Salman Ahmad, Pakistani rock musician and founder of the popular band Junoon (as well as doctor, author and filmmaker) explained last Saturday night to the standing-room-only crowd in the General Assembly of the United Nations that it was a video which pushed him into action. The video, of two men holding down a teenage girl while another beat her, sent by a friend from Pakistan, prompted Ahmad to fly to Pakistan from New York, his adopted home, to find the answer to the question that was tormenting him: Which was the real Pakistan?
Was it the country steeped in Sufi traditions of poetry, art and culture? The country whose verse had cried out for freedom of expression for over one thousand years? Or the country where teenage girls are beaten publicly for alleged crimes of improper behavior?
Fuelled by the horrific story of Daniel Pearl s tragic death and videos of Taliban brutality, Americans tend to associate Pakistan more with extremism and random violence than with poetry, music and culture. But the media paints a distorted picture of Pakistan, as audiences of the Asia Society s current exhibition, Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art of Pakistan, and of Salman Ahmad s Concert for Pakistan can attest.
At the historic event sponsored by the Pakistani Mission to the United Nations and held in the General Assembly Hall, Salman Ahmad brought musicians from Ireland to Iran (including former Bush front-man Gavin Rossdale and the Danish hip hop group Outlandish) together to raise awareness and funds for the three million displaced persons from the Swat Valley.
Sting sent a special song and message, and guests including Nobel Laureate R.K. Pachauri spoke on behalf of Pakistan and its people. The hospitable, vibrant and intellectual Pakistan they described clashed with the media s drumbeat of extremism. Likewise, the moderate, tolerant version of Islam presented at the concert on Saturday by Naif Al-Mutawa (creator of “The 99 comic book series with superheroes based on the 99 characteristics of God in Islam) differed from the doctrinaire ideologies that claim more airtime.
Both Salman Ahmad and Naif Al-Mutawa belong to the Brookings Institution s Creative Network, a group of more than 200 leaders in arts and culture from the United States and the Muslim world who mingle with policymakers at the annual US Islamic World Forum in Doha. They and others like them offer an opening into Arab and Muslim societies, if diplomats and policymakers are willing to do something that does not come easily – take arts and culture seriously.
In countries such as Pakistan (or Iran, for that matter), where poets have played significant roles in shaping the national narrative, arts, culture and media regularly engage with politics. The words of Rumi and other poets, whether in verse or set to rock music, inspire the citizens of today s Pakistan, as well as its large diaspora. Poetry and art in all its forms are simply part of the fabric of life, and often can convey ideas that might not be acceptable in political forums. The curator of the current exhibition of contemporary Pakistani art at the Asia Society, Salima Hashmi, noted, When political parties are silenced, there is room for poets and artists.
Whether through works of art, poetry, rock music or television soap operas, arts, culture and media provide a means and a medium to reach broad swaths of the population under the political radar with ideas about society, politics and religion. Through narratives in which, for example, women assume significant roles in the family and society, they question extremist ideologies. Songs set to a traditional, rock or hip hop beats remind academics, teenagers and tea servers alike of the richness of Pakistani culture, and of its integral role in Pakistani identity.
For Salman Ahmad, his wife Samina and their NGO, the Salman and Samina Global Wellness Initiative (ssgwi.org), this concert was the beginning of a broader campaign to harness the power of arts, culture and media to strengthen civil society within Pakistan. The lawyers movement already demonstrated the willingness of Pakistanis to defend their rights. A strong civil society movement will not solve all Pakistan s problems, but it could provide a bulwark against extremism.
Increasingly, the United States seems to be moving away from imposing its own values abroad to empowering local voices. Salman Ahmad s concert, his broader movement and the Asia Society s exhibition offer openings for pursuing this strategy in Pakistan.
Cynthia Schneideris an expert in cultural diplomacy, leads the Arts and Culture Initiative within the Brookings Institution s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, and teaches Diplomacy and Culture at Georgetown University. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author.