- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 1, 2009

LAHORE

While Pakistan’s military pounds the Taliban in the rugged mountains of Waziristan, another battle is being fought in the country’s theaters and on television against the Talibanization of Pakistani culture and identity.

The weapons: humor and satire.

Yunus Butt, 45, who has been penning comedy scripts for almost 20 years, has launched a comedy show based on a spoof Taliban TV channel. It features a female singer whose back is always toward the camera and marks the time with bullets striking a bell.

“I believe humor is an art of living,” Mr. Butt said. “Talibans don’t laugh because they are very serious people. In fact, saying anything light about the Taliban is taboo, which is why I began this show, to humanize the Taliban, to poke fun at them and to demystify them.”

Mr. Butt said poking fun at the Taliban is the best way of fighting them. “If we can get the masses to laugh at them, we will defeat them,” he said. “Thanks to state television glorifying them in the past, public opinion remains in their favor. That’s what we need to fight.”

Mr. Butt’s show, which airs on Geo television, can be likened to a cross between “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and David Letterman’s late-night offering. It has received its share of threats, Mr. Butt said, from anonymous callers and letter writers. “The Americans also expressed their concerns over episodes which poke fun at U.S. policy,” he said.

Madiha Gauhar writes plays that cater to a smaller audience but generate a great deal of publicity. The daughter of a prominent woman activist, she helped found Ajoka theater in 1983. The nonprofit venture stages performances on social issues, generating discussion and controversy; it charges no admission.

The theater recently put on a festival of plays called Theater for Peace. The highlight was a play called “Burqawa-gazna” in which all the performers - male and female - wore burqas, the shroudlike garment with a mesh face covering that the Taliban and ethnic Pushtun traditionalists oblige women to wear.

“The play is a critique of this new emphasis of covering up,” Ms. Gauhar said. “It pokes fun at Talibanization and the fundamentalism sweeping our society.”

The play was banned two years ago by the provincial government, but Ms. Gauhar continues to stage it to show that the burqa and the veil have little to do with religion and are the products of feudal and patriarchal values. “Even this time around, we received some complaints from the Punjab government, but my aim is simple,” she said. “Come what may, the show must go on.”

Ms. Gauhar said productions like this one counteract Urdu-language media that “glorifies the Taliban and makes them out to be true Muslims. Plays like Burqawaganza demystify this myth and provoke discussion and debate.”

The cultural battle against the Taliban has its own martyrs: Maulvi Sarfraz Naeemi, a cleric who spoke out against the Taliban and became the victim of a suicide bomb, and journalist Musa Khan, who was fatally shot in Swat for reporting Taliban excesses.

A performing-arts festival in Lahore last year that featured artists from around the world was bombed, and a cafe that regularly featured live music was attacked. Commercial theaters across Lahore also were targeted early this year.

Ms. Gauhar’s husband, playwright Shahid Nadeem, also has encountered anger and threats.

A recent movie of his, “Mujahid,” or “Warrior,” is a fictional account of two friends who fight in Afghanistan. The production follows the men as they attempt to reintegrate into society.

“The Oxford University Press had arranged a screening of this film, and a couple of days before the event, they received threatening phone calls stating that if the event wasn’t canceled, it would be bombed,” Ms. Gauhar said.

The event proceeded as planned, with heightened security.

“I believe that plays such as ours help the public understand how dangerous and detrimental the Talibanization of Pakistan is,” she said. “And this is a viewpoint which isn’t commonly heard in our society.”

Another cultural combatant against the Taliban is Sain Zahoor, a well-known Punjabi folk singer who won a top award from the BBC in 2006. Mr. Zahoor sings Sufi Islamic verses at local shrines and has begun to concentrate on poetry that criticizes orthodoxy.

“Sufi music is about tolerance and love and compassion,” he said, his three-stringed ektara, a local traditional instrument, lying next to him and bells jingling around his ankles. “It’s the opposite of what the Taliban stand for. I sing these verses of tolerance because I believe in them and I believe this is true Islam.”

Political analyst Rasool Baksh Raees said these efforts by the country’s artists may be the most effective means of combating terrorism and extremism.

“Militancy always fails when public support for its mission is eliminated,” he said. “If we can isolate the Taliban and turn fundamentalists into a fringe movement, the fight will be a lot easier.”

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