Musicians bewail religious crackdown

St. Petersburg Times, via, Feb. 28, 2003

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Mohammed Gul sits on the floor of a lonely second-floor walkup, waiting for customers. The drummer has spent a lot of time waiting in the dingy room since Islamic hard-liners ordered him to shutter his windows and take down his crowd-drawing posters.

Traditional Pashtun musicians like Gul are feeling increasingly unwelcome in this Pakistani frontier town since a coalition of Taliban-like religious groups won control of the provincial government late last year, promising to impose Islamic law and crack down on “indecency.”

A few movie houses in the North West Frontier Province have been shut and the remainder have been forced to paint over posters depicting women in Western clothes. A cable TV operator’s office has been ransacked, and audio- and videotapes burned in a public bonfire. Police have broken up weddings and other celebrations for hiring musicians and dancers that displease authorities.

The ruling coalition has also called for the ouster of American troops and FBI agents from Pakistan, and railed against President Pervez Musharraf’s support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism in neighboring Afghanistan.

The provincial government has not banned music — yet — but it has created an atmosphere of intimidation, musicians and human rights officials say.

“We used to get work a couple of times a day before the religious government took over,” said Gul. “Now we hardly get hired for one performance a week because people are afraid to hire us.”

The trouble began Jan. 23, when police moved through Peshawar’s centuries-old bazaar, home to hundreds of musicians and instrumentmakers, detaining some and telling others they could no longer advertise.

Many musicians have moved out of Peshawar, the provincial capital of 1.5-million people, and those who remain stay behind their shuttered doors.

One of the city’s most famous singers, Gulzar Alam, said he is leaving the province after being arrested while performing at a hotel. Police said he was drinking, which is forbidden in Islam, but Alam said it was part of an intimidation campaign.

“This is a police state,” Alam said from his home in a middle-class neighborhood of Peshawar. “Music has nothing to do with vulgarity or obscenity. Pashtun music is a thousand years old. It’s a part of our culture, and without culture, no nation can survive.”

Maulana Abdul Jailil Jan, a spokesman for one of the main parties in the Pakistani religious coalition, brushed off the musicians’ claims that their work is integral to Pashtun society.

“We will not allow any un-Islamic act in the province. Just because something has been around for a long time, that doesn’t make it okay. Drinking and gambling have gone on for centuries, too, but they are both un-Islamic.”

Jan said music is not banned “yet.” He said the government is preparing a code of Islamic laws to be voted on next month, but would discuss possible music restrictions. While the government has wide-ranging powers, its measures can be blocked or limited by the federal government if they conflict with the Constitution.

Afrasiab Khattak, the Peshawar-based head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said the crackdown on music violates constitutional freedoms.

“There is no law against music, which has coexisted with Islam for centuries,” Khattak said. “People will not willingly abandon music. It will be something that is imposed on them.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday February 28, 2003.
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