Pakistan makes headlines for religious extremism, Islamist militancy and suicide bombings. But is this the real face of Pakistan? The country's artists, musicians and writers say there is a different side to the country.
Targeted killings, suicide bombings, mayhem and carnage; Pakistan, particularly its southern port city of Karachi, presents a ghastly picture these days. Many say that there is a civil war going on. Some think outlawed militant Islamist organizations are creating panic and chaos in the country so that parliamentary elections - which are due in a couple of months - cannot be held on time. A peaceful transition of power from one elected civilian government to another will weaken the Islamists and consolidate democracy in Pakistan, political analysts say.
On Wednesday, March 13, terrorists in Karachi shot dead senior development and social worker, Ms. Parveen Rehman.
Religious extremism and intolerance are on the rise in the Islamic Republic. Last week, a mob of Islamic fanatics torched more than 100 Christian-owned houses in the central Pakistani city of Lahore over blasphemy allegations.
But in the midst of this violence and madness, some Pakistanis are creating poetry, making music and defying norms. They are worried about the current situation of their country but have not lost hope. They say the best way to take Pakistan out of the mess it is in is to provide a counter-narrative, to give the people an alternative. That, in their view, can be done by promoting culture, arts, and so-called "soft Islam."
"If the Islamists have guns, I have guitar," Ahmed Meer, a 29-year-old musician, told DW. "Yes, we feel threatened by fanatics but we will continue to play, we will continue to make music and entertain people. Pakistan needs cultural promotion more than ever. Islam is not against music and arts."
But many Pakistanis who subscribe to the more radical Wahhabi version of Islam will probably not agree with Meer. Most militant Islamist groups in Pakistan, including the Taliban, belong to the Wahhabi sect. Wahhabism is a small sect of Sunni Islam. They believe in "puritan Islam" and consider music and arts, as well as pilgrimages to the shrines of Islamic Sufis to be un-Islamic and contrary to the teachings of the prophet of Islam, Muhammad.
On the contrary, followers of the Shiite and Barelvi sects of Islam believe in a wide cultural interpretation of Islam and seek inspiration from the Persian and Arabic saints, who played a role in spreading Islam throughout the Indian subcontinent. These Muslims saints are equally loved by Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Jews in South Asia.
Attiya Dawood, a writer and peace activist, told DW that the love for saints ran deep in hundreds of thousands of people in Pakistan and that a big number of Pakistanis went to the shrines and listened to qawwali, another word for Sufi music.
"The Taliban want to create fear among the people by attacking their sacred places so that they can restrict their social mobility and freedom," she said.
Karachi-based Pakistani actor and dancer Suhaee Abro said that despite these threats, Pakistani artists were not intimidated. "My dance teacher Sheema Kirmani has been threatened many times [for organizing dance shows]. Mullahs have threatened to target a music school in Karachi where I used to teach. But we are still working. In fact, more and more people are taking up performing arts," Abro told DW.
Pakistani artists, however, lament that there are not many places for them to hang out. A big city like Karachi with a population of over 18 million people has hardly three or four places where poets, musicians and painters can perform.
"More places are opening up now. Theater has become quite popular in Karachi. Urdu and English plays are being held on a regular basis, and the auditoriums are packed with theater lovers. It means that Pakistanis want such activities so badly that they don't care about the political situation," Hasan Farabi of the popular Raeth band, told DW.
Nineteen-year-old painter Talha Kehar says he uses his brush to comment on what is happening around him. "Artists are sensitive people, and it is disturbing for all of us. Our society has become intolerant, particularly towards those who dare to challenge the norms. It is indeed bothersome," Kehar told DW.
Which is the real Pakistan? the Taliban's or Kehar's?
"It is both. Both viewpoints exist in Pakistan. But we are doing our job to counter extremism through music," Kehar answered.
Fatima Niazi, a student who also works for the Pakistani daily The News, was of the opinion that things were not as simple as many people liked to depict. She told DW that she felt "suffocated" as a young female journalist in a conservative society.
"There are too many restrictions on the way you talk, on what you wear, when you go around interviewing people," Niazi said.
Niazi, who also covers fashion events, believed international fashion shows alone are not enough to change the reality of Pakistan.
"One fashion week and then perhaps ten bomb blasts after that; I think things will remain the same," said Niazi.