- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2004

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Fame was no protection for one of Pakistan’s most celebrated pop stars when he indulged in the “un-Islamic” practice of singing in public.

Gulzar Alam was beaten with rifle butts and fists when 20 policemen armed with AK-47s raided a wedding party where he was performing.

“They are trying to be the Taliban,” Mr. Alam said. “They are trying to impose this Islamic system. But music is our tradition, and it reflects our culture.”

Covered in bruises, he was dragged to the cells in the frontier city of Peshawar and locked up for four hours before friends secured his release.

Mr. Alam, 42, said: “The police said, ‘This music is banned.’ They swore at me. They treated me like a very low person. This province has become a police state.”

Mr. Alam had run afoul of the Islamist coalition running Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, which includes crucial areas near the border with Afghanistan.

Since winning power less than 18 months ago, the coalition has banned anyone from playing music or singing in public and has confiscated thousands of music tapes from the bazaars. These were heaped on a huge bonfire in Peshawar and set ablaze by the local police chief.

Videotapes of cricket matches also were thrown onto the flames because the authorities had noticed that shots of the crowds showed fleeting glimpses of unveiled women.

The ritual — a conscious imitation of the frequent bonfires of “un-Islamic” material staged by the Taliban regime in Kabul — was followed by the closure of Peshawar’s only theater.

Near the deserted Nishter Hall, once the center of a community of 350 actors and musicians, a billboard carrying an advertisement for shoes was damaged. Black paint covered the faces of two women.

Across the province, almost all billboards with pictures of women have been torn down or sprayed. At the Shabistan theater in Peshawar, colorful billboards that once tempted passers-by with pictures of women clad in bright saris and men brandishing guns have been removed. Inoffensive pictures of eagles and lions have replaced them.

The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal coalition, which runs the provincial government, insists there is no cause for concern.

Malik Zafar Azam, the justice and parliamentary affairs minister, shies away from comparisons with the Taliban and points out the Islamists won 67 of the local assembly’s 124 seats in free elections in 2002.

“We are doing what the people want us to do,” he said. “We have given them security. You can go where you want in safety here.”

But Mr. Alam thinks the Islamists are waging a vendetta against the entire artistic community. As the province’s most famous performer, he said he has been singled out for harassment.

Two months after beating him up at the wedding party, police raided Mr. Alam’s house in Peshawar’s Old City.

By chance, he was away, so they arrested his brother, Alam Khan, 25, and his sons, Salman, 19, and Shan, 13. The singer said they were beaten and held in the cells overnight, accused of kidnapping two Afghan children.

When the provincial assembly meets next month, the authorities plan to introduce a law creating a new body modeled on the Taliban’s “ministry for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice.”

This will have sweeping powers to intervene in any area of life in defense of “Islamic standards.” The proposed law also would create a parallel police and judicial system to implement a Shariah Law Act passed by the provincial assembly last year.

“This is the most dangerous development,” said Afrasiab Khattak, from the Pakistan Human Rights Commission. “It will allow the government to intervene in anything, without challenge from the courts.”

The Islamists also have pledged to segregate higher education by building a new women’s university in Peshawar, where women will be forced to wear veils.

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