Pakistan: Broad instability spelled an end to art in Swat Valley
In-depth article about the development for artists in Swat Valley since 2007, written by Shaheen Buneri, a journalist working for Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty’s Mashaal Radio in Prague, Czech Republic. Three excerpts:
The changes began in July 2007 when Maulana Fazlullah, a 32-year-old lift operator turned Taliban commander, launched a pirate FM radio station to preach religious bigotry across the Swat Valley. Day after day, his inflammatory broadcasts discouraged girls’ education, called the use of polio immunization un-Islamic, and equated musical expression with obscenities. Fazlullah exploited the presence of U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan and prevailing injustices in Pakistani society to urge people to wage jihad against the “infidels.” He also demanded the promulgation of Islamic Shariah law throughout the Malakand region where Swat is located.
Nagina [pseudonym for a popular, 20-year-old dancer and singer] recalls an all but immediate reaction when the broadcasts began.
“Bomb attacks were started on music shops. Singing and dancing was banned, and we stopped attending parties due to fear of retaliation from Fazlullah’s supporters,” she says. Musicians and singers from the street published ads in the local newspapers stating they were no longer affiliated with the music business, pledging to live pious lives. But Taliban demands only escalated.
Broad instability (…) Artists and critics believe religious fundamentalism has badly damaged the fabric of the society and brought a sharp decay in popular tastes—all restricting the appetite for and resources that could be devoted to artistic enterprises in the region. The attacks by Fazlullah and the Taliban—especially their suppression of legitimate art, music, and dance—have led to broad instability and social decay that has spelled an end to art in Swat.
“In the context of the emerging realities, money is more important than art,” says Usman Ulasyar, president of Suvastu Arts and Culture Association, a group working for cultural revival in the Swat region. “Now people don’t seek spiritual delight, they want physical pleasure.” This is happening on Banr Street, which still accommodates about 150 families of musicians, singers, and dancers. Even after Pakistani military and police actions have, at least for the moment, driven out the Taliban, the neighborhood has failed to regain its former glory.
“Dancing girls were the antithesis of the conservative nature of the society,” Sharar, the sociologist, says. “When a Pashtun felt suffocated in the restrictions of his family and wanted change, he turned to the dancing girls for fun and merry-making.” Rarely were they viewed with respect, but the rulers of Swat provided them a space to demonstrate their skills and assured their security.
Dauran Shah, 66, a senior musician in Swat, says giant music festivals were celebrated until 1969, when Swat was merged into Pakistan. “The girls danced within a circle in front of thousands of people. No one was allowed to touch or throw money on a girl. It was against the self-respect of the community, and everyone cared about that,” he recalls.
Extremists are by no means gone (…) With financial support from international donors, the Awami National Party, which dominates the regional government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, is struggling towards a cultural revival of the region as a central element in its war against religious militancy. Nishtar Hall, the only theater in Peshawar, has now been reopened for concerts and cultural gatherings. The provincial government has also launched “Pakhtunkhwa FM Radio,” to win back listeners lost to the jihadist radio stations.
But the extremists are by no means gone. While the Pakistani military suspects Fazlullah has been driven across the border to Afghanistan with a 50 million rupee ($580,000) on his head, his aides are still attempting attacks on Pakistani soil.
Faqir Muhammad, a militant commander in Bajaur tribal region near the border with Afghanistan, has also relaunched an extremist FM radio station, raising serious concerns among local artists and singers. If history is any guide, it is a harbinger of future trouble. And there remains considerable question about the willingness of the government in Islamabad to take the repeated military and police actions needed to keep the Taliban and their supporters in check.
“I fear a Taliban return if the state does not address the genuine concerns of the war-ravaged communities, does not stop supporting militant organizations as strategic assets, and fails to take concrete steps for the cultural revival of the region,” says Ulasyar of the Suvastu Arts and Culture Association.
“This time,” he adds, “it will be more devastating.”
Shaheen Buneri recently concluded a month-long reporting trip to Pakistan under a fellowship from the Pulitzer Center On Crisis Reporting.