In city of tolerance, shadow of the Taliban
LAHORE, Pakistan: This city has long been regarded as the cultural, intellectual and artistic heart of Pakistan, famous for its poets and writers, its gardens and historic sites left over from the Mughal Empire.
The turmoil sown by militancy may have reached into the capital, Islamabad, but it rarely seemed to intrude here among the leafy boulevards that are home to many of Pakistan's secular-minded elite.
But in recent weeks, panic has found its way even here, with a series of small bombs and other threats that offer a measure of just how deeply the fear of militant groups like the Taliban has penetrated Pakistani society.
On Oct. 7, three small bombs exploded in juice shops in a sprawling, congested neighborhood called Garhi Shahu. The shops, which had gained a reputation as "dating points," offering enclosed booths for young couples to cuddle, were gutted in the blasts. One person was killed, and several others were wounded.
An unknown group called Tehreek-ul Haya, or Movement for Decency, claimed responsibility and warned of more attacks against "centers of immorality" in the city.
On Oct. 9, Shabbir Labha, the president of the local traders association, received an unsigned handwritten letter that threatened to bomb Lahore's biggest video and music market.
The next day, he got an anonymous phone call asking him if he could do something about the sale of the pornographic CDs and DVDs there. "I assured the caller that I can," Labha recalled, sitting in his basement office on a recent afternoon.
Within a day, the traders had handed over more than 60,000 pornographic videos and burned them in a bonfire as the city's top government officials, the police and a large crowd looked on.
"We were not sure if the threats were made by the Taliban or not," Labha said. "But the bomb blasts in Garhi Shahu had made us apprehensive. We didn't want to take any chances."
The fact that a single, anonymous letter could inspire such a spectacle surprised many people here. Some voiced alarm that the tolerant, liberal outlook of Lahore was under attack from Taliban-style moral policing, usually found only in more restive corners of the country, like the North-West Frontier Province. There, in cities much closer to the tribal areas where many militant groups are based, music stores have been attacked repeatedly by the Taliban.
But in Lahore, the capital of Punjab Province, the music and video market on Hall Road was famous for the sale of English and Indian movies, as well as a thriving underground trade in pornographic movies, which are illegal here. The small stores in dingy, clustered plazas had attracted buyers for more than two decades.
Despite repeated crackdowns and warnings, the police had been unable to stop the trade in pornography. But the specter of the Taliban achieved in a day what the police had been unable to do in years.
Ahmad Rafay Alam, a columnist for The News, one of the country's leading daily publications, wrote afterward that the "Talibanization of Lahore has begun."
"I was very surprised," said Moonis Elahi, a member of the provincial assembly, referring to the response of the traders, who he said were less concerned about making a stand than about saving their livelihoods.
"The traders wanted to pacify the extremists," he said.
Since then, the lingering threat of bomb blasts and suicide attacks continues to sow fear, though many of the letters and the calls have proved to be hoaxes. Elahi said a close friend was so fed up with threats to a school that his child attended that he was contemplating a move to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.
Police officials, however, dismissed the concerns of "Talibanization" as overblown and played down the threats. "In our assessment the letter was a hoax," said Pervez Rathore, the police chief of Lahore. "It was a local mischief."
In addition to fear, the Hall Road episode has exposed fissures in society in Lahore, between the city's liberal elite and the conservative impulses of its working and middle classes, some of whom have excused or supported the threats and the traders' response.
Ejaz Haider, an editor at Daily Times, one of the leading English newspapers, said the burning of the CDs did not necessarily mean that the Hall Road traders had become reformed Muslims overnight. "It just showed the pragmatism of the traders," he said.
Khalil Rehman Chugtai, the secretary of the traders' union of Hall Road, said the threats were in fact a blessing. "We had been trying to eliminate the sales of porn movies for long with no luck," he said. "The letter helped us to get rid of them."
Chugtai said there would now be no tolerance for the sale of such "immoral movies." A few days after the bonfire, he said, one video store owner was found selling pornography again. "We apprehended him, blackened his face and paraded him through the market," he said.
Saeed Ahmad, who owns a juice shop near the three juice shops that were attacked last month, even defended the bomb blasts.
"What happened was for the better," he said. "They didn't just serve juices there. Immoral acts were going on inside the cabins set up by the owners, who took money from couples."
Still, Raza Ahmad Rumi, a writer and blogger who takes great pride in his city, insisted that "Islamic extremism has had very little appeal here." The cultural life of Lahore goes on, as it has for centuries.
He said that a recent stage play, "Hotel Moenjodaro," whose theme was against religious fundamentalism, drew a packed audience. "It was very encouraging," Ahmad said.
Nonetheless, he said, the Hall Road incident and the juice store blasts were alarming. "If the traders, the merchant class, which forms the bulk of the middle class of Lahore, becomes Talibanized, then the whole complexion of the city will change," he said. "That's a fear amongst the secular intelligentsia and elite of Lahore."