Islamist Gangs Make Pakistanis Fight For Right to Party on New Year's Eve

Many may celebrate in private tonight to avoid the wrath of baton-wielding militants.

Tonight, Americans will head for Times Square and parties to ring in the new year. But in Islamic Pakistan, New Year's Eve can be a divisive and controversial time.

The holiday has become an annual source of dispute between Islamic activists and Westernized liberals. In recent years, the Islamists, who look upon New Year's celebrations as a sign of growing Western influence, have been all too eager to shut the merrymaking down.

Groups of baton-carrying Islamic activists, known as lath-bardar, assign themselves the task of breaking up parties, smashing cars belonging to guests in an effort to discourage the secular celebrations.

"The disputes over New Year's celebrations are the most profound example of divisions within the society," says Asma Jehangir, a leading human rights activist in Lahore.

This year, there's an added dimension. For the first time in more than three decades, Ramadan, a month-long holiday of fasting and prayer, is due to begin on New Year's Eve.

Hotels, which routinely shut down restaurants to outside parties on New Year's Eve to avoid rousing Islamist ire, are set to take further precautions.

Senior government officials quote reports that most of Pakistan's five-star hotels will organize Iftar (breaking of the fast) dinners on New Year's Eve as a mark of respect for Ramadan, but no buffet food will be served beyond 10 p.m. And hotel security will keep a strict vigil to prevent impromptu celebrations among guests at midnight.

"The issue of Ramadan will add to the anxieties over the celebrations" says Ikram Sehgal, a Karachi-based businessman.

But not everyone agrees that the attempts by Islamists to disrupt New Year's celebrations necessarily suggest the emergence of a fundamentalist tide across Pakistan.

"Pakistan has become more liberal compared to where it was in the '80s," says Qasim Askari, a professional accountant in his 20s who says he has no qualms about celebrating the holiday. "The younger generation is quite liberal in their outlook, and most of them would enjoy the New Year celebrations."

Many others say that since the 1988 death of Gen. Zia ul Haq, Pakistan's last military dictator who vigorously enforced Islam to strengthen his own position, there are signs of more openness in Pakistan, among them the growing influence of satellite television.

'NEW Year's celebrations are important because this is the one time that people try to [indulge] their yearning for a bit of entertainment, which they wouldn't find otherwise," says a Karachi businessman who asked not to be named. "Pakistan has been suppressed for too long, and now people want to see some change."

At the same time, however, Islamic activists have become increasingly determined to resist the so-called symbols of Western influence, such as New Year's.

Some analysts say such activism is largely a fallout from the long war in neighboring Afghanistan, where militant Islamists have taken over most of the country.

During the 1980s, Western countries led by the United States aided the war effort by supporting Islamic activist groups against invading troops of the Soviet Union.

"Many of these Islamic groups remain active and armed due to the help that they received from the outside world during the '80s," concedes a senior government official, who asked not to be named.

Many analysts say that the activism of Islamists is driven by a two-pronged message.

First, many are inspired by calls from Islamic groups in other Muslim countries in the Middle East to resist Western ideas and values.

Second, worsening economic conditions in Pakistan have left many young people unable to find work and looking for answers. For them, the Islamic groups have a wide appeal.

A leading newspaper columnist, Ghazi Salahuddin, calls the annual New Year's squabble perhaps the most visible example of a clash between "orthodox and liberal ideas."

However difficult the issue may be in the long term, Mr. Askari, the young accountant, is still convinced that there is little that Islamists can do to completely erase the practice, as younger people increasingly look forward to the annual celebrations.

"If people want to celebrate, they can be forced to party in private," he says. "But there's no way that they could be stopped."

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