Pakistan, music and the diaspora

February 25, 2009

Salman Ahmad, the founder of the Pakistani band Junoon, has written a piece for the Washington Post’s “On Faith” site calling for more to be done to defend Pakistani arts, music and culture against attacks by what he sees as an alien form of Islam being grafted onto Pakistan by the Taliban.

“In its 60-plus turbulent years as an independent country, Pakistan has been held together by its music, poetry, films, literature and sports. Pakistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, but culture — not religion — is the glue that binds people…” he writes.  He calls the killing off of arts and culture by Taliban militants in northwest Pakistan — notably in the Swat valley where the government has just concluded a peace deal — as an ominous sign. “It is the first step in the potential Talibanization of more of the country.”

He urges President Barack Obama to speak up for artists, poets and musicians in South Asia, and calls on India to lift restrictions on visas preventing Pakistanis from performing there. “Nothing is more frightening to a terrorist than to see Indian and Pakistani artists collaborating in films and music and performing freely in each others’ countries,” he says.

This plea for the defence of culture and music is not just coming from inside Pakistan.  In an article in Dawn, writer Ali Eteraz says the fragile state of Pakistan is leaving many in the Pakistani diaspora struggling for an identity. This, he writes, is forcing them to redefine themselves by their religion and enhancing the appeal of “romanticist readings of the past – the sort extremist religious teachers are more than happy to offer up”.

“It has been disturbing to watch and experience because no other diaspora from a Muslim majority country makes their national identity subservient to their religion – not even the stateless Palestinians,” he says.  The solution, he says, does not lie in politics or new laws. “The focus at the moment has to be on culture and identity. The promotion of Pakistani arts, music, literature, cinema, poetry, and fashion is of the essence.”

We’ve explored the question of the disillusionment of the Pakistani diaspora before, notably in this guest contribution by Amil Khan. British newspapers, in particular, are increasingly writing about the risk of some young British Pakistanis finding their identities instead in Islamist militancy and going on to launch attacks in Europe and the United States, or volunteering to fight alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan

It would be naive to suggest that simply promoting Pakistani arts and music would solve all these problems.  But if Pakistanis inside and outside the country are calling for support, perhaps it’s time to pay more attention?

(Reuters file photos of Junoon playing in Bombay, and waiting for the show to start in Srinagar)


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My first glance at this post,I thought at last we have some optimistic post on Pakistan. I am wrong. It is the same Pakistan bashing again.

Posted by pk | Report as abusive

Nusrut Fateh Ali Khan. Man, what a voice he had. I have listened to his music and songs many times. No one has come even close to matching him.

If he was alive today I would BET my bottom dollar/euro/pound/rupee that the Taliban would be in awe of him, but still not allow him to perform.

Posted by bulletfish | Report as abusive

Following on from my first comment:

Nusrut Fateh Ali Khan’s music was used in the Hollywood movie Dead Man Walking to great effect.

I mention this because it is, in the very least, an optimistic view of Pakistani music. It shows what reach his music had.

Posted by bulletfish | Report as abusive


I fully agree with the fact highlighted by you, Pakistanis today have lost their identity, a confused lot, one can appreciate the restrictions imposed on their freedom of speech , expression and art and culture, but what about Pakistanis living in Europe ,US or other free societies around the world ? There is no restrictions on their liberty and freedom to practice their art and culture ? why they resort to terrorism , Pakistanis need to do some introspection, where lies the problem?

How can we allow Pakistanis to perform in India after what they have done to us during sixty years of their freedom ? In fact there is strong debate in a major section of India, why do we need any kind of relationship with a terrorist state , a failed state?

Posted by anju2008 | Report as abusive

Regrettably, Pakistani people, political and military leaders have chosen a form of gradually self imploding “government” made of radically active religious extremists and their enemy, the moderate western educated, who want to live life to the fullest and “shake it to the groove” every once in a while.

There are going to be “implosions” at every step of the way when the values and “wants” of these two groups and their supporters clash for obvious reasons, until of course the savior and the hero, some USA trained General will show up and impose emergency to once again to “save Pakistan” and most likely blame India. For their own survival and the golden opportunity to fill their pockets, the create unity by creating hatered for India and a reason for Jihad – Kashmir.
Also, old habits in Pakistan of indoctrinated hate for India and things its people love – music, dance, art, statues etc, don’t die easily.
Until Mr Salman Ahmad and all Pakistanis play an active part in understanding what they really want and where they want to see Pakistan in 10 years, and then take part in massive non-violent revolution to deny the radical extremists and their supporters from turning Pakistan into Somalia, the moderates will loose more and more freedom and become “untouchables”, second class citizens in their own land.
Always remember, Taliban or no Taliban, the politicians and military will always have their toys and luxuries, song and dance, and a full stomach, be it India or Pakistan, only the taxpayer ie the people suffer.

Posted by Nathuram Waghmare | Report as abusive

@Myra, PK

Ultimately, Pakistan’s future lies in the resolve and the heart of its people.

Pakistani people, do you have the courage to fight extremism and terrorism. As your country slowly dissolves, from the SWAT first, do you have the inner strength to forge a better future for yourself?

Pakistani’s get frustrated that there is “PK Bashing”. Well sure, there is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Imran Khan and Cricket, some technology, beautiful landscapes, but not of these wonderful things are going to save Pakistan against Talibanization and take over.

Until Pakistani’s start to actually say…we have to fight extremist Islam and fight for our country against them….we have things wrong in Pakistan that need fixing BIG TIME, until Pakistani’s have an enlightening and their language starts to change, indicating that they do have an awakening and quit the denials about themselves, the U.S. India and the world will never see Pakistani’s as sincere.

This is what embracing extremist and radical Islam has done to Pakistan. This brand of wahhabi deoband Islam has brought failure, shame and embarassement to Pakistan.

It is sad, but the first one to admit anything has been Mr. 10% himself, Zardari. Are there any more of you there?

Please step and show yourself, be proud.

@PK, I don’t uselessly bash Pakistan for any odd reason, I do so because it has every reason to be bashed. Give me a reason to praise Pakistan, I will do so. Please go and organize a protest against the Taliban. This is what the world wants to see of Pakistani’s. Show us that you embrace the future.

Posted by Global Watcher | Report as abusive

Love, Music, Poetry and arts come from the spirits of the people. Religion is an artificial entity created by humans to help reach the spiritual level. Thus it is at a lower level from a spiritual stand point. Religious edicts can never contain love or music or arts. They will grow no matter what the restrictions may be. When spirit is high, no law can contain it. I am hoping that another renaissance happens in the Muslim world due to the resistance to the imposition of Sharia laws that prohibit things that deal with the very core of humans. Life is not a boot camp. It needs freedom and people will revolt if contained for too long with rigid and meaningless rules. Taliban will fail and its failure will come from the people who will resist against the ban on music, movies etc.

I strongly suspect if the Quran was manipulated by people at the very beginning to suit their needs. This is pretty much like what Constantine did to Christianity and turned Rome as the power center of the Christian West for centuries. What they call as Quran probably is a distorted version of the original.

Posted by Mauryan | Report as abusive

“Pakistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, but culture — not religion — is the glue that binds people…” he writes.

— The founding fathers of Pakistan formed it on the basis of religion by rejecting, striping & detaching itself from the culture & it’s origin, declaring it contrary to Islam. To ‘Talibanize’ it was created – then why this hue & cry?

Posted by Anup | Report as abusive

Anup writes: “The founding fathers of Pakistan formed it on the basis of religion by rejecting, striping & detaching itself from the culture & it’s origin, declaring it contrary to Islam. To ‘Talibanize’ it was created – then why this hue & cry?”

The region where Pakistan was formed is full of culture. They have enjoyed poetry, music and Sufi Islam for centuries. Pakistan was created due to the power craze of Jinnah and nothing else. He led the life of an infidel and yet suddenly fought for a Muslim nation. This is like Bin Laden giving donation to Mother Teresa. The hatred between Indians and Pakistanis that is burning to this day, was triggered by the direct action that Jinnah and his lackeys (Liaqat Ali Khan, Suhrawardi etc). They planned to attack Hindus and Sikhs and knew retaliation would come. And they used it to keep the hatred stay alive. Prior to that there are no known conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in the sub-continent. Muslim kings ruled India for a long time and caused a lot of hardship for their Hindu subjects. But there were no massacres of Hindus or Muslims by organized groups during the last two hundred years or so. Both groups participated in military campaigns of different kings and the British. The two communities had accepted each other and were living a symbiotic existence for a long time. When an election was held in the Muslim majority regions for partition, the Muslim league lost miserably. Hence they went for direct action.

When Jinnah finally got what he wanted, he declared Pakistan as a secular Islamic republic.

Taliban came into existence after Afghan conflict with Saudi money. Taliban won’t be able to spread across all of Pakistan because of its diversity. It will be tough for them to impose all their rigid laws across the whole country. If they do, that might trigger the destruction of Pakistan as a nation.

Posted by Mauryan | Report as abusive


In our frustration, I say it is time to let Pakistan become the full fledged fundamentalist terrorist country it is. Military governments don’t work and neither do civilian ones. This extremism and sympathy for the taliban and osama bin laden seems to be the will of the people of Pakistan. Their will does not point in any other direction, but radicalization.

Before any of this, the U.S., India and Europe need to bribe the Pakistani top brass for the its nukes, they will be all removed and placed in American custody, without incident. This is the cheapest and most logical way and will save perhaps millions of lives.

I strongly suggest that India do a huge upgrade to its military complex, increase its military to be the largest in the world. There are 1.2 billion Indians, the army should be at least 5-6 million troops, full time. Get the most powerful, precision guided munitions the Americans can give. India will also require a robust missile defence shield on all its borders.

As Pakistan falls to Militant Islam, let all the world quit all trade with Pakistan.

Within months, the fuel shortages and food shortages, the military will not be able to mount a serious defence and Pakistan will collapse.

At this point, India, the U.S. and Europe have a whole range of potential options it could exercise to re-draw the area and perhaps disintegrate it along ethnic lines.

With such a huge troop deployment, India can cleanup the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, with help from the U.S., UN and NATO and in time, stability and peace in the region will come.

Music, laughter, joy and girls schools, a proper movie

Posted by Global Watcher | Report as abusive

Is it right the time to talk about music when the whole country is going down the drain and pulling the region along with it?

Can music or musicians save the country?

Pakistanis have no one to blame but themselves. Their endless hatred of India and greed for Kashmir got them here. Only a miracle can save the country.

Posted by david | Report as abusive

Global watcher,

I understand your feelings. Before the Taliban swallows up Pakistan, I’d like to make sure that Ghulam Ali and all the great ghazal experts, famous sportsmen and artists to find a safe haven (US/UK or even India). These people are beyond all the differences of religion, race and anything else.

I have Pakistani friends where I live and when I interact with them, they seem so polished and cultured. None of them would talk about India with any venom, at least when I was with them. And their Urdu would sound mellifluous. In person people are nice to each other. But open the internet, everyone starts talking through their other end! This world is very strange.

Posted by Mauryan | Report as abusive


The lines between religion, culture and politics is almost non-existent amongst most Paki’s that I have know, expecially educated ones. Although I have felt we were more alike than different than Pakistani’s, something would always be uttered from their mouths to re-affirm their superiority as muslims and that they “won” wars over India. As long as we did not talk about national disputes, life was great, as you mention with your friends.

When I started on my quest for knowledge, I was 18, made friends with all sorts of nationalities and religions. I always felt an uneasy stillness in my muslim friends. My mother and her family left Lahore during the partition, to a avoid a sudden and violent death. I would often argue and debate her lack of love for muslim folks. I just could not understand her bitterness. Then in the late 80’s in the Indian newspaper, there were always reports of Pakistani state sponsored terror camps. My mother would say, “if the world quits paying attention to those camps, the world will one day pay a heavy price, that was in 1989. I

I had Islamic friends in school through out my academic career, in a western country, where I live and I did not think much of it, but during Lohri, and other Hindu festivals, they would go silent and unresponsive, I would always congratulate them during Ramadan and Hajj..but never received the same compliments in return…but I still did not think much of it. I was 12 years old and in retrospect ask my self, why would a 12 year old child go silent towards me at this age, when I mention my Hindu festivals? It became clearer to me today, I realize that it must have been taught to them from their families and or mosques.

I found that when it came to religion, they always stood together as one.

I started out with little opinion at all, but the world events since I was 12, are out there for everybody to see, as well as the history. I speak the same, whether I am in front of the PC or in person.

I am always open to having my mind changed. However, it will take more than cricket or some Nusrat Fateh ali Khan songs to do that.

Posted by Global Watcher | Report as abusive

The basis of very foundation of Pakistan is islam, and islam prohibits the music, art and culture therefore, why grumble about imposition of restrictions in a pure islamic society ? The brand of islam practised by Pakistanis are different from what is followed in developed societies like Turkey or countries of central asia , Pakistanis preach hate and jehad, and music , art and culture has no place for hate, jehad and killing of innocent people in the name of islam .

Why should we in India listen to Pakistanis when their very own people are brutally murdering innocent people in India in the name of some obscure religion and a treacherous philosophy

Posted by anju2008 | Report as abusive

Global Watcher,
I have experienced that same eerie silence too, but only with those of Pakistani origin and not those from Bangladesh or further east like Malaysia or Indonesia. I always refused to beleive that a lack of education as an excuse.

I would love to see Jinnah, today, walking into Swat wearing his Saville Row suit; smoking his American cigarrettes with his Zippo lighter. His hair Brylcreamed back and shining in the mountain sun as he talks (in the Queen’s English) about differences between Shakespeare and Pakistani writers.

Posted by bulletfish | Report as abusive

Global Watcher / Maurayan /bulletfish /anju2008

—The music & art that they speak of are hindu devotional raagas & songs of RK, the poetry talks of God as a lover,it’s blasphemous in Islam- their lahore film industry is long gone & cricket is breathing it’s last…

Posted by Anup | Report as abusive

Its funny to see the two contrasts. Pakistan going back into stone ages day by day and her neighbor India working to launch men in space.

Posted by Carl | Report as abusive


In my view, Pakistan is fighting for its ‘real’ identity from within for many decades. Consequently, we often hear conflicting narratives. If running a successful public relations (PR) campaign may help rally Pakistanis, so be it!

However, I suspect simply promoting arts & culture will not go too far. The more democratic, truly secular and multi-ethnic Pakistan becomes the more it starts to resemble like India. This thought is disturbing for the hawks and the generals in Pakistan. There lies the real rub!

Posted by Nikhil | Report as abusive


“The music & art that they speak of are hindu devotional raagas & songs of RK, the poetry talks of God as a lover,it’s blasphemous in Islam- their lahore film industry is long gone & cricket is breathing it’s last”

They are banning great music from Nusrat and Gulam ali, on other hand vulgar dances on vulgar punjabi songs are mushrooming in Pakistan. In one interview Naseebo Lal, who had sung almost all of these vulgar songs, told that she was threatened, so she had to sing these songs. On one account she was told “If you don;t sing this song we will break your legs and kill your brother”, and about Vulgar dancers she said “Allah kare enaa de Bhraa Maran” (May god punish death to their brothers). Its not only Taliban who is killing music, there are other factors too.

She is a very good singer otherwise but she is not getting good songs in Pakistan. I can see many Paki singers/Music directors migrating to India in coming times, and presenting competition to Indian music industry.

Posted by punjabiyaar | Report as abusive


I just searched “Mujra” on youtube it fetched 11,800 results, While Ghulam ali’s score is 1,680, “Nusrat fateh ali khan” is at 3,750, atif aslam scored 4,940.

So Lahore mujra scored more than these three singers combined. It must be something else also not only taliban, killing music.

Posted by punjabiyaar | Report as abusive

The comments on this blog are truly ruined by folks like Global Watcher who knowledge of Pakistan is poor but who feels manly by speaking against it on the Internet.

The Taliban who are so vehemently against music/etc. are present in pockets of the northwest of the country. Even there, they have only managed to close down music shops and sent artists underground. You will still find CD’s and tapes being sold, albiet in a more discreet manner. People listen to music, watch tv and do everything else.

Salman Ahmed and others in the Punjab, Sindh or other parts of the country are completely untouched and can do as they please.

Posted by Aamir Ali | Report as abusive


Sorry if I offended you. I don’t feel any manlier by saying what I have experienced, feel and call it as I see it.

Tell me which of my personal beliefs or comments have offended you and I will try to explain myself in the most human way possible.

Let me tell you, regardless of what I have said, I believe ALL people are human beings first, equal under GOD, regardless of religion, ethnicity or country. The problem I have with the above statement, I don’t think Pakistani’s view Hindus the same way.

That is my reason for venting. I never see any Pakistani’s show their humanity towards their neighbours.

Posted by Global Watcher | Report as abusive

With due respect to Reuters blogs…

I don’t know why Reuters always choose the topics that tend to arouse heated debate between the bitterly divided neighbouring countries. Please stop pointing fingers towards each other…

Posted by Nauman | Report as abusive


Any topic with regards to Pakistan is always going to seem like a heated debate, here are the underlying reasons (there are pockets of exceptions):

Pakistan is:

1) Found on sectarian hatred of Hindus and non-muslims alike and India
2) Has never had democracy
3) Is considered by many in the world as a the epicentre of terrorism
4) a country of double-speaking, two-faced leaders, as well as its citizens
5) Has had free handouts from IMF, USA, China, Saudi Arabia for its survival and therefore has debts it has to pay politically to those countries.
6) Has aggressed against India 4 times including Mumbai, and supplied and fueled Khalistani Sikh terrorists against India
7) Majority of Pakistani citizens are Al-Qaeda, Taliban and Pro-Islamic expansionist sympathizers or advocators of it, albeit quietly or openly
8) A government whose intelligence and army quietly have trained Jihadi extremists for 30 years to destabilize India and start a Jihad on the Kashmiri front against India.
9) Is a nuclear country and is a constant threat to India and world stability because of its hateful Islamic superiority complex towards India.
10) Unfounded and undue Islamic Entitlement to constant succession of land from India.

and the most of all,

11) an entire population of Citizens not willing to take responsibility for themselves and guilty of not trying to be modern enough to reject Extremist Islam and guilty of not holding the Madrassas, army and its government accountable.

As long as these underlying reasons are never addressed, the posted topics can never be fully and meaningfully discussed and debated. Anything less than that is just indulging in superficial, sign of the times pluralities and random opinions.

Underlying reasons are the root causes for any happenings in Pakistan. Seemingly unconnected events are all connected and sourced from these root problems.

The other option is not to discuss anything at all.

Posted by Global Watcher | Report as abusive

These differences between India and Pakistan are so few in terms of music, food, clothing and other cultural things that there is no daylight between them.

A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life. (Mohammed Ali).

Pakistan has viewed India the same way for the last 62 years.

We are (and always will be) perceived as the threat from the East. The real threat to Pakistan is from within.

Posted by bulletfish | Report as abusive