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Fear of ’fundos’ in Lahore

by Maseeh Rahman, 27 October 2008

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Indian Express, October 27, 2008

Lahore: Cultural capital to Taliban territory?

: 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.

“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

© 2008 Indian Express Newspapers (Mumbai) Ltd.