been waiting 14 years for a baby.
The website for the television show encourages parents unable to care for their child to hand the baby over to the network. "If any family cannot afford to bring up their newborn baby due to poverty or illness then instead of killing them, they should hand over the baby to [Hussain]," the website reads.
Hussain previously worked as junior minister for religious affairs for the country, but had to resign after he denounced author Salman Rushdie for being guilty of blasphemy, a crime punishable by death in Pakistan.