Lahore: Cultural capital to Taliban territory?

Maseeh Rahman writing here

Lahore was the scene of at least three massive bomb attacks on security establishments earlier this year, but people in Pakistan’s second largest city, routinely hailed as the nation’s ‘cultural capital’, appear far more anxious about two relatively minor incidents which occurred earlier this month.
The first was on the evening of October 7, when a cluster of fruit juice parlours — which also serve as popular dating venues — in the Garhi Shahu area, not far from the railway station, was hit by three low-intensity bombs, injuring five people, of whom one died later. The next day, panic-stricken traders organised a well-publicised bonfire of videos and other allegedly pornographic material at the popular electronics bazaar on Hall Road.

The reason for the disproportionately nervous reaction to these recent incidents is not difficult to find. Unlike the earlier attacks by suicide bombers trained in the jihad factories of the Pashtun highlands to the west, the latest threat in Lahore appears to emanate from closer home, proof perhaps that just as in Bannu or in Swat in the Northwest Frontier Province, radical groups in Pakistan’s cultural capital have now begun to use violence to enforce their idea of an Islamic way of life.

In other words, the spectre of the Taliban has begun to haunt Lahore.



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“People see these two incidents as quite significant, it’s having an impact on people’s psyche,” says theatre director Shahid Nadeem. “We can no longer deny the existence of extremist sects in our midst.”Both incidents are classic examples of Taliban-style moral policing. The fruit juice parlours were bombed because they functioned as ‘dating joints’ for young, middle-class Pakistanis. They were partitioned into tiny cabins and the house rules were straightforward — couples could sit as long as they liked, provided they ordered at least three glasses of juice every hour at Rs 45 a glass. The cabins were without doors though, so even the most daring could do no more than hold hands or, at most, pet a little. Nonetheless, the cabins did provide some shelter from the public gaze.

Before they were bombed, the juice parlours had received threats (what in Afghanistan are called ‘night letters’, since they’re delivered nocturnally) from a group calling itself Tehrik-e-Haya (Decency Movement), but these were ignored. The alacrity with which the Hall Road DVD and video dealers lit a merchandise-destroying bonfire the next day revealed that other businesses had received such threats too. And after having resisted the ‘moral police’, the traders were now caving in without a whimper of protest.

But traditional hardliners are not the only problem. Equally worrisome for Lahoris was the fact that when the juice parlours were bombed in Garhi Shahu, other traders in the area cheered, showing their disapproval of the dating joints.

“Lahore’s traders are powerful and organised, and have withstood threats in the past,” says Ahmad Rafay Alam, a young lawyer. “But the trading class is also getting radicalised now.”

Rafay Alam was so disturbed by the recent turn of events in his home city that he shot off an article for The News under the challenging title “The Beginning of the Talibanization of Lahore?”. It’s become a much-discussed piece, a cry from the heart of a modern young Pakistani fearful of the direction in which his beloved city — and country — is hurtling. It therefore merits quoting in some detail:

“The Talibanization of Lahore has begun,” he writes. “This is a major development. For centuries, Lahore has been the beacon of culture in this region. It is one of the cities of the Sufi tradition. It was a capital of the Mughal Empire, the seat of the Sikh Khalsa and a jewel of the Colonial Crown. It is the second-largest city in Pakistan and, as capital of the Punjab, arguably the most politically significant. Lahore has been the seat of great learning and scholarship. Government College, the University of the Punjab, the National College of Arts, Kinnaird and Aitchison colleges and, more recently, LUMS, LSE and BNU. It has given the world Kipling, Manto and Professor Abdus Salam and can claim the likes of Ganga Ram, Dayal Singh Majithia and Imran Khan as its sons (yes, Imran Khan — one must never take his gift of the Shaukat Khanum Hospital for granted). It has been home to Faiz and (Urdu humourist) Patras Bokhari and a million other shining lights of Pakistani culture. Now one thinks twice before going out.”

For outside observers, especially from India, it may seem a bit specious for Lahoris to suddenly begin agonising about the crazed ‘fundos’ in their midst when the city and its environs have for long been home to organisations such as Jamaat-ud-Dawah, Lashkar-e-Toiba, or even Jamaat-e-Islami. The missionary Tablighi Jamaat also holds its annual sessions there, always with record-breaking attendance.

But such a response ignores a fundamental shift in Pakistani thinking, especially amongst a section of the westernised elite, who now fear that in Pakistan, like in Afghanistan, the jihadis, or ‘Partisans of Allah’ in Ayesha Jalal’s memorable book title, want to seize state power and are no longer content with only participating in state-sponsored campaigns, such as in Kashmir.

Even those, such as noted political scientist Rasul Baksh Rais of the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), who discount the potential, or even the ambition, of the so-called Pakistan Taliban (an umbrella term for several autonomous localised groups) to take over in Islamabad acknowledge the serious challenge posed by these groups.

“It’s an ideological mindset that seeks to capture some of the functions of the state, that wants to replace the secular constitutional state with Islamic ideology and laws,” says Rais. He believes the groups active in the Pashtun highlands are “not a great threat to Pakistan”, but bemoans the fact that not sufficient attention is being given to “how the Taliban insurgency has sunk roots in the rest of the country”.

“It is now becoming increasingly clear that Taliban insurgents and suicide bomber squads also include large numbers of non-Pashtuns, mainly from the Punjab,” he warns. But he is confident that given the political will, the Pakistan military can successfully “break the backbone of the insurgency”.

Many wealthy Pakistanis, however, are not waiting for the final result of the contest. Mohammed Hanif, the author of the delightful novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes, relocated to Karachi with his family last month after 12 years of voluntary exile in London. Looking to buy a house in the posh Defence area, Hanif notices that too many mansions are lying empty and up for sale. “After every house we visit, I ask the estate agent why the owner is selling this house,” he writes. “The most common reply is that they are moving to Toronto. Others are headed to Dubai, to London. One even to South Africa.”

Oddly enough, one source of Karachi’s ‘Taliban scare’ is the city’s powerful secular leader, who guides his ardent followers via video-telephone from distant Edgware in London. Altaf Hussain, chief of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) representing the Mohajir migrants from India and their descendants, has recently taken to issuing dire warnings about the Taliban “spreading its tentacles” in Karachi.

“We will not permit a Taliban system to be implemented in Karachi,” he warned, after insisting that two major districts had already been taken over by Pashtun radicals. “We do not want to fight anybody, but if the Taliban attack Karachi, we will defend as per the Sharia.” (Even secular Pakistani politicians lean on religion to convey their message.)

Hanif recounts a recent telephone address by Hussain to his affluent party members in Defence and Clifton.

“After he spoke, the audience was invited to ask questions,” writes the novelist. “A young female student asked what she could do, as a girl, when the Taliban arrived at the gates of Karachi. ‘Weapons training,’ Hussain replied. ‘Buy weapons and learn to use them.’ Also, he (Hussain) continued, ‘there are many martial arts training centres in Karachi. Please join those, learn self-defence, learn judo and karate’.”

Hanif adds: “As a friend who was present at the address later told me, ‘I sat there and listened and tried to imagine a girl from Defence flooring Mullah Omar with a karate chop’.”

Amber Alibhai, who heads an urban advocacy group, acknowledges that Karachi, unlike the rest of Sindh, faces creeping ‘Talibanisation’ as well as a reverse ‘brain drain’, with a section of the elite opting out. “But I’m fed up of these people in Defence and their silly talk,” she adds. “Our city has been partitioned, it’s getting more and more divided, but it’s due to the economic disparities, the lack of opportunities, education, housing, jobs.”

“Even if the Army succeeds in clearing the tribal areas in the north of the country of the Taliban, if the vacuum isn’t filled up with schools, clinics, economic development, the Taliban will be back,” she adds.

Political analyst Rais maintains that the scare scenario of a Taliban takeover in Pakistan will appear plausible only under one eventuality. “If the US withdraws from Afghanistan tomorrow, the Taliban will become an unstoppable force in the region, and it will take on the Pakistani state,” he says.

After waking up to the Taliban threat after years of insouciance, the Americans are not likely to ditch Kabul in a hurry. But their heightened concern about the situation in the Pashtun tribal belt, it’s being whispered, has made them warn Islamabad that if the Taliban ‘crosses the Indus’ (in other words, if Punjab gets Talibanised) then the US Central Command would take out Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

The story about the American nuke warning may be apocryphal, but for Lahoris today, the spectre of a rising Taliban is beginning to look uncomfortably real. “The people of Lahore are liberal, tolerant, open-minded, and the majority don’t support Taliban-type interpretations of Islam,” says theatre director Nadeem. “But one test will be next month, when the World Performing

Arts Festival will be held, with theatre, dance, and mime from many countries, including India.”

If the festival is a success, feels Nadeem, then it’s one more victory at the cultural barricades. For as Rafay Alam put it, if Lahore ever surrenders to the Taliban “it will be the beginning of the end of the Indus Valley civilisation” in Pakistan.

Maseeh Rahman is a senior journalist based in Delhi

3 responses to “Lahore: Cultural capital to Taliban territory?

  1. OK … first things first … what bombers did was wrong. Now to Maseeh from Delhi, our cultural capital also has laws and those laws prohibit pornography and dating. So stop these “little love bird in peace” and “only a three and a half CDs were sold” type of arguments. Should dating and pornography be legal is also a different discussion.

    Now, why would law enforcement not clamp down on these “love birds” and porno stuff? Why are things blown out of proportion on one issue i.e. Talibanization and not on the other? Laws of the land, even in a western democracy, are based on the consent and majority of the population. If Pakistan has law supported by majority why should it not be followed? If a law is broken, some segments feel more offended than others and it sometimes result in those segments going to extremes.

    So in America of 70’s, when there was widespread discrimination against the blacks and govt. just turned it eyes away, some groups in blacks did some very violent things. To solve the whole issue, U.S. didn’t just start to clamp down on the violent black but root cause i.e. discrimination was solved first. The other problem faded away.

    Moral of Maseeh and his alike is to scare the population with the boogeyman and divert the attention from real issues.

  2. Dear NA,

    Most of what you say is pure rubbish; very similar to the arguments put forth by militant islamic “student unions” in our country. Cheap shots aside, what you are saying comes across as “don’t let anyone get any if I am not getting any.”

    Now, coming to the whole Law argument. The laws of Pakistan do not prohibit “dating” or people of opposite genders from socializing. Neither our constitution nor our penal code prescribes any penalties from socializing with the opposite sex. Punishment is only recommended for zina etc. and even the old-fashioned zina laws have been changed after the Women’s Rights Bill.

    And do you really think that laws of Pakistan portray what the majority thinks? Majority of Pakistanis, or at least Punjabis, have been very moderate muslims since before independence. Before Zia came into power, Pakistan was a very liberal and prosperous country. Zia fueled fundamentalist ideals and islamic militants to garner support for his own regime under the banner of so-called “islam”. He was supported in his endeavour by our American allies because back then they understood the anti-soviet potential of a taliban-led islamist movement in Pakistan.

    So to stop communism we gave birth to islamic fundamentalism, and then let the mullah loose to wreak havoc on our society and culture.

    I do not really care about what other people do or how they behave. I think everyone should be afforded the freedom to choose and decide how they want to live their lives. But I see these militant islamists and jihadis taking away my freedom to choose.

    Has any liberal gone and bombed a madrasa in northern areas? No. Has any Lahori gone and ripped off the burqa from some lady in Pesahwar? No. So why are these people coming over here in our city and telling us how to live our lives?

    Given the circumstances in Pakistan, I’d rather be a Muslim living in a Western country than a Muslim living here. At least over there I have the freedom to do what I want to do and not what some maulvi wants me to do.

    On another note, how can you say that these extremists are spreading the message of Islam? These are the people who pray five times a day but regularly buy and sell women, grow hashish and opium, and keep little boys as “apprentices”.

  3. “don’t let anyone get any if I am not getting any.” … and you call what I said “a cheap shot.”

    OK so to reduce the arguments and discuss something more meaningful, let’s say that dating a girl and “socializing” is legal in Pakistan. Fair enough. Now you, very conveniently, left out the part about pornography. Why is that law not enforced? Pornographic material is definitely illegal by Pakistani law yet, excluding some small periods of time, buying “totay” has always been as easy as getting a glass of lassi. I know you wouldn’t even mind legalizing pornographic material but it’s easier and more politically correct to defend dating than justifying porn (at least for now). So this is your first step.

    I really don’t want to go too far in this direction and it’s very naïve of you to think that I am arguing for Talibans or Talibanization. What I am arguing for is rule of law … be it for or against liberals. Punjabis make more than 60% of Pakistan and if all of them are so “moderate” (as you think) then just go ahead and amend the constitution … make it more liberal. Turkey has done that. I’ll be all for it. Really! All I am asking is stop the hypocrisy which leads liberals to think that “in fact” everyone in Pakistan is liberal and, on the flip side, leads conservatives to think that “in fact” everyone in Pakistan is a conservative.

    >> “Before Zia came into power, Pakistan was a very liberal
    >> and prosperous country.”

    Some elite segments were more liberal yes. Prosperous … oh please. Things hardly got better until 60’s (recovering from the partition) and then 65 war followed by 71 followed by army operations in Baluchistan in mid 70’s followed by nationalization of industries by Bhutto. Where do you see “Prosperity?”

    >> I think everyone should be afforded the freedom to choose
    >> and decide how they want to live their lives.

    Sorry but, as of now, this only applies in the jungle. Civil societies make laws (sources could be different) and those laws are enforced … you like them or not. What if I say that I want to smoke hashish? Where does the buck stop in freedom to choose?

    >> Has any liberal gone and bombed a madrasa in northern areas?
    >> No. Has any Lahori gone and ripped off the burqa from some lady in Pesahwar?

    This is what I call two extremes as Tariq Ali calls it “The clash of fundamentalisms.” You want to do what pleases you and they want to do what pleases them. Your pleasure lies in molding the law to comfort you and their pleasure lies in taking the law in their own hands. And you both are wrong.

    >> Given the circumstances in Pakistan, I’d rather
    >> be a Muslim living in a Western country than a Muslim living here.
    >> At least over there I have the freedom to do
    >> what I want to do and not what some maulvi wants me to do.

    I respect your opinion but the problem on both ends is when you think that every “sensible person think like me.” OK … let me put it this way … I for one am a lahoria, lived most of my adult life in the U.S. I live in Miami and my office is on Lincoln Rd Mall in Miami Beach. As liberal as it gets if you have ever visited south beach and if you know what I mean. I DON’T like it here and I am moving back to lahore very soon. So there you go … your opinion weigh no more or less than my opinion so bring another one to get majority and I will bring another one to make it equal. This sort of “I and [all] my friends think” is nothing more than an inductive fallacy of faulty generalization.

    >> On another note, how can you say that these extremists
    >> are spreading the message of Islam?

    See by this, I just want to point out how obsessed you are with your own lines of argument. You have statement sort of like standard “terms and conditions” to cover everyone who doesn’t agree with you. I never said these extremists were spreading Islam so much so that… show me even the word “Islam” in my previous post. It’s not even the topic I touched at all but I guess your standard TOS included that bashing as well because … may be … extremes like you are mostly confronted by extremes on the other end … to make up balance in the natural laws.

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