February 17, 2004
By David Blair in Peshawar
Fame was no protection for one of Pakistan's most celebrated pop stars when he indulged in the "un-Islamic" practice of singing in public.
Gulzar Alam was beaten with rifle butts and fists when 20 policemen armed with AK47s raided a wedding party where he was performing. Gulzar Alam protested: "Music is our tradition and it reflects our culture".
"They are trying to be the Taliban," said Mr Alam. "They are trying to impose this Islamic system. But music is our tradition and it reflects our culture."
Covered in bruises, he was dragged to the cells in the frontier city of Peshawar and locked up for four hours before friends secured his release.
Mr Alam, 42, said: "The police said, 'This music is banned'. They swore at me. They treated me like a very low person. This province has become a police state."
Mr Alam had fallen foul of the Islamist coalition running Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province. For the first time, extreme religious parties have won outright control of the government of this crucial area near the border with Afghanistan.
They have a simple manifesto: to reinvent the Taliban in a corner of Pakistan.
Since winning power less than 18 months ago the coalition has banned anyone from playing music or singing in public and confiscated thousands of music tapes from the bazaars. These were heaped on a huge bonfire in Peshawar and set alight by the local police chief.
Videotapes of test cricket matches were also thrown on to the flames because the authorities had noticed that shots of the crowds showed fleeting glimpses of unveiled women.
The ritual - a conscious imitation of the frequent bonfires of "un-Islamic" material staged by the Taliban regime in Kabul - was followed by the closure of Peshawar's only theatre.
Near the deserted Nishter Hall, once the centre of a community of 350 actors and musicians, a billboard carrying an advertisement for shoes was damaged. Black paint covered the faces of two women.
Across the province almost all billboards carrying pictures of women have been torn down or sprayed. At the Shabistan cinema in Peshawar colourful hoardings that once tempted passers-by with pictures of women clad in bright saris and men brandishing guns have been removed. Anodyne pictures of eagles and lions have replaced them.
Mr Alam believes that the Islamists are waging a vendetta against the entire artistic community. As the province's most famous performer, he has been singled out for harassment.
Two months after beating him up at the wedding party, police raided Mr Alam's house in Peshawar's Old City.
By chance, he was away, so they arrested his brother, Alam Khan, 25, and his sons, Salman, 19, and Shan, 13. They were beaten and held in the cells overnight on trumped-up charges of kidnapping two Afghan children.
When the provincial assembly meets next month the authorities will press ahead with the next stage of their campaign. They will introduce a law creating a new body modelled on the Taliban's "ministry for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice".
This will have sweeping powers to intervene in any area of life and uphold "Islamic standards". The law will also create a parallel police and judicial system to implement a Sharia Law Act passed by the provincial assembly last year.
"This is the most dangerous development," said Afrasiab Khattak, from the Pakistan Human Rights Commission. "It will allow the government to intervene in anything, without challenge from the courts." The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal coalition which runs the provincial government insists that there is no cause for concern. Malik Zafar Azam, the justice and parliamentary affairs minister, shies away from comparisons with the Taliban and points out the Islamists won 67 of the local assembly's 124 seats in free elections in 2002.
"We are doing what the people want us to do," he said. "We have given them security. You can go where you want in safety here."
The Islamists have also pledged to segregate tertiary education by building a new women's university in Peshawar, with women forced to wear veils. "The value of a person is in one's mind, not in what one wears," said Saman Mushtaq, 20, a business studies student at Peshawar University.
"They should not impose the veil upon us."
Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited