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Monday, 06.21.2010, 09:28am (GMT)
By Shaheen Buneri
Swat Valley] On a cold night in January, 2008, a group of militants hammered at the door of a popular Pashto dancer, Shabana, in Mingora, a city in the Swat district of Northwestern Pakistan.
The militants pulled Shabana from her home and dragged her through the narrow alleys towards the Green Square, where they planned to publicly punish her and teach other singers and dancers a lesson.
Shabana's neighbors recount the cruelty of that night. "She will never dance again," the singer's mother cried, imploring the militants not to slit her throat as her daughter lay helpless. "We will leave this city and we will never return. For God sake, don't kill her!"
But Taliban are not known for their mercy, and the incident was not only about the life of one woman: the Taliban were on a mission to 'purge' society of the evils of singing and dancing - a tradition kept alive for generations by local artists in the city's famous Banr Bazar – and Shabana symbolized an artistic tradition the Taliban wanted to stamp out.
The next morning, city residents found Shabana's dead body strewn with bank notes and CDs of her music performances. Her throat had been slit and her body riddled with bullets, intended to drum home the no-nonsense message that sweet melodies and dance performances were no longer tolerated in Pakistan's newly-founded 'Taliban state'.
Swat valley has been a center for Pakistani arts and literature for centuries. Since Buddhist times, local artisans, poets and singers have contributed to the emotional, spiritual and intellectual development of the society in Swat valley.
"Music is an integral part of our society. Pashtuns have a rich musical and literary heritage,' Usman Ulasyar, president of Swat Arts and Cultural Society, told The Media Line. "Even our religious tales are preserved in the form of poetry and our evenings are incomplete without musical gatherings."
Mian Gul Abdul Wadood, a former ruler of Swat, followed by his son Miangul Abdul Haq Jehanzeb (1915-1969) not only encouraged local arts and literature but also allocated a piece of land to traditional singers and dancers in the hearts of the city. Such areas have now become emblematic sites for Taliban militants seeking to attack artists and send waves of terror and fear ringing throughout the valley.
Shaukat Sharar, a Swat valley social scientist, says that local society began rapidly changing in September 2007, when Maulana Fazlullah, a cleric turned militant commander, vehemently discouraged music, dancing and all forms of entertainment in his broadcasts on a pirate FM radio station.
"The Yousafzai tribes inhabiting Swat harmoniously inter-mixed Buddhist and Islamic values with their own Pashtun traditions and customs, and formed a society based on peace, love and tolerance," Sharar maintained. "They excelled in handicrafts, wood carving, poetry, music and performing arts, and every year attracted thousands of tourists to their lush green valley to enjoy the serenity of its environment and the diversity of their socio-cultural lives."
Sharar explains that 30 years of political instability in Afghanistan encouraged extremist Wahhabi Islam to flourish in neighboring Pakistani tribal areas, and different Taliban groups gradually engulfed the whole of Northwestern Pakistan.
Neither the international community nor the Pakistani authorities placed much importance on local arts and literature as a means of promoting peace and discouraging religious extremism.
"They were not aware of the worth of the foundation stones of Pashtun society," Sharar explains. "Pashtun Jirga played a historical role in peace building and conflict resolution; Pashtun Hujra (a traditional Pashtun socio-cultural club) provided the much-needed catharsis to Pashtun tribes after their day-long labor in their fields and mountains. Pashtun romanticism was expressed in Pashto folk tales and songs, and the strength and pride of Pashtun youth was demonstrated in Pashto traditional dances called Atan."
Taliban first attacked these liberal traditions," he said. "When the windows for natural human expression closed, extremist religious thought swept the whole population."
It is estimated that more than 800 music shops have been bombed in different parts of Northwestern Pakistan since 2006. Hundreds of singers, musicians, poets and dancers have fled Swat valley since the Taliban's clamp-down on music in the area. They are now living in Peshawar, Lahore, and Karachi. As their livelihoods have been taken away from them, they are now confronted with serious financial crises.
Firoz Khan, a businessman managing a textile industry in Karachi, says that the lack of opportunity for female singers and dancers to express their talents in an acceptable manner has forced some of them into prostitution.
"I don't know what cause of religion Taliban served by forcing artists to leave their homes," Khan said.
Despite claims of impending action from the secular Pashtun Awami National Party in North West Frontier Province (NWFP), no concrete steps have been taken to protect singers and musicians from the Taliban onslaught, or to provide relief for the artists' families.
On 15 December 2008, unidentified militants targeted Sardar Yousafzai, another popular Pashtun singer, while he was driving his car with members of his orchestra in Malakand Agency. The bullets missed Sardar Yousafzai, but his colleague, the harmonium player Anwar Gul, was murdered in the attack.
"They want to kill me because I am a singer and I don't subscribe to their narrow version of Islam," Yousafzai said. "I promote peace, tolerance and love by my art and these values do not fit to their system based on violence and bloodshed."
Currently Yousafzai is staying in Peshawar to avoid Taliban attacks and support his family back home. He is seriously concerned about the safety of his family but he can't afford to move them to a safer place.
Locals believe that by targeting singers and artists, the Taliban will close the doors of artistic expression and create an environment in which their own brand of religion will prosper. The markets in Mingora, Peshawar, Charsada and Mardan were flooded with Jihadi CDs when traditional singing and dancing came to a halt.
"The people who earlier dealt in music CDs and cassettes are now selling stuff that promotes religious bigotry and obscurantism," says Ali Akbar Khan, owner of a music market in Mingora.
Over 50,000 members of Pakistan's security forces are currently fighting Taliban militants in Swat valley, but locals say the war cannot be won unless the hearts and minds of the residents of Northwestern Pakistan are liberated from the fear generated by Taliban violence.
"It is high time we stop the flow of Jihadi literature to ensure peace and stability in the region," he said.
-The Medialine News Agency