Deadly Culture Wars in Pakistan

Deadly Culture Wars in Pakistan

Adding a bit of jest to Hegel, Marx quipped that if history repeats itself, it does so first as tragedy then as farce. Even by this standard, it is not clear how we should characterize Pakistan’s third overthrow of military rule and fourth proclamation of a bright, democratic future. Has tragedy again given way to farce or farce to tragedy? Islamic fundamentalism has found a willing partner in Pashtun nationalism on the country’s western frontier; refugees stream across a porous border from war-torn Afghanistan and again from the Pakistani army’s own offensives. In the cities, workers face double-digit unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, and entrenched systems of patronage and nepotism. If this is a farce, no one is in on the joke.

And yet, there is still laughter at the National College of Arts in Lahore. The focal point of that campus, a sculpture of a couple kissing on a swing, embodies the lost soul of Pakistani intellectual life, once thriving and open, now increasingly under attack and hidden. For the moment, the scene is tranquil. Students mingle about the commons amid other stunning bronze casts, the smell of marijuana emanates from one corner while in another a student with his prayer mat in one hand distributes fliers for an improvisational theater troupe with the other. If there is any truth behind Asif Ali Zardari’s paeans to a new Pakistan—confident, pluralist, and democratic—it resides here.

Across the street from this enclave, past an intersection with monuments of a different sort—the Zamzama Gun, a relic of British imperialism immortalized in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, and a mounted fighter jet, a symbol of the military caste that filled the post-partition power vacuum—lies the University of Punjab. Long considered one of the subcontinent’s finest institutes of higher learning, PU, as it is referred to colloquially, was in April the scene of a brutal attack on environmental science professor Iftikhar Baloch. He needed more than thirty stitches to the head after an assault by two dozen pipe-wielding young men, all cadre of Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT), a student group affiliated with the country’s largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami. The activists were responding to the expulsion of several of their comrades after Baloch, the head of a five-member disciplinary committee, acted upon allegations of vandalism, kidnapping, and the intimidation of students suspected of having “immoral fun.”

Though a spirited 1980s campaign kept the National College of the Arts free of their influence, over the past three decades Islamists have become a hegemonic force at Punjab University and others like it. IJT veterans are funneled into vacant teaching jobs, supported with financial aid, given access to student association allowances, and kept exempt from campus rules on fund-raising and recruiting. For poor and working class students struggling to advance in a country with a crippled soci...