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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