Peshawar: Ahmad Ali’s baby son used to cry for hours. A relative in the family told Ali his son was possessed by djins. He suggested Ali take his 22-year-old son to a local faith healer to exorcise the djins.
After consulting his family, Ali decided to see a faith healer in Swabi district in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. There he saw a large number of people approaching the healer to seek help for their troubles.
“A large number of people sought communion with the pir (the faith healer) about issues like avoiding loss in the business, spousal relations, infertility, and those trying to win over lovers,” said Ali.
The relative that advised Ali to see a faith healer said he saw commercials on a television channel claiming faith healers could expel evil djins from the possessed. The faith healers – and quacks – across the country have been increasingly using media to reach out to people. Commercials promoting them could be seen on mainstream cable channels run by cable operators in Pakistan. These cable networks are regulated by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) under the PEMRA Rules 2009.
Entire channels are dedicated to promote quacks, faith healers and occult practitioners, but even mainstream news channels advertise for them. One of the news channels that Truth Tracker monitored for this story provided more than five minutes of airtime every hour to commercials promoting faith healers. These channels feed on the age-old tradition of faith healing, rampant among the people of South Asia, especially among people in the rural areas.
“This practice of various faith healing techniques was seen more frequently among female patients than their male counterparts – 52.53 per cent and 47.31 per cent respectively,” says a study, Faith Healing and Modern Healthcare, that studied 953 patients to observe the frequency and various modes of faith and spiritual healing adopted by patients admitted with surgical diseases and their effects on the course of the diseases. The study was published in the Professional Medical Journal in 2014. It says patients from rural backgrounds indulged more in these practices as compared to urban population. “Surprisingly there was no much difference in practicing spiritual ways of healing as far as literacy is concerned.”
The contents of the TV commercials grab people’s attention by asking viewers to get any of their issues resolved. One of them asks: “Kia apka mehboob apko nahi chahta, kia ap mehboob ku qabu may lana chahtay hai, tu hamsay rabta karain (Does your beloved not pay attention to you? Do you want to win his or her love? Then contact us.).” The contact number for the faith healer is given along with the message.
The use of cable channels for promotion of quacks and faith healers continue despite the fact that PEMRA has banned airing of such commercials on television channels, FM radio stations and cable networks.
A PEMRA notification, issued on March, 2016, directed all cable operators to stop airing contents related to faith healers. It warned them of legal action if the commercials were not stopped.
The notification, a copy of which is available with Truth Tracker, says: “Hearing complaints of a citizen, PEMRA … disposed of the case by directing all satellite channels, FM radios and cable operators to stop airing advertisement of quacks, hakims [herbalists], pirs (faith healers), and amils (shamans) on their networks, failing which strict action will be taken against them.”
Clause-7 of the Article-14 of Electronic Media Code of Conduct-2015, also states that, “a licensee [satellite TV channels and cable operators] should not advertise or promote black magic, quackery or superstition.”
“Commercials of faith-healers are strictly banned until a channels gets a No Objection Certificate issued by the health department that ensures that products or services offered are not detrimental to public health,” said Rahat Ali, PEMRA’s Regional Manager for KP.
When told about the cable channels airing commercials, Ali said monitoring more than 600 channels run by over 200 cable operators in the province that doesn’t need satellite transmission was a “hectic job” for the PEMRA management.
He said PEMRA’s monitoring team stay vigilant to commercial content financed by faith-healers but mostly they rely on public complaints. “Whenever PEMRA receives public complaints about such commercials, we take immediate action against cable operators,” he added.
Ali said the fine for airing such commercials was Rs. 10, 000 that may go up to Rs. 1 million depending on the nature of offence. “Only commercials of hakims [herbalists] who have a No Objection Certificate from the health department can be aired on TV channels and FM radios under the PEMRA laws.”
In a court case filed against the ban on business of faith healers in the country in January 2016, the Supreme Court of Pakistan observed that there was no law to control practice of faith healers in the country. While hearing the case, the Court asked the government to control and regulate the work of faith healers and quacks across the country, and added that it was not in the interest of the public.
However, faith healers stress that they do nothing but cure patients through verses from the scripture. One such healer in Charsadda district, who wished no to be named, told Truth Tracker: “We write Quranic verse on amulets and God resolves issues of those who are in trouble through those verses.” He said that a large number of people had received succor through spiritual treatment.
He did, however, say that many among the faith healers were fake, out to cheat people by using illegal means like black magic and charging huge amounts of money from the distressed.
According to a scholastic paper published in the Journal of Pioneering Medical Sciences, “Faith definitely plays an important part in psychological well-being of humans but faith-healing methods should be appropriate and suitable for the clients using them as medical treatment.”
Another research article titled “Muslim Patients’ Perceptions of Faith-based Healing and Religious Inclination of treating physicians” published in Pakistan Heart Journal said over 76 per cent of patients in the public hospitals of Islamabad wore amulets to cure the diseases.
Dr. Azaz Jamal, a psychiatric doctor in Peshawar’s Khyber Teaching Hospital, sees over a 100 patients on a daily basis. Over 10 per cent of them have already consulted faith-healers to cure mental illness before visiting the health facility.
“They fall back on modern psychiatric treatment when patients become disappointed with faith-healers at severe stages of illness after wasting thousands of rupees,” says Jamal.
Asked why patients sought help from faith-healers, he said they get satisfied because healers offer counseling to patients which is an important part of the modern medical treatment of mental illness. But the counseling, he said, cannot help for long without proper medical treatment. Jamal said a majority of patients who seek faith healing belong to the southern districts, and also Malakand, Charsadda and Mardan.