Music and the deadly struggle against extremism in Pakistan

Reader’s Note : This commentary preceded the murder of renowned Pakistani folk musician Amjad Sabri on Wednesday. The attack, claimed by the extremist Taliban movement, is only the latest on cultural figures in the country and underlines the following opinion.

When I finished my undergraduate degree from a progressive liberal arts college in the United States, I was brimming with idealistic assumptions about social change.

Unlike most of my Pakistani classmates who also went abroad for their studies and stayed on in the West after their studies, I was almost desperate to go back to Pakistan. The world was meant to be changed, and I wanted to play my part in that great change.

Thanks to my parents, I had grown up on a steady diet of rock anthems that had been a continuation of the spirit of the 60’s: Pink Floyd, Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen, Tracy Chapman, U2 and so on. And somehow in my mind I wanted to connect them to the devotional and stirring Pakistani music of Pathanay Khan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Nayyara Noor and others. But all that was to come later, much later.

By 22, I was too radical even for radical music. “Music is so bourgeois,” I thought.

Real politics is about grassroots movements. And grassroots movements demand something less gentle, less articulate, and more direct. And so for several years I stopped playing music altogether and I focused my activism on the way activism “ought to be done.” I focused on what I thought was “direct action”, mostly on labour issues.

Music surreptitiously crept back into my life but I still did not consider it as a means for political change. As a young professor of political economy, I would often take my guitar to class to entertain, amuse and hold the attention of my students.

Pakistan had lapsed back into a quasi-military dictatorship and that became the centre of politics. But the scope and extent of my activism was limited to the small circle of people I could reach.

However, all that changed when the Lawyers Movement burst into the mainstream of Pakistani politics in 2006 and the social media revolution had transformed people-to-people communications in Pakistan.

Incensed by the forcible deposition of the then-Chief Justice Chaudhry Iftikhar, lawyers came out by the thousands in protest and galvanised the opposition political parties against President Pervez Musharraf. Social media ensured that the media blackout throughout the state of emergency that began in November 2007 could not stop the flow of information and the development of the movement.

I was already in London undertaking my doctorate on the class structure of Pakistan and simultaneously organising solidarity protests of the Pakistani diaspora and students outside the High Commission of Pakistan and Downing Street. We urgently felt that we needed to be heard louder.

How could our voices reach across the seas in the context of a media blackout to galvanise people to struggle for the democratic cause? And that is when, for me, music and politics finally came together.

Soundtracks of unity

Our slogans turned into songs and our songs started becoming the slogans of the Lawyers Movement. But what name could capture the essence of what we stood for, we thought to ourselves? Since the main focus of my activism had always been labour activism (I had been working with the Workers and Peasants Party and the All-Pakistan Trade Union Federation), I thought our name should reflect our commitment to the emancipation of the working class.

I named my band Laal (red) which has been the colour of the labour movement since the Chicago Haymarket strike of 1886. With the help of a British-Pakistani filmmaker, Taimur Khan, we put out our first music video on the internet and achieved almost instantaneous and totally unexpected success.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Laal’s music became the soundtrack of the Lawyers Movement that restored democracy in Pakistan. On the other hand, it opened our eyes to the enormous power that music could provide in mobilising movements and infusing them with a sense of unity, purpose, and energy.

With the restoration of electoral democracy in Pakistan, and despite all its imperfections and class biases, we turned our attention to religious extremism. We felt that, in this new phase of Pakistani politics, religious extremism and terrorism had become the principal threat to the democratic rights of the people of Pakistan.

In our trademark style we began by releasing music videos against religious extremism such as ‘Dehshatgardi Murdabad’ (Death to Terrorism), ‘You Give Me Hope Malala’, ‘Dartay Hai Bandooqon Walay’ (The Gun Wielders are Scared) and many others. At first, there were little or no takers. The war against extremism was seen purely as a ‘Western agenda’. We also underwent a change in the line-up of the band that dented our popularity in a very big way. It felt as if, despite all the past successes, we were starting from square one again.

There was also the question of the enormous risks we were taking. It is one thing to take on a military dictatorship within the midst of a movement of hundreds of thousands of supporters. Even if legal procedures are not followed in one’s arrest, one is reassured by the vast solidarity expressed by society.

But what happens when you take on a violent terrorist movement that is operating entirely outside any kind of legal procedure in the context of a society that has been bullied into submission?

Moreover, we could not even rely on the elected government that we had worked so hard to bring about. For instance, in 2011, television channels refused to play our song ‘Jhoot Ka Uncha Sar’ (The Highly Held Head of Falsehood) because it poked fun at how the establishment itself had supported religious extremists.

In June 2014, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority asked Facebook to shut down our Facebook page (it was restored soon after as a result of massive social media outcry). In April 2015, I was accused of treason to the country on a mainstream television program because I supported the human rights of the Baloch people. Simultaneously, a concerted social media campaign was launched against Laal as anti-Islamic and anti-Pakistan.

And finally, if you add to this toxic mix a dozen or so social media emails a day that insult, abuse, threaten, and attempt to intimidate us from our cause, you begin to see the kind of challenges we face in addressing these questions of extremism.

Sometimes people react with complete shock when I tell them we are taking on one of the world’s most well-trained, well-armed, violent movements with nothing but music instruments in our hands. Many of my own former students, fans and comrades have preferred to steer clear from us because they consider what we are doing as foolishness and madness. They effectively have taken the position that they are going to wait out this particular struggle.

However, like any struggle, the outcome is never guaranteed. I say to these detractors that the power of music rests not just in music itself, but in the people. And no force, no matter how well-armed or trained, can fight a society that stands united.

Now, as we near a decade of struggle and have kept going despite close brushes with danger, we are finding new friends and comrades in Pakistan and around the world.

Recently, the Civil Society Week organised by CIVICUS in Colombia gave us the opportunity to meet with activists from all over the world who have confronted authoritarianism through non-violent means, often through art, literature, advocacy, and the power of the pen.

It was here that Equal Times offered us their pages to tell our story. A story that I would like to end by saying that music played a role in defeating dictatorship in Pakistan. I know it can play an equal role in defeating religious extremism and terrorism in the world.