In Pakistan, Taliban tearing apart a culture

Pashtun residents say militants have imposed extremist views on the population, displacing centuries-old traditions.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Pashtun literature used to be full of romance and praise for the beauty of nature. Now it reflects the death and explosions that have filled the lives of Pakistanis.

The literary trend is the lesser-known victim of the "Talibanization" in Pakistan's northwest. Militants imposed their ultraconservative brand of Islam in and around the Swat Valley until the military ousted them this summer, and they continue to hold sway throughout the tribal regions.

Residents in these areas say their reign is robbing this predominantly Pashtun area of its centuries-old culture and tearing the social fabric, from poetry to dancing to community centers. Even in Swat, where residents displaced by the fighting are making their way home, many entertainers have not come back for fear the Taliban might.

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"This is an attempt to Arabize the Pashtun society by attacking their culture and their highly revered institutions," says Said Alam Mehsud, a leader of the Aman Tehreek, a peace movement recently launched in Peshawar.

The Pashtuns, an ethnic group concentrated in northwestern Pakistan and southern and eastern Afghanistan, live by a revered code of conduct called Pashtunwali. Society has traditionally centered around community centers called hujras, where assemblies of elders and community leaders called jirgas are an important part of the culture.

But the militant brand of Islam brought by the Taliban has displaced the hujra and instead placed the mosque at the center of society, says Raj Wali Shah Khattak, former director of the Pashto Academy at the University of Peshawar. That has reduced the role of the jirga, leaving space for clergy to bring the Pashtun culture under a strict interpretation of religion, says Dr. Khattak, who is not related to the reporter.

It has also deterred people from coming forward to organize lashkars (armies of tribal volunteers) against the militants. More than 200 tribal elders have been killed in North and South Waziristan alone since 2004, while many others have fallen victim to the militant attacks in Swat and other districts of northwest Pakistan. Community centers and mosques, often used to organize lashkars, have been targeted by suicide bombers in the past two years.

Music under attack

Music has also come under assault. Attacks on stores selling CDs have become common. "Music functions are integral parts of Pashtun marriage ceremonies, and even Islam allows the beating of tambourine in marriage functions, but all these things are rapidly becoming a tale of the past in face of Talibanization," says Khattak.

The wave of militancy has forced many Pashtun musicians, singers, and dancers to leave the tribal areas and Peshawar, the commercial and cultural capital of the Pashtun tribal belt.

Last August the singer Haroon Bacha, a star in northwestern Pakistan and Afghanistan with more than two dozen albums, fled his homeland for the United States after receiving threats from militants.

Singer Gulzar Alam survived an assassination attempt and left Peshawar early this year for Karachi. In a telling sign of Pakistan's decline, he then moved to Kabul, the capital of a country at war – Afghanistan.

The famous dancer Shabana was shot in the street in Mingora, in the Swat Valley, by militants after she defied warnings to stop dancing at marriage ceremonies. Since her death, Banr Bazaar, where dancers congregated in Swat, has become vacant as dozens of dancers left for Karachi, Lahore, or other cities.

And in Peshawar, once known for its cinemas, five movie theaters have been closed and converted into commercial shopping plazas. One was attacked with a bomb, killing seven people, in May. The sole theater in Peshawar, 600-seat Nishtar Hall, has been closed since 2003, under threat from the Taliban.

Poetry reflects cultural shift

The clampdown on cultural expression has been reflected in contemporary poetry and music, an important part of Pashtun culture. Young Pakistanis have responded to the trend by composing poems expressing their grief and anger and using Facebook and text messages to spread their work. One young artist recently circulated a poem called "Don't wound Peshawar," which laments:

"As the wound of Kabul is still bleeding,

You're filling a bowl of blood here

While you have yet to drink the blood-filled bowl of Kabul."

"War is going on in [the] Pashtun's land, and changing trend[s] in poetry in such a situation is a natural process," says Khattak. "We can't expect romance ... or songs for spring and flowers when there is bloodshed all around."

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