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Winds of Islamism make Pakistani artists shiver

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

By Ayesha NasirCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 29, 2009

Fashion, Passion: Models walk the runway at a charity fashion show in Lahore, Pakistan, to benefit refugees from Swat Valley fighting.

Mohsin Raza/Reuters

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Lahore, Pakistan

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.

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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."

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.