Thursday, April 23, 2009

LAHORE, Pakistan | Fear of Taliban rules and retribution has descended on this cosmopolitan city near the Indian border, with militants taking aim at fashion shows, nightclubs, sports and other entertainment that made Lahore the cultural capital of Pakistan.

With recent terrorist attacks and more subtle threats from black-bearded strangers in turbans and skullcaps, the city’s artists and performers have stopped appearing in public. University coeds are being warned to cover their faces, and merchants are pulling CDs and DVDs from store shelves.

Faizaan Peerzada, chairman of the Rafi Peer theater workshop, which used to manage and arrange shows for more than 200 artists, said his clients “have become petrified.”

“They don’t want to sign up to do gigs, and people don’t want to attend these events for fear of bomb threats,” he said. “The result is at this time in Lahore, almost no cultural events are taking place.”

One musician who used to be the drummer for a Pakistani band said he took a company job under duress from his mother.

“My mother became really worried and thought I was a definite target for the extremists,” said the musician, who requested anonymity. “And so she begged me to stop playing for some time.”

A few months ago, the reality of Taliban-style intolerance seemed unimaginable in this city of 10 million.

“This was the best city in the whole world,” said event manager Aamir Mazhar, 29. “There was an energy, an enthusiasm and a life to Lahore which no other city could rival.”

A terrorist attack last month targeting a visiting cricket team from Sri Lanka has jeopardized future sports events in the city. The specter of Talibanization is of particular concern to women and girls. The city is home to some of the best private girls schools in the country; in 2008, more than 50 such schools received bomb threats.

Last week, two girls studying at Kinnaird College - Lahore’s premier higher-education institute for young women - were accosted on the street and told to wear burqas.

One of the students, too scared to give her name, said she was crossing the road to enter the college when a bearded man walked up and growled at her for not being appropriately dressed.

“He said I had to go and get a burqa,” she said, in a tone both scared and astonished.

A burqa is the head-to-toe covering worn by Muslim women in neighboring Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s tribal areas near the Afghan border.

The Taliban enforced such dress when it ruled Afghanistan, along with laws that banned music, schools for girls and television. It turned sports stadiums into public execution grounds.

The fear that has infected the cultural climate in Lahore is relatively recent. A year ago, as other parts of Pakistan became caught up in the throes of religious militancy, the leafy boulevards of Lahore seemed immune.

While girls schools were bombed in the Swat Valley and the Taliban began gaining control over large swaths of the North West Frontier Province, residents of Lahore shook their heads and thanked the stars that their hometown was safe. But in the past few months, this city has begun to change.

The turning point appears to have come in October, when three small bombs exploded near juice shops in Garhi Shahu, close to Hall Road, one of the largest commercial districts in the city. These shops had become known as “dating points,” offering concealed booths for young couples to cuddle. An unknown group called Tehreek-ul Haya, or Movement for Decency, took responsibility and said more attacks against “centers of immorality” would follow.

A few weeks later, traders on Hall Road set on fire tens of thousands of CDs and DVDs. The Anjuman-e-Tajiran, an association that represents many shopkeepers in the area, said they were weeding out objectionable materials after vendors received anonymous letters and phone calls threatening suicide bombs if they continued to sell such products.

In an op-ed in a major daily at the time, commentator Rafay Alam asked whether the association, in carrying out such self-policing, was “giving the local Taliban their first victory.”

Malik Shabeer, a member of the Anjuman group, said it had no choice. Mr. Shabeer, 45, has been running a movie store in the area for decades and used to sell a wide selection of Bollywood and Hollywood flicks, along with old Urdu classics, music CDs and, he grudgingly acknowledged, some pornographic material.

After October, Mr. Shabeer and many of his colleagues scaled back their businesses.

“Fewer people are visiting these shops,” he said. “I am so scared of the Taliban targeting my shop that I want to just close this business and do something else … have a tire shop. The Taliban can’t take offense to that, can they?” he asked, half in jest.

Yasmeen Rahman, a member of the National Assembly, said she was surprised at how eager the traders were to comply with anonymous threats.

“I never thought the climate of fear would become so strong in Lahore,” she said.

Political analyst Hassan Askari said he also was saddened.

“Lahore was never like this,” he said. “This was a cosmopolitan city where women could dress as they liked and walk freely in the bazaars, where movie premieres were always well attended and where both conservative and liberal streams of Islam freely existed. This has all started to change.”

Rasool Baksh Raees, a political analyst, said it’s not just the fact that the Taliban appears to be moving into Punjab from tribal areas to the north and west.

“We can’t blame one jihadist organization or another, since it is a lot more complicated than that,” he said. “The problem is an extremist mind-set is gripping Lahore and an anti-American mentality is taking over the city.”

Newspaper columnist Asadullah Ghalib said the change started under Pakistan’s previous president, Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup and agreed to cooperate with the U.S. after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“Musharraf’s pro-American and pro-West policies brought about this transformation,” Mr. Ghalib said. “Anger at the United States for pursuing the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq along with strikes in Pakistan led to the strengthening of extremist groups.”

About a decade ago, a small minority of Lahore residents said their prayers in mosques, while the majority enjoyed secular pastimes such as smoking cigars in the evenings, watching soap operas, listening to live music or betting on cricket matches. Graffiti messages scrawled on walls would talk of love and unrequited passion; now graffiti messages bash the United States and urge Pakistan’s youths to take up arms in jihad.

In place of advertisements for purses or shoes, ads invite the faithful to attend religious classes. Vehemently anti-Western imams deliver angry sermons at neighborhood mosques while multinational phone companies have started offering Islamic verses as ring tones.

“Lahore has changed,” said Ali Imran, a Harvard graduate who returned to the city after an absence of six years. “And I am not sure where we are heading now. It seems this secular city is becoming a shadow of Swat,” where Islamic law is now in force officially after a decision last week by President Asif Ali Zardari.

The president was seeking to end fighting between government troops and the Taliban in Swat, a former resort area 100 miles from the capital, Islamabad. However, his concession appears to have emboldened the Taliban to further expansion.

Mr. Mazhar, the events manager, said he is beefing up security, and “no event is allowed to proceed without metal detectors and private security guards.”

Event organizers became petrified after three bombs exploded simultaneously outside Alhamra Cultural Complex on Nov. 22 during an international performing arts festival.

In early January, five explosions rocked two theaters.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” said Irfan Khan, owner of one of those theaters. “Theater has been a part of our culture forever, but it seems for some people it has now become objectionable. Who are these people who seem to be hijacking the secular spirit of Lahore?”

Not everyone in Lahore is acquiescing in the cultural clampdown.

More than 3,000 activists, artists, students and journalists turned out recently to demonstrate against the extremism that is becoming more rampant every day.

“This is our city,” said Anita Khan, 20, a student. “And we will not let any extremist or terrorist dictate the way we live.”

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