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Do We Deserve Amjad Sabri?

Early Wednesday morning, as I woke up and flicked the TV on out of habit, they had Amjad Sabri on singing Tajdar-e-Haram. I listened to the kalaam until, like always, the qawwali filled me with a sense of deep peace. I thought what a great start to the day. Little did I know that in a few hours, the voice that sings with such devotion that each melodious note resonates with your soul and connects you with all that is dear and sacred, will no longer sing the songs of peace. This voice represented the culture and legacy of a gharana that has earned massive respect and love in South Asia. This voice gracefully carried an entire tradition with it. This voice whose strength matched the tall stature of its carrier, moved crowds of thousands. The voice that wielded the same magic that its forefathers did until people started tossing their heads in spiritual ecstasy. The voice that convinced us with its affectionate determination when it sang “lot kar mein na jaun ga khaali“. The loss is so harsh and painful, yet sadly very familiar. It is a loss that perhaps only his voice can heal. I am trying to find peace in the knowledge that today his voice will resound in every corner of the heaven. Perhaps Nusrat sahab will join him. What a mehfil it must be!

It is a tragic day and I wanted to keep to myself and silently mourn the loss of a great Pakistani talent and a kind and loving man. Despite the outrageous voyeurism through circulation of graphic imagery and dehumanization of a noble man before he is even buried, I deemed it important to silently pay my respects to the legend Amjad Sabri. However, it would be criminal to sit silently and let opportunistic concerns pick apart a good man and insult him in his death. So, let’s talk about Amjad Sabri. Let’s talk about the time when we collectively failed him.

Unless you have a short memory, you were not around or – as mostly happens – your apathy blinds you, you would remember the much publicized feud between two private Pakistani TV channels two years back involving accusations of “blasphemy”. Let me replenish your memory in any case. A morning show on Geo TV aired a wedding themed show involving a qawwali originally sung by Amjad Sabri, which was accused of having blasphemous content by none other than anchorperson Mubasher Lucman, who was working for ARY News at the time. It marked beginning of an extensive fight between the two TV channels, consisting of a series of legal and covert battles involving the establishment, which went on for months. Hazrat Mubasher Lucman played a central role in inciting violence against the people involved, until fatwas were issued by Ulema, protests erupted around the country, the channels were suspended, death threats were given to the employees of the channel and the people accused were forced to go into hiding or flee the country. Lucman invited Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi, the chief of sectarian organization Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) (formerly known as Sipah Sahaba (SSP), that has been suspected of terrorist activities for a long time), as a guest in his show and he gladly participated in Lucman’s hate-mongering. A few days later, 64 lawyers were arrested under blasphemy charges for organizing a protest. As hostility increased and events took a turn for the worse, ARY News was counter-accused of blasphemy for airing similar content. Sadly, our kindhearted Amjad Sabri was one of the singers on the show and got accused of engaging in the so-called blasphemous practice. The feud went on for several weeks, as many readers will remember. The Islamabad High Court (IHC) issued notices to both channels (as well as Amjad Sabri) and legal battles ensued.

Lucman, having done his job, continued contentedly with his business as usual until a few months later when he troubled some big powers. Following a staged show with business tycoon, Malik Riaz, IHC issued notices to ARY and Lucman and PEMRA doing what it does best, banned him from appearing on TV shows. He was subsequently issued notices for contempt by the Supreme Court. Having successfully skidded through these cases, that only a man of his influence and means could do, he continued his show until he came under fire in 2015 for ‘manufacturing facts’. Subsequently, he resigned from ARY network and continued the same pattern of unethical ‘revenge journalism’ in his show with Bol TV. Currently he hosts a show with the same name on Channel 24.

The ‘blasphemy row’ between the two channels was not the first time the honorable Lucman sahab has incited violence against people and preached hate using his influential position. He similarly accused Lahore Grammar School of “converting” Muslim children by teaching them a class on Comparative Religions. The discipline deals with a comparative study of world religions and is taught in most esteemed institutions. Having taken some courses in the discipline myself, I can assure you, the subject teaches one to accept diversity in religions and respect people of different faiths – the kind of education Pakistan direly needs. Lucman directed his attacks against Mrs. Shah of LGS 55-Main, who many of her students remember fondly as a kind old lady and an enthusiastic headmistress, and through his noteworthy coverage managed to endanger the teachers and students of the school. Eventually he got bored and moved on. Lucman, displaying heights of responsible journalism, has also previously engaged in hate campaigns against Ahmadis and religious minorities. I guess his favorite blasphemy-blasphemy game lost novelty, after yet another blasphemy accusation – this time against a Turkish soap opera. The endless adventures of Hazrat Lucman, the Infallible, raise truly uncomfortable questions about what is considered ethical and responsible journalism in Pakistan and the role of corporate media in shaping narratives.

 

Fast forward to today, when Amjad Sabri was brutally slain by Taliban gunmen for his “blasphemous” qawwalis. The man literally sang about peace, devotion and harmony and you can see why it irked TTP and its sympathizers. Extremist groups have targeted several activists and notable figures in Karachi – most recently Khurram Zaki and Sabeen Mahmud. Given its ethnic and religious diversity, Karachi has a complex urban political scene. Targeted killings have a long and complicated history in Karachi and you cannot pin them down to one factor. So, I won’t go so far as suggesting a causal link between the two aforementioned events. However, if you are willing to believe that the prejudice and intolerance institutionalized through our laws as well as the hatred preached through many organizations, and fanned by those in influential positions like Mubasher Lucman, have nothing to do with the murders of many innocent people like Amjad Sabri, you need to do some rethinking. The hatred and bigotry spewed by people do not exist in a social and political vacuum. Daily instances of micro-aggression and intolerance are not harmless. The consequences are in front of you. You cannot set the tone for an intolerant and hate-filled society every day and suddenly cry in shock when it goes “too far”.

Never mind taking responsibility or seeking apology, Lucman even refused to acknowledge his role and instead offered some hollow words on Sabri’s death. Not a trace of guilt for putting a man in a life-threatening ordeal. No condolences, not even the tiniest amount of sadness and remorse for his tragic death. It is astounding that those who were actively involved in inciting violence against Sabri and others two years ago are pretending to care today as if nothing happened. It is an insult to Sabri’s memory that his death is being treated as an opportunistic moment. The analogy of circling vultures is perhaps the most apt descriptor here.

Sabri sahab, may he rest in peace, is one of the many victims of this continuous hatred and intolerance taught at every level in Pakistan. I don’t need to recount the violent history of Blasphemy laws, or the many discriminatory laws, practices and beliefs, that have bloodied the streets of Pakistan for many decades and are directly responsible for violence against Pakistani people, particularly minorities. Those like Mubasher Lucman have exploited their privileged position and waged a cruel battle against Pakistani people for personal gains. If you believe the enemy is some foreign agent, a terrorist faction in the mountains that can be bombed away, a group of “poor, uneducated, rural” workers, or any “other” that you can conveniently construct, I am afraid you are terribly mistaken because the enemy is among all of us and within us. Just look at the history of how we have treated our artists. From big names like Sultan Rahi, possibly the biggest star of Pakistani cinema, to famed dancer of the 70s, Niggo, glamorous and affluent, Nadra, sweetheart of Pashto films, Yasmeen, the beautiful Andaleeb whose career ended with an acid attack, along with Marvi, the promising star of Sindhi background who was gunned down in her own car, and so many unnamed stage actors, musicians and singers – hundreds have been threatened, ridiculed or murdered. Music and dance have always had a troubled and violent history in Pakistani society because of their association with lower castes, worsened by the fact that we refuse to have a conversation about caste-based stratification and inequality in our society. The stigmatization and marginalization of Kanjar and Mirasi castes and Bhands is an oft-quoted case. Arts have never been seen favorably in a consumer society where worth of any profession is tied to its economic output and productive value.

 

 

The influence of extremist ideologies that penetrated deep into our government and security apparatus in the past decade or so threw us in an identity crisis and destroyed what was left of many invaluable cultural practices. According to a report published by Center for Peace and Cultural Studies, the alliance of six religious parties Mutahida Majlase-e-Amal (MMA) that came to power in Kybher Pakhtunkhwa in 2002 spearheaded this campaign. The Chief Minister issued directives for banning music on public transport. Display of musical instruments was banned. Female images were scrapped from advertisements and cinema posters. The only concert hall (Nishtar Hall) in the Peshawar city was locked down. Police started harassing the musicians of Dabgari Bazar. Shopkeepers Union of the Bazar first forced the transgender communities to leave and soon afterwards musicians were forcefully shifted and displaced. Some of these musicians shifted their office to Tehkal Market and many of them migrated to Afghanistan. Majority of them were made unemployed. The words of Siraj ul Haq, a senior minister of Jamat-e-Islami (JI) provide a very clear picture, “Our priorities are different. Our children need schools. Our youth need employment. Music is not our priority. We don’t have time for music. We ask students to dedicate their time to studies instead of listening to music. We know the demands of our society. Demands in western world are different”. He also said, “In our previous government I invited cinema owners to my house for tea. I have requested them not to display film posters and if possible start other businesses”.

Contrary to popular (and misguided) assumptions, such agendas are not restricted to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The Sufi tradition and shrine culture throughout South Asia, that has nurtured the profound connection between music, dance and worship, has long been frowned upon and criticized by fundamentalist movements. The old and familiar tussle between Deobandi and Barelvi movements has often manifested in the form of violence against this rich tradition. Hundreds have been killed in militant attacks on shrines just in the past decade. One of the deadliest attacks on shrines claimed 50 lives when the Urs of Sakhi Sarwar was attacked in Dera Ghazi Khan, South Punjab, in 2011. This was one of the sixteen attacks on shrines that happened within 2010-2011. Much of this hatred has been directed against the Shia tradition for a variety of reasons and the rich customs of Pakistani Shia population have been tainted with a tragic history of sectarian violence. There is an extensive history of qawwals being considered blasphemous which is only dwarfed by the even longer list of Sufis saints who were declared heretics by the theocratic forces of the time.

Fear and paranoia hangs over countless shrines, temples, tombs and dargahs in Sindh, that have always celebrated religious diversity and attracted huge number of followers from various South Asian religious traditions. Despite threats of violence, these sacred places scattered throughout Southern Punjab and Sindh still celebrate religious syncretism and their courtyards ring with mesmerizing chants as Hindu and Muslim devotees sit next to each other and sing bhajans and qawwalis.

A cursory review of past events cannot do justice to the nuances of the history of marginalization of music and arts in Pakistan. The attacks on artists and certain cultural practices are embedded in the broader social and structural context and complicated political histories. It is crucial to have a dialogue about such histories in order to make sense of brutal murders like that of Amjad Sabri. The attack on Amjad Sabri was product of a long history of intolerance bred at many grounds. Isolating his murder from that context only legitimizes the institutionalized hatred and injustice that we have turned a blind eye to. Not only do we refuse to challenge influential personalities who openly preach hate, but we refuse to question our own complicity and apathy. The blood of Sabri and many innocent others is on the hands of hate-mongers and those of us who refuse to challenge them.

Adding the title of “shaheed” after each name won’t bring the change that you look for. You will run out of names in the hopes of finding such change. Nothing is going to change until you hold accountable those who are responsible and challenge your own complicity and apathy. So, let’s ask ourselves: do we deserve noble and peace-loving spirits like Amjad Sabri?

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Mehlab Jameel is an anthropologist in training based in Lahore. His areas of interests are world cultures, religion and cultural politics in postcolonial nation states. He can be reached out on Twitter @mehlabjameel.

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