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By Zia Ur Rehman
PESHAWAR - Art and cultural activities can help turn back militancy and radicalisation in Pakistan’s Pashtun areas, art scholars said at a cultural event at the Pakistan National Council of Arts last week.
The event ended a six-week intensive training programme in arts, crafts, folklore and performing arts organised by the Baacha Khan Trust Education Foundation (BKTEF). Students from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas participated.
“The Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists have been making concerted efforts to isolate, control and disrupt the socio-cultural institutions of the Pashtun society, and they have already created a vacuum that they tried to fill with their own ideological and strategic structures”, said Khadim Hussain, managing director of BKTEF and organiser of the event.
The training was organised under a BKTEF project titled ”Promotion, Protection and Preservation of Arts, Crafts and Heritage in Pakhtunkhwa”, which focuses on youth in the target areas, Khadim said. Artists, poets, instrumentalists, writers, members of cultural arts councils and students and teachers at BKTEF’s schools participated in the programme.
“The need for promoting and preserving the culture, arts and heritage of the Pashtun lands was never as severe as it is now”, said Jamal Shah, executive director of Islamabad’s Hunerkada College of Visual and Performing Arts and Pashtun performing artist and a technical advisor to the project.
“Hunerkada not only trains selected community activists in visual arts, crafts, performing arts, folklore and other cultural aspects”, said Shah, “but is also expected to help BKTEF in arranging cultural events and establishing linkages with artists, craftspeople and artisans”.
Pashtuns have suffered from the militancy in the region during the past three decades, Khadim said. “The ongoing extremism and hostility toward arts and culture have created a vacuum that has been filled by extremist forces, violence or foreign vulgarised cultural interventions like Arabisation”, he added.
“The ‘culture for social change’ programme can be seen as a soft but powerful weapon against the Taliban”, Khadim said. “The Pashtun belt is blessed with an attractive cultural heritage whose importance and potential have never been given a serious thought by the decision-makers”.
“The Pashtun inhabiting Pakistan’s tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa harmoniously intermixed Buddhist and Islamic values with their own Pashtun customs and traditions and formed a society based on love, peace and tolerance”, said Syed Aqil Shah, provincial sports and culture minister.
By supporting such programmes, the present government is working to promote cultural and artistic activities in the province as an anti-militancy weapon, he said.
The Taliban attacked the liberal cultural tradition of Pashtun society, said Amjad Shehzad, a journalist and singer, who sang at the ceremony.
“Music is an integral part of Pashtun society, which has a rich musical and literary heritage”, Shehzad said. “The militants want to close the doors of artistic expression and create an environment in which extremism prospers”.
He recalled the worst abuses by the Taliban before the 2009 military operation drove it out.
“Hundreds of singers, musicians, poets and dancers have fled the province since the Taliban’s attack on music”, he said. “Young singer Sardar Yousafzai survived an assassination attempt (in 2008) … but his colleague Anwar Khan was killed. Female singer Shabana was brutally killed (in 2009), and her corpse was thrown on a street with her CDs”.
Such violence caused many artists to flee and to abandon their arts, he said.
Hundreds of music shops throughout the province have been bombed since 2006 and shopkeepers in areas under Taliban control are allowed to sell only Taliban-released jihadi propaganda CDs, he said.
“The previous Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal government in the province struck the first blow to Pashtu music when it banned musical gatherings and closed Peshawar’s Nishter Hall, the sole cultural centre of the provincial metropolis”, Shehzad said. “The ban compelled Pashtun singers to take shelter in other parts of the country”.
The event ended with a concert in which young musicians from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa captivated the audience.
Gohar Nangial, a young community activist from the Swabi District, underwent training at the programme. Organising such cultural and artistic activities among Pashtun communities is the need of the hour, he said.
Militants have destroyed the country’s Buddhist heritage, especially in the Swat Valley, he said. “This was the worst time for archaeology”, he added.
The Taliban twice sought to imitate its Afghan brethren, who infamously destroyed the Bamiyan Buddha statues in 2001, by blowing up 7th-century relics. The insurgents failed, but they did damage a rock engraved with Buddha likenesses in the Swat Valley that pilgrims have visited for centuries.
Insurgents were trying to Arabise Pashtun society by attacking its cultural institutions, Nangial contended. “Before the rise of the Taliban, no one had ever heard of attacks on music shops and musicians”, he added.
He vowed to spread his artistic knowledge he to his community, saying it could play a vital role in stemming radicalisation of youth.