Extremists gunned down two prominent Pakistani politicians last year for speaking out against the country’s harsh blasphemy laws, which can mean life in prison or even death. Human rights activists have criticized the laws, saying they are often used to persecute religious minorities or settle personal scores.
Yahya Mujahid, the spokesman for Jamaat-ud-Dawa, denied the group sent any threats but said the state should punish those responsible.
“It’s part of Western and American plans to malign Islam,” claimed Mujahid.
A court considering whether to press blasphemy charges held its latest session in mid-December, but it has not said when it will rule whether such charges apply in the case.
Shahram Sarwar, a lawyer representing the college’s editorial board, said his clients did not intend to hurt anyone’s feelings but he was prepared to apologize on their behalf if they did.
Besides shutting down the journal, the college also closed the department where its staff worked, said Sarwar.
The current head of the National Arts College, Shabnam Khan, denied the institution caved to pressure from hardliners, saying the editorial staff quit voluntarily. She said the department was closed because no one was left to run it.
A member of the editorial board disputed this version of events, saying the college administration asked him and his colleagues to resign. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted by extremists.
The school has long been a progressive voice. A research project at the college in 2008 focused on the idea that rising Islamic conservatism and violent religious fanaticism was a fundamental threat to peace and democracy in Pakistan. In the 1980s, when former dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq, a notorious Islamist, ordered all female students and teachers to cover their hair, the college pushed back.
Individual graduates have pushed the envelope with their work. Amra Khan’s latest work, which was exhibited at the college and a gallery in Karachi this year, included Muslim veils embroidered with a pink Playboy bunny and The Rolling Stones’ big red lips logo.
Evidence of the growing influence of Islamic hardliners abounds in Pakistan. In September, clerics wielding sticks forced their way into a wedding reception in the southern city of Ghotki to stop the guests from singing and dancing. A different set of clerics forced a five-star hotel to cancel a planned concert in August in the northwest town of Bhurban because they argued the music was counter to Islam.
Hardliners have had success influencing Pakistani institutions as well. The Supreme Court ordered the country’s media regulatory body in August to look into blocking “vulgar” and “obscene” content on TV in response to a petition filed by conservative Islamists.
In November, the government’s telecommunications arm banned late-night cell phone call packages, saying they encouraged immoral behavior by young people. The government banned YouTube earlier this year because of an anti-Islam video posted on the site, and one of the country’s highest courts has blocked access to Facebook twice because of material considered anathema to Islam.
Khan, the head of the college, refused to discuss the case in more detail because of the court proceedings, but said that people across the political spectrum were becoming more alarmed by the use of violence to enforce views.
“I have heard recently even from conservative people that enough is enough,” said Khan. “It is wrong that people interfere in others’ lives, that people interfere in others’ beliefs.”