Winds of Islamism make Pakistani artists shiver

The art scene in the cosmopolitan city of Lahore is being changed by Taliban threats.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Fashion, Passion: Models walk the runway at a charity fashion show in Lahore, Pakistan, to benefit refugees from Swat Valley fighting.
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    Merchants burned CDs and DVDs in Lahore in October – they had been threatened with suicide bombings if they kept selling their goods.
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Farhan Khan, a drummer in a band, is taking a break from performing. This move was prompted by his mother, who worries that her son might become a target for the Islamic extremists gradually asserting their power in this city.

In recent months, as theaters have been bombed, art festivals interrupted, and musicians targeted, Mr. Khan has learned firsthand about the rising level of hostility toward his profession.

"Once, I was walking down a street: I wear my hair long and was wearing tattered jeans," he says. "As I neared a corner, I came across a bearded man who gave me a dirty look and then scowled at me."

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The stranger approached Khan and told him, "You should cut off your hair and grow your beard if you know what's good for you."

Those who've been living in Lahore – a city of 10 million – for many years find the idea of extremism arriving on these streets baffling. But its presence is growing, and musicians, artists, and performers are among those most affected.

Event manager Aamir Mazhar laments the rising threat to Punjab Province's cultural capital, a hub of the latest styles, films, and comedy performances.

"This was the best city in the world," says Mr. Mazhar, rushing around a venue to arrange a launch party. "There was an energy, an enthusiasm, and a life here, which no other city could rival."

Extremism comes to sheltered Lahore

As Pakistan became caught up in the throes of a powerful militancy, the leafy boulevards of Lahore initially seemed sheltered from the troubles occurring mostly in the country's northwest. But soon, the hometown of renowned musicians and poets began changing.

Last October, merchants on Hall Road – a large commercial district – set alight thousands of CDs and DVDs. The Anjuman-e-Tajiran, a union of shopkeepers, said vendors took this step after receiving anonymous letters threatening them with suicide bombs if they continued selling.

Malik Shabeer, a merchant, says he had to comply. He admits to selling Bollywood and Hollywood flicks, as well as pornography. "People demanded it and so we sold it," he says with a sheepish grin.

But after the threats came, Mr. Shabeer and many others scaled back. "Fewer people are visiting these shops," he says. "I'm so scared of the Taliban targeting my shop that I want to just close this business and do something else."

One reason why Shabeer and others were so eager to burn 60,000 CDs and DVDs is that about a week earlier, on Oct. 7, three small bombs exploded near juice shops close to Hall Road. These shops had become "dating points," offering concealed booths in which couples would cuddle. The Tehreek-ul Haya group ("Movement for Decency") claimed responsibility and warned that more attacks against "centers of immorality" would follow.

Still, Yasmeen Rahman, a member of the National Assembly, says she is surprised at how eagerly traders complied with anonymous threats. "I never thought the climate of fear would become so strong in Lahore," she says.

A drastic change for a cosmopolitan city

Political analyst Hassan Askari says he's saddened that the Taliban threat has become so real in his hometown. "This was a cosmopolitan city where women could dress as they liked and walk freely in the bazaars, where movie premières were always well attended, and where both conservative and liberal streams of Islam freely existed," he says. "This has all started to change."

Pakistan newspaper columnist Asadul­lah Ghalib says the change is not as sudden as it seems: "Anger at the United States for pursuing the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, along with strikes in Pakistan, led to the strengthening of extremist groups."

About a decade ago, anecdotal evidence suggests that only a minority of people said their prayers in mosques, and the majority enjoyed pastimes that hard-line Islamist groups condemn: smoking cigars, watching soap operas, betting on cricket matches.

Now, in the place of advertisements marketing the latest makeup, fliers inviting all for Umrah (a minor pilgrimage that Muslims undertake to Mecca) or religious classes are more visible. Multinational phone companies have begun offering Koranic verses as ring tones.

Mazhar says that until 2007 he was handling more than 30 events a year, and that his main concern was ensuring the press turned out to cover his festivities. Now, he says, "the number of events has drastically reduced, and fashion shows are not being done or are conducted in discreet locations far from the city center."

According to Mazhar, event organizers became petrified after three bombs simultaneously exploded outside the Alhamra Cultural Complex on Nov. 22 last year while a performing arts festival was taking place.

Artists refuse to give up their work

But organizers decided that the festival should continue. The events following the attacks were as heavily publicized as the ones before, but the audience shrank drastically.

Despite the risks of performing and the smaller audiences, some musicians and artists are eager to continue doing what they do best.

The Rafi Peer Theater workshop used to arrange performances for more than 200 artists. According to the group's chairman, Faizaan Peerzada, only five have refused to perform. The rest inquire about security arrangements.

Though some residents of Lahore support morality policing, others say such intolerance has no place here. At a recent protest, more than 3,000 activists, artists, students, and journalists turned out for a rare demonstration against extremism.

"This is our city," declared an excited student, Anita Khan. "And we will not let any terrorist dictate the way we live."•

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