In its 60-plus turbulent years as an independent country, Pakistan has been held together by its music, poetry, films, literature and sports. Pakistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, but culture -- not religion -- is the glue that binds people in this critical U.S.-allied country.
But now the Taliban are grafting an alien form of Islam onto Pakistan, with dire consequences for Pakistanis, the region and possibly the world. Earlier this month the Pakistani government and army made a deal with the Taliban and gave them control of the Swat valley. The government ceded this region near the Afghan border after countless suicide attacks resulted in the loss of many military and civilian lives.
President Asif Ali Zardari's ill-conceived appeasement will only embolden the Taliban and may squelch more of Pakistan's voices of peace just when Pakistanis and the world need to hear them most.
In Swat and elsewhere in the North-West Frontier Province, arts and culture are under attack, as are women's rights. The city of Swat used to be a haven for arts, music and tourism. There is now eerie silence. The Taliban have shut down girls' schools, imposed sharia law and destroyed music shops. Cinemas are being locked down. The fanatics' idea is simple: to asphyxiate Pakistan's rich and vibrant culture and replace it with their own.
President Obama has promised to listen to the Muslim world. The president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Pakistan and Afghanistan envoy Richard Holbrooke can start by listening to Pakistani artists who embody peace, modernity and cross-cultural dialogue.
For the past 20 years Pakistani music and pop culture has built a national and global following. The late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the iconic Qawwali singer, collaborated with Peter Gabriel and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam. Pakistani rock bands and singers like Junoon, Strings, Jal and Atif Aslam have been huge draws in India, America and Europe. Last year Pakistani director Shoaib Mansoor's movie In the Name of God was a box office hit in both Pakistan and India. The film portrays the difficulties of being a liberal Muslim in Pakistan after 9/11 -- something that's just getting harder.
The U.S. has an important role to play. America must help strengthen Pakistani civil society - the artists, humanitarians and educators who have braved military dictators, corrupt politicians and religious fanatics and are the most natural American allies against extremism. By promoting Pakistani-American creative collaborations in films, television and music, the U.S. would be empowering the voices that the Taliban seek to silence the most. But with the Taliban creeping into mainstream Pakistan that window of opportunity is diminishing by the day.
Suicide bomb attacks and a weak economy in Pakistan have forced multinationals to pull their sponsorship of rock music festivals. Most Pakistani rock bands, artists and film makers are being intimidated to find other work. Some artists, like pop star Junaid Jamshed, have left music to become proselytizers for Islamic missionary movements. Pakistani artists, comedians and actors who had been working in India have been forced to return since the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008. Indian visas for Pakistani artists have now been severely restricted.
Those restrictions help no one and must be lifted immediately. Nothing is more frightening to a terrorist than to see Indian and Pakistani artists collaborating in films and music and performing freely in each others' countries. That's why I got death threats from terrorists when my band Junoon performed in Kashmir in May 2008. We ignored them and the concert -- the first rock concert to be held in the conflicted Himalayan territory between Pakistan and India -- was a huge hit with thousands of Kashmiri college kids.
The United Nations also has a role. Terrorists who use Islam as an excuse to launch their attacks on innocents need to be countered by Islamic scholars who represent the U.N. member states. Islamic scholars from Muslim majority nations, America and the West need a global platform like the U.N. to send messages condemning the killing of innocents and labeling such actions un-Islamic.
The killing off of arts and culture in Swat is an ominous sign. It is the first step in the potential Talibanization of more of the country. If you give the Taliban an inch - as Zardari has done - they will take a mile.
Pakistan, India, the U.S. and the rest of the world all have a stake in peace and conflict resolution in South Asia. For President Obama to make good on his promise to mend fences with the Muslim world, he'll have to tackle South Asian problems including the dispute over Kashmir. But he can start with something that should be much easier: speaking up for the artists, poets and musicians that give South Asians our deepest sense of self.
America needs a culture envoy and not just a political envoy for South Asia. To help the region win its war against the fanatics, President Obama should encourage the same kind of dialogue that the great Muslim emperor Akbar did. For 50 years, Akbar presided over peace and cultural harmony. Both will be lost if we allow the extremists to win.