Pakistan's Islamist tide pushed back on Lahore campus

Lahore, Pakistan - She may be a model of Islamic modesty beneath her headscarf, but Nilofar has no time for religious political students who would dictate how she dresses, who she talks to, and what she can and can't study.

The willowy 21-year-old is taking a masters in fine arts at Punjab University, where the student wing of Pakistan's most influential Islamist party tried to prevent the introduction of a musicology and performing arts department last September.

"It's not right that they stop people from doing music and theater," says Nilofar, who gave only her first name, standing in Lahore's Alhamra Gallery, dressed in a traditional black shalwar kameez outfit.

Lahore is home to some of the most liberal as well as the most puritanical parts of society, and after growing up in a city regarded as Pakistan's cultural capital, Nilofar has just seen her first play, and she liked it.

"If they stop music today, tomorrow they will come after something else," she says with true Lahori spirit.

Her words would be sweet for President Pervez Musharraf's ears. The general who came to power in a coup in 1999 wants his Muslim nation to follow a path of enlightened moderation.

Pakistan's largest university is caught in switching currents, as Musharraf struggles to push back religious conservatism that gained ascendancy in the 1980s under the patronage of a general-cum-president, Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq.

Scrapping anything to do with religion takes a long time in Pakistan, and Musharraf made it even harder for himself by sidelining political parties that might support his agenda.

"We are in the process of a Renaissance, so it's going to take us some time," says Arshad Mahmood, a retired general appointed vice chancellor of Punjab University in 1999.

Eradicating extremism and militant tendencies, he says, ultimately depends on settling conflicts in the Islamic world.


While Mahmood speaks of a new epoch, he's saddled with a teaching and administrative staff whose loyalties lie with an Islamist party that became entrenched during the Zia years.

The stifling of leftist politics soon after Pakistan was formed 60 years ago created space for Islamist parties to flourish on campuses. They have been most successful in Punjab.

For decades, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), an Islamist party with links to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, systematically extended its grip over Punjab University, using its student wing, Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT), to influence appointments and promotions.

Mahmood can't sack them, there are too many and their jobs are too well protected, but in the last year there have been signs that Mahmood is slowly turning the wheel on the next generation.

The successful introduction of more arts programs, and a series of expulsions of disruptive IJT members, show the reformers are gaining the upper hand over Punjab University's puritans, who won't even let male and female students sit together at the open air tea shops on the leafy campus.

"We don't want Lahore to turn into another Peshawar," said Professor Muhammad Naeem Khan, the university's registrar, contrasting his hometown's vibrancy with the somber city in North West Frontier Province, where political clerics hold power.

Khan is upbeat after the Lahore High Court in February rejected an IJT student's appeal against expulsion, the third such time the court has backed the university authorities.

"Those religious parties are mourning the day when they had more influence," he says, adding that he plans to open new cafeterias to end the gender segregation outside the classroom.

While thankful of the IJT's dwindling stock, he rues a lack of political awareness on campus, the product of a ban on student unions or party affiliations brought in during the Zia years.

JI, which derives its street power from IJT, is the only major party to take student politics seriously, academics say.


The state-run university catering for lower middle class and poor has 25,000 students, of which, according to Khan, less than 1,000 are IJT sympathizers and only a few hundred are members.

The last time the IJT made people take notice was in November when a protest against Musharraf's policies resulted in buses being stoned and burned on the streets.

Recent IJT protests have had dismal turnouts, but it could be temporary, as many people believe its roots are too strong.

Defying a ban from the campus, Salman Ayub, an expelled nazim, or president, of the IJT campus met Reuters in a common room at the education department, while his lookouts kept watch.

"They may be right when they say that the IJT is declining in Punjab University, because the whole state machinery, from President Musharraf to a peon is against Islam and Islamic values," Ayub says calmly, offering tea and biscuits.

A dozen acolytes nod approvingly as Ayub derides Musharraf's "moderate Islam" and America's "anti-Muslim" foreign policy.

They look bashful when asked how they'll ever meet girls if they follow the austere moral code that the IJT endorses.

Registrar Khan believes while the current intake of students may be more observant Muslims than when he was a student in the 1970s, they are also more exposed to the modern world, a change he credits Musharraf with for liberalizing the media.

The number of headscarves, niqab and chaddar on display among women students on the campus testifies to the prevailing conservatism, but it tells a superficial story, he says.

"They are going back to their prayers and rituals, but I feel we are dealing with more open minded students," Khan explains.

Young women like Nilofar, who dances at home to songs by pop star Ricky Martin, might feel bolder, but it doesn't mean they are ready to let their hair down.

"I might even try acting -- with my headscarf on," she grins.