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Contesting culture

July 12, 2016

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The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.
The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.

IN 2004, while the Muttahida-Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) was governing KP, a puritanical vigi­lante group called Tehreek-i-Nijaat-i-Fahashi launched a crackdown against musicians in Peshawar. Under deepening conservatism pat­ronised by the religio-political alliance, music studios, baithaks and schools clustered in the Dab­­garhi area were forcibly closed and musi­cians evicted on charges of spreading obscenity.

This was when MMA ministers were presiding over public bonfires of CDs and DVDs and passed a law, the Prohibition of Singing, Dancing and Performing Act allowing police to raid homes and arrest people. People were shooting TV sets and vice-control squads were proposed in the Hasba law. The MMA created the environment in which others harassed and even killed performers with impunity.

In another example, racism in England predates Brexit of course, but the intensification of incidents in its wake shows the referendum and its campaign unbridled something latent. Which in turn shows that political narratives can keep such pulses leashed or unleashed.

It is important to establish who killed Amjad Sabri but also to focus on who created the contextual pattern. The Taliban agenda in the first decade of the ‘war on terror’ was to systematically target symbols of pluralism and places of interaction. Political rallies, bazaars, hujras, jirgas, cultural events, parks, churches, imambargahs and mosques were repeatedly attacked. Take, for example, the bombings of shrines Rehman Baba in Peshawar, Bacha Sahib in Khyber, Sakhi Sarwar in Dera Ghazi Khan, Rakheel Shah in Jhal Magsi, Daata Darbar in Lahore and Abdullah Shah Ghazi in Karachi.


Artists wouldn’t feel so insecure if the state had acted earlier.


When militants later started targeting the state itself, society was left with no resources or social capital to fight back with. When public space becomes a battle zone, not only protests and collective action, but also mere public trust and a sense of connection become difficult.

Artists wouldn’t feel so insecure if the state had acted earlier — maybe with the first incident: the killing by the Swat Taliban of an Afghan author, Fazal Wahab. Or when dancer Shabana was shot dead and her body strewn with money. Or when singer Kamal Mehsud fled Waziristan under threats from the Taliban, only to be killed in Islamabad. Or when several artists applied for asylum and left the country after their music was declared un-Islamic.

While we can point to the corrosive policies of the army and the defeatist political strategy of co-option, blame also lies with the people. We ceded. We derived security from public assertions of piety. We learnt to frown on revelry and subcontracted decision-making to televangelists and fatwa factories. We accepted that there is a gold standard of modern Muslim-ness.

As television news channels mud wrestle for the ratings trophy, the NAP hate speech radar doesn’t register that alleging a violation of the good Muslim model is now as good as a death warrant in Pakistan. And given the culturally endorsed privatisation of ven­ge­ance, anyone can ensure vigilante implementation.

The issue of blasphemy is destroying whatever strands of pluralism remain. The Taliban have claimed Sabri’s killing because they said his music was blasphemous even though his were among the safest and most mainstream populist qawwalis. Among the most revered icons of other qawwals and subversive Sufis in Pakistan is a man who was tortured to death for being the ultimate ‘blasphemer’, the arch-martyr who danced his way to the noose, Mansur Hallaj. So do we purge Sultan Bahu, Shah Hussain and Bulleh Shah from Punjabi culture? In Sindhi and Seraiki, there are hardly any compilations of mystical verses that don’t venerate him.

On the other hand, some have tried to peddle Sufi Islam as a countering force, using more con­cep­tually bankrupt binaries of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. An­other misplaced romance with the Barelvis was put to rest with Mumtaz Qadri. Any mix of faith and politics cannot work. Even if we put aside the stock analysis of state support for militancy as foreign policy, the ’80s, Gen Zia etc, the reverence for living pirs and deference to Syeds show how things can — and do, and will — warp.

Some artists are now demanding security and an end to impunity. One had hoped they would have done so earlier, when artists outside the cultural elite were targeted. When the Sheedi Mela was cancelled for years on end because of Taliban threats. When those 500 CD shops were bombed. Or when the visual arts department of Karachi University was wrecked by extremists.

It was not random that among the first acts of the Taliban after their takeover of Afghanistan was banning the rabab musical instrument. Art promotes tolerance, so inimical to militants, but there is something more fundamental at work. Art forms enable imagination, abstract thought and exultance. Without the capacity of abstract thought, spirituality and critical thinking are not possible. Without the capacity for joy, bitterness congeals. Without imagination, only literalism is left. The extremist agenda survives on these absences.

The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.

Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2016