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Pakistan: Dont yield space to the extremists

22 March 2010

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Published earlier in: Dawn, 21 March 2010

Regaining cultural space

by Hajrah Mumtaz

Should we resign ourselves to the disappearance from our cultural landscape of concerts and festivals, because of the inability to protect such large gatherings of people from terrorist attacks? — Photo by APP

Time is hardly hanging heavy these days on the hands of those Karachiites that are interested in culture. First there’s the Karachi literature festival, bringing together an impressive range of writers and commentators that include Kishwar Naheed, Intizaar Hussain, Bapsi Sidhwa, Mohammed Hanif, Mohsin Hamid and many others. Then there’s a number of plays: the invaluable tells me about the Tilsm theatre festival, a tragic-comedy called Insha ka Intezaar, the satire Rang Badal Lo Bhai, a ballet performance and a number of others.

In Lahore, too, there’s a fair bit going on, although at least one theatre production that was to be staged soon has been postponed, reportedly because of security concerns after the recent bombings. But going further north to the NWFP, classes and examinations at the University of Peshawar, and the over half a dozen other educational institutions on the campus, have been suspended because of violence after the death of a student. Adnan Abdul Qadir had been lying in a coma for the past week, after having been severely beaten up by student members of a right-wing party. What was the crime he committed? Only that he was playing music in his hostel room, and the right-wingers objected.

Should we then cease to play music for fear of the right-wingers who have taken it upon themselves to light our way to heaven by guarding our morality? Should we fear going to the theatre, or the cinema, or to an art exhibition, because any one of these venues may become at any time the target of a suicide bomber, a car bomb, any sort of a hundred different incendiary devices? Should we resign ourselves to the disappearance from our cultural landscape of concerts and festivals, because of the inability to protect such large gatherings of people from terrorist attacks? There is no end to this path, if once we embark upon it. After music, theatre and cinema, it’ll be sports events and literary gatherings and conferences. And very soon we will actually have the sort of wasteland that the right-wingers seem to wish to create.

Instead, let us fight back; let us wage a cultural war of self-defence, because that is one of the means through which the tide of medieval obscurantism that is washing over us can be pushed back. Culture and its associated activities are not about entertainment, you see; they’re about exploring and creating a national identity, about debating who we are and where we came from and where we now want to go. The arts are a vital avenue of education and self-awareness. Through these means, a society examines its characteristics, orientation and politics, and forges links with its history and context. And this function is crucial to Pakistan, given that we are today in a state of flux about our identity; experiences ranging from Lal Masjid to the Taliban to the revenge of the jihadis have shown us, for example, that even in the apparently unshakable edifice of Pakistani-hood combined with Muslim-hood, there are major – often murderous – differences of opinion. The country is splitting along ethnically- and religiously-oriented faultlines, and unless we discover urgently who we are and why we are this way, the future is bleak.

Currently, what we have is a generation raised with confused and often ludicrous notions of history, religion, nationalism and politics, and the interplay between them. By now, most of this country’s population has for so long been force-fed manufactured constructions that range from the glory of the army and the importance of strategic depth, to the evil inherent in India and the West – there are scores of examples – that they are taken as assumed truths. In this, our cultural truths have died. Consider Zia’s Islamisation project, for example, where in addition to the need to give the Afghan ‘jihad’ legitimacy, other factors too played a role. One of them was Saudi Arabia, which poured massive amounts of money into Pakistan in the effort to neutralise the perceived threat from Iran. One of the results of this was the demonisation of indigenous subcontinental culture, much of which was labelled “Hindu”, in order to allow Pakistan to become ideologically linked with Saudi Arabia. The effects of these combined with other factors are today manifested in attacks on our freedoms that range in gravity from the death of the Peshawar University student and the blowing up of CD shops and theatre halls, to making us shun public places and fear any forum that the right-wing extremists may take a dislike to.

Bringing us back from the brink must include the project not only to reassert ourselves culturally, but to take back into our hands all the public spaces that the right-wingers have made us fear. Let us fight back by populating the parks and the cinema halls, the theatres and workshops, the streets and towns from where the obscurantists have forced us out, and confined us within the four walls of our private spaces. Meanwhile, let us remember that the performing arts and literature are powerful tools that can be used to the great advantage of the country’s liberal, tolerant and peaceful elements. Through these means can we carry out exercises in self-examination and self-critique, for through these means is it possible to hold a mirror up to reality and then foster a more nuanced understanding.

In terms of Pakistan, people often say that “the show must go on”. But there’s no ‘must’ about this: the chances of harmonious coexistence for everybody who lives here are falling fast. Perhaps a better phrase to take to heart would be “let’s get this show on the road.” We must regain space for liberal thought in our society even if that means exposing ourselves to violence; by stepping back, staying at home, we are yielding space to the extremists – and they will only continue to hanker after more.

hajrahmumtaz at