Pakistan’s famed and much celebrated devotional Sufi singer Amjad Sabri (45) was killed in a targeted attack in broad daylight while he was traveling in his car in the Liaquatabad Town of Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh, on June 22, 2016. Sabri’s relative and co-traveler, Saleem Sabri, was also killed in the attack. Qari Saifullah Mehsud, spokesperson for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)-Hakimullah Mehsud faction claimed responsibility for the killing, which he justified on account of “his (Sabri’s) blasphemous Qawwalis” (Sufi devotional music).
In a bizarre judicial ruling in 2014, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) had issued a blasphemy notice to Amjad Sabri and Geo TV for playing a Qawwali during a morning show. Sabri was booked after one of his songs mentioned the names of the family members of Prophet Muhammad who are revered and followed in Shia and Sufi Islam. This was considered offensive by the hardline and puritanical Wahhabi Islam that has come to dominate Pakistan with al Qaeda-like extremism, Taliban-style misogyny and Islamic State (IS)-style savagery and terrorism.
The slapping of a blasphemy case on Sabri added to his vulnerability in both the public and private space. Lamenting the loss of her son, Amjad Sabri’s mother Asghari Begum disclosed that about six months ago three unidentified armed assailants barged into their house frantically looking for Sabri. Not finding him at his residence they left. Knowing his precarious situation, Sabri had earlier submitted an application to Government for security. The Sindh Board of Film Censors Chairman, Fakhre Alam, claimed on Twitter that despite the submission of a security application by Sabri, “the Home Department refused to follow up on it.”
The Sabri killing is part of the larger canvas of religious intolerance, censorship and violence in Pakistan. An alarming situation has arisen for the freedom of artistic expression in the country. Musicians, artists, and alternative Muslim voices have faced brutal attacks by fanatical forces. Expanding their war strategy beyond state institutions, extremist and sectarian outfits like the TTP are targeting civilians and worshipers in mosques, shrines and marketplaces.
Sufism (mystical Islam) and Sufi shrines are a dominant and integral part of traditional Pashtun culture. There are more than hundred Sufi shrines in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that have served as centres of spirituality and recreation. However, the Wahhabi ideology of the Taliban considers music and shrine culture un-Islamic and has attacked 50 such shrines since 2001 in tribal areas alone, according to Center for Peace and Cultural Studies (CPCS), Peshawar, Report published on February 24, 2014,
In one of the worst attacks on Sufi mosques and shrines, two suicide bombers blew themselves up at the Data Darbar shrine in Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab on July 1, 2010, killing at least 42 people and injuring 172. Again, on April 3, 2011, at least 51 persons were killed and more than 100 were injured when two suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the shrine of Sufi saint Ahmed Sultan, popularly known as Sakhi Sarwar in Dera Ghazi Khan District of Punjab.
In other such attacks, terrorists have targeted Sufi shrine workers across Pakistan. Thus, on January 7, 2014, six dead bodies were found near a shrine in the Gulshan-e-Maymar area of Gadap Town in Karachi. Of these, two men had been beheaded, while the rest had their throats slit. On January 10, 2014, two workers at the shrine of Ghazi Shah Baba were shot dead in the Mardan District of KP.
Several artists have also been killed by the extremist religious vanguards of Islamism. Successive post-Zia-ul-Haq Governments in Pakistan have destroyed music by persecuting musicians, even as Islamist terrorists have killed many and silenced even more. A CPCS Report observes that at least 18 persons have reportedly been killed since 2001 because of their direct involvement in music. Of these, 12 cases are of female artists. Most of these killings have taken place in the tribal area of KP, where TTP once ran the show. On January 2, 2009, Shabana, one of Pakistan’s celebrated dancers, was dragged out of her house and shot dead by TTP’s Swat Chapter in the Mingora city of Swat District, after defying its ban on music and dance.
Despite the much claimed “military success” in Swat Valley in 2009, the dread of terror remained. On August 19, 2015, Pashto telefilm actress Mussarat Shaheen was shot dead in a targeted attack by fanatical assailants in Nowshera District.
The hold of fanatical forces in KP is not surprising. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Government in KP, in a shocking gesture, ‘gifted’ PKR 300 million to Darul Uloom Haqqania, the most notorious seminary and birthplace of the Afghan Taliban, located in Akora Khattak town of Nowshehra District, for the financial year 2016-17. Slashing the minority funding from 52.70 per cent in 2015 to 23.49 per cent this year, KP Information Minister Shah Farman unabashedly told the Provincial Assembly on June 17, 2016, “I am proudly announcing that Darul Uloom Haqqania Nowshehra will get PKR 300 million to meet its annual expenditures.”
Darul Uloom Haqqania, founded in 1947, is the alma mater of many prominent Afghan Taliban leaders, including its former ‘chief’ Mullah Omar, who received an honorary doctorate from the seminary. Currently headed by Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, the leader of Jama’at Ulema-e-Islam – Sami (JUI-Sami), the seminary is well known as the breeding ground for the Taliban. Haq is also the chairman of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council, an umbrella coalition of more than 40 radical religious formations, including Hafiz Muhammad Saeed’s Jama’at-ud-Dawa (JuD), the front organization of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).
Significantly, on February 26, 2015, during the hearing of the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto murder case at the Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) established inside Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi District of Punjab, Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) Peshawar Inspector Naseer Ahmed and Sub-Inspector Adnan told the ATC, headed by Justice Pervez Ismail, about the involvement of Darul Uloom Haqqania’s students in the former Prime Minister’s assassination on December 27, 2007. The suspects who had received their education from the seminary and were accused of involvement were identified as Abdullah aka Saddam Nadir aka Qari Ismail, Rasheed aka Turabi and Faiz Muhammad.
Further demonstrating the links between the Islamic seminary and terrorism, former President Asif Ali Zardari, on June 26, 2016, expressed concern over the allocation of PKR 300 million to Dar ul Uloom Haqqania, a privately owned seminary, from the public funds. Dismayed over this development, Zardari claimed that the head of the Haqqania madrassa is an “acknowledged sympathizer” and an “undeclared spokesperson” of the Taliban. In a public statement Zardari asserted,
Haqqania seminary is known for its links with the militant Taliban. This is nothing but legitimization of militancy and the Taliban that will undermine the nation’s resolve to fight militants to the finish. Although the National Action Plan calls for disallowing banned outfits from resurrecting, yet they have resurrected and are openly promoting their militant agenda with impunity… is the revival of the jihadiproject by design or by default?
The release of state funds to private seminaries was routine before 2002. The Former Secretary of Religious Affairs, KP, Vakil Khan, thus observed, “Before that (2002), a fund was set up for seminaries during the Zia era and that was from Zakat, not tax revenue.” Further, KP Provincial Minister of Higher Education and Information Mushtaq Ghani, on June 22, 2016, noted that this had been a practice during the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) Government (2002-07), an alliance of religious parties, and was only resumed by the current PTI administration.
MMA’s alliance of six religious parties enjoyed an absolute majority at both Provincial and Federal levels after the ‘managed’ elections of 2002, under the Pervez Musharraf dictatorship. On 25 November 2002, the pro-Taliban MMA formed the Government in KP, after the alliance's huge success in the Province, at both the Provincial and National level. After taking control of the Province, the Islamist political alliance banned music on public transport, medical examinations of women by male doctors, male coaches for women athletes, male journalists from covering women's sports, and orchestrated the destruction of the music market in Mingora and other areas of Swat District. The MMA Governments directives led to the closure of shops dealing in musical instruments.
In the wake of the intensified attacks on music centres the MMA Government banned all cultural activity and laid down a deep foundation for puritanical Islam and religious militancy. This alarming trend gradually gathered momentum across Pakistan, leading to raids on theatres in Lahore and illegal detention of performers on fake charges of ‘indecency’ and ‘vulgarity’.
The atmosphere of extremism and impunity that dominates the cultural landscape in Pakistan has also given rise to increasing crimes against women and a continuous stream of ‘honour’ killings. The latest incident involved both cultural censorship and the deep rooted misogyny that underpins this phenomenon. On July 15, 2016, Fouzia Azeem alias Qandeel Baloch (26), a model, actress, and social media celebrity, was strangulated to death by her brother Waseem Baloch in the Multan District of Punjab Province to ‘protect family honour’. While confessing his crime, Waseem stated that he killed Qandeel because she brought “dishonour to the Baloch name” by posting risqué videos and statements on social media. This phenomenon of honour killings has claimed thousands of lives across Pakistan. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) database, a total of 1,096 women were killed in cases of honour crimes in 2015 alone; another 1,005 in 2014; and 869 in 2013. The primary reasons for these killings have been alleged illicit affairs, exercising the right of choice in marriage and domestic disputes, but the underlying cause, as one commentator on the Qandeel Baloch killing observed, is “because we hate women who don’t conform.”
The current revival of the jihadi project is both by “design and default”. Former HRCP chairperson Asma Jahangir points to “unnerving tales of how politics empowered bigotry, laws were used for persecuting religious minorities and liberal Pakistanis, and how an easy-going Muslim population was turned into an insufferable “puritanical” society.” The targeted killing of alternative voices, intimidation, religious bigotry, suppression of women, intimidation and killing of artists, State censorship, and fear of terrorism have done serious and irreparable damage to culture and freedom of expression in Pakistan, and have created the conditions for the further exacerbation of the ongoing war within Islam.
Ambreen Agha is a Research Associate with Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi, India