Afghanistan and Pakistan: Understanding the Taliban’s campaign against music

23 June 2009


Renowned British ethnomusicologist John Baily and Freemuse executive director Marie Korpe spoke to Radio Liberty correspondent Abubakar Siddique about the Taliban’s campaign against music and musicians in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Excerpts:

By Abubakar Siddique, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty correspondent

The Taliban justifies their crackdown on artists by quoting an obscure line from the Koran, but British ethnomusicologist John Baily thinks the ban on musical instruments and public performance points to “a competition between different kinds of music.”

When Radio Liberty’s correspondent asked him why the Taliban are against music, and why do they threaten musicians, John Baily replied: “Well, I can’t really explain why they’re so against music. As you know, within the Islamic tradition there has been for many centuries a strand of thought — but it’s only one strand — that regarded music as being an unnecessary distraction from the serious matters of life. And some think that could lead to licentious behavior and other such “bad things.” So this, in my opinion, is just a strong exaggeration of that tendency which we have seen for a long time.

And, of course, the Taliban aren’t the only people who have been against music. I myself have a Christian Quaker background from the Society of Friends — 300 years ago, the Quakers in this country, England, were very much against music in just the same sort of way. So I’m very keen that we don’t just understand this as being an attitude that comes from just one particular direction — an antimusic attitude we can find in many parts of the world and connected with various different religions as well as Islam.

You know, the Taliban like to invoke the hadith, that, you know, the person who listens to music will, on the day of judgment, have molten lead poured into their ears and you can read the rest of it for yourself. But there is one interesting point here to make, and that is how the Taliban actually define music, and it isn’t actually correct to say that the Taliban have banned music. They have banned musical instruments and any kind of music-making that involves musical instruments, quite possibly with one exception, and that exception is the frame drum — the duff — because there are hadiths in which the Prophet Muhammad appreciates or allows the frame drum to be used in connection with celebrations of weddings and so on.

So the Taliban were not against all forms of music, and they certainly permitted religious singing without musical instruments. And, a point I made in my book on the censorship of music in Afghanistan, if you listen to the so-called Taliban chants, the Taliban taranas, they are in fact extremely musical. So we could look at this in another way. This isn’t just the banning of music, but it is a competition between different kinds of music, and we can do our kind of music because it doesn’t involve musical instruments, but you can’t do your kind of music because musical instruments are instruments of Satan.

RFE/RL: But do you think that in a country as complex and as diverse as Pakistan, that in a way — as musical as Pakistan is — do you think it’s really possible in the 21st century to get rid of all music?

Baily: No, I think it is absolutely impossible. I would regard this as a kind of temporary blip at the moment and I’m sure … I mean, I was very surprised when I heard, actually, about Haroom Bacha having to leave, and I wondered whether there were some particular circumstances here, to do with his own background or whatever — I take it he’s from an educated background, he’s not from a hereditary musician family, is that correct?

RFE/RL: Absolutely, absolutely.

Baily: And so there may have been particular reasons why they wanted to get rid of him, but from talking to people very recently, I’ve realized that the problem is much more widespread than that. It just so happens that he … he must be a very good singer, I’ve never heard him, but there has been a lot of publicity about his exile off to New York and the recent concert there.

RFE/RL: Do you think there are other societies today that are under the same threats, the same circumstances, or is this unique only to the Taliban today?

Baily: Music censorship, in one way or another, is really quite common in many parts of the world. But censorship of music usually is to do with specific songs, or particular singers, particularly if they have a political slant. So, for example, during the era in South America, in Latin America, in the era of the dictatorships, then singers who sang songs about democracy or political ideas that didn’t fit in with the dictatorship — those people were severely persecuted, murdered, imprisoned, had to flee. Chile is a very good example. You know, an awful lot of Chile’s younger musicians were in Paris during the time of the dictatorship.

In a way, this gives me some hope — this isn’t particular to that part of the world, it just happens to be a very extreme form of it. Usually, as I said, when music is censored, it’s a particular kind of music. South Africa during the apartheid era would be another very good point, where white singers who sang songs against the apartheid regime were very severely hassled by the authorities. Their houses were bombed, their concerts had tear gas thrown at them and so on — an absolute disruption.

So, you know, I wouldn’t say it’s universal, but it is a widespread phenomenon. But the case of the Taliban’s attitude is just very extreme. Of course, it has to be seen that it does have exactly the opposite effect in that music involving musical instruments in itself becomes a political statement, which perhaps it wasn’t in the past. And there’s no doubt that in Afghanistan during the Taliban period, there was plenty of underground music-making going on.

Controlling people
Abubakar Siddique also interviewed executive director of Freemuse, Marie Korpe, and asked her the same question about why the Taliban are interested in silencing music and silencing musicians, and if there might be a political or strategic reason, apart from this religious justification.

Marie Korpe replied: Well, I would not maybe differ politics from religion in Afghanistan or in the Northwest Frontier Province where the Taliban has settled and where they have very strong holds and they have been doing a lot of attacks on music shops and individual musicians. So I don’t think you can really think you can separate the music from politics. It’s a question of control and maybe also, in that sense, a question of trying to stop people from taking up another modern lifestyle. So it’s not only religion. It’s also a question of controlling people, as they think maybe music is something bad for humankind, you know?

RFE/RL: And what do you think should be the responsibility of local authorities? I mean the situation between Pakistan today and Afghanistan in the 1990s is different in the sense that in Pakistan you do have a legitimate government and the Taliban are in a sense rebels who control some part of the country, but they don’t have exclusive control or legitimacy as they had in Afghanistan in 1990s.

Korpe: But on the other hand, I mean, I know a little of the history of Pakistan, as I lived there many years ago and also lived in Afghanistan many, many years ago. I would say that the so-called tribal areas which I think are not ruled by the government except for the main roads…It’s always been kind of a Wild West [or] Wild East or whatever — a Wild West of Pakistan — where the tribal groups have had their own rules and traditions with governors and their own police corps.

But I think that with the influx of refugees from Afghanistan, it has affected that region very, very much so, and I also remember even in the camps, you know, the refugee camps in the 1980s, there were very conservative mujahedins who wanted to forbid poetry and music, and it seems that it has contaminated, in a sense, that area.

RFE/RL: What are the effects on the people of trying to ban what little entertainment is available, in the form of music, dancing, and those kind of things?

Korpe: I think it’s really sad because music and dancing is part of a culture, and a very important culture. Also for, I mean, for the cultural inheritance that you bring over from one cultural tradition to the next generation. I mean, it’s really sad if what we have seen in Afghanistan — where actually a whole generation grew up without music, entertainment, maybe even lullabies and, you know, working songs and whatever — if that is taken [from] the people, I think it’s — I wouldn’t say a catastrophe, but it’s really sad for the people and for their rich culture of that area.

RFE/RL: How can the situation be improved? What can the West do, for example?

Korpe: It’s very difficult to say. I can’t really see how the West — or any other country — can help in that sense. I think if the situation gets maybe much more severe, there might be people who are willing to come and record so that the old traditional songs don’t disappear. And I would maybe suggest that some of the musicians will move out of the Northwest Frontier and maybe move to Lahore or Karachi. Like musicians did, you know, when they moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan during the war. I don’t know.

A small organisation like Freemuse cannot really play an important role in solving the problems, the political problems, in the region. And we are not really able to financially help the musicians. We don’t have that kind of financial setup in our little office. But I hope that there are people, at least within Pakistan, who are able to support the musicians — in the country at least.

RFE/RL: Over the past 30 years, one of the major victims of the war in Afghanistan has been the Afghan culture, and musicians are a part of that tradition. Do you think that the world needs to do more now that they are talking about reconstruction in Afghanistan?

Korpe: I am sure you are right. There is so much money going into war. Just imagine what would happen if it went to culture instead. That would be wonderful. But I know that there are several projects, and we have been involved in supporting recording equipment to musician’s house in Afghanistan.

Television and radio is now playing music again, so I think there has been quite a lot done, but surely not enough. And I’m the first person to say that, unfortunately, culture is not a top priority in any country in the world. It’s often the musicians or artists of any kind who are less paid, and governments in the world put a very, very small percentage of their budgets into culture. Which is sad, I think. It would be good if much more money was put into culture in general, specifically in those war-struck countries.

“I hadn’t realized…how severe the prohibition against music in Peshawar is today”
John Baily.

Read the articles in full

Radio Liberty – 22 June 2009:

‘British Ethnomusicologist: ‘It Isn’t Actually Correct To Say Taliban Have Banned Music”

Radio Liberty – 22 June 2009:
‘Music Rights Advocate: ‘It’s Really Sad…What We Have Seen In Afghanistan”

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