LAHORE, Pakistan – Pakistan’s leading arts college has pushed boundaries before in this conservative nation. But when a series of paintings depicting Muslim clerics in scenes with strong homosexual overtones sparked an uproar and threats of violence by Islamic extremists, it was too much.
Officials at the National College of Arts in Lahore shut down its academic journal, which published the paintings, pulled all its issues out of bookstores and dissolved its editorial board. Still, a court is currently considering whether the paintings’ artist, the journal’s board and the school’s head can be charged with blasphemy.
The college’s decision to cave to Islamist pressure underscores how space for progressive thought is shrinking in Pakistan as hardline interpretations of Islam gain ground. It was also a marked change for an institution that has long been one of the nation’s leading defenders of liberal views.
Pakistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, and the majority of its citizens have long been fairly conservative. But what has grown more pronounced in recent years is the power of religious hardliners to enforce their views on people who disagree, often with the threat of violence.
The government is caught up in a war against a domestic Taliban insurgency and often seems powerless to protect its citizens. At other times it has acquiesced to hardline demands because of fear, political gain or a convergence of beliefs.
“Now you have gun-toting people out there on the streets,” said Saleema Hashmi, a former head of arts college. “You don’t know who will kill you. You know no one is there to protect you.”
The uproar was sparked when the college’s Journal of Contemporary Art and Culture over the summer published pictures of a series of paintings by artist Muhammad Ali.
Particularly infuriating to conservatives were two works that they said insulted Islam by mixing images of Muslim clerics with suggestions of homosexuality, which is deeply taboo in Pakistan.
One titled “Call for Prayer” shows a cleric and a shirtless young boy sitting beside each other on a cot. The cleric fingers rosary beads as he gazes at the boy, who seductively stretches backward with his hands clasped behind his head.
Mumtaz Mangat, a lawyer who petitioned the courts to impose blasphemy charges, argued the image implied the cleric had “fun” with the boy before conducting the traditional Muslim call for prayer.
A second painting shows the same cleric reclining in front of a Muslim shrine, holding a book by Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho in one hand as he lights a cigarette for a young boy with the other. A second young boy, who is naked with his legs strategically crossed to cover his genitals, sits at the cleric’s feet. The painting has caused particular uproar because verses from Islam’s holy book, the Quran, appear on the shrine.
Aasim Akhtar, an Islamabad-based art critic who wrote an essay accompanying the paintings in the journal, wrote that Ali’s mixing of images was “deliberately, violently profane,” aimed at challenging “homophobic” beliefs that are widespread in Pakistani society.