of the Prophet Day” last week, a mob in Karachi, Pakistan set the city’s largest and most popular movie theater on fire. A
that this was a violation of Pakistan’s tradition of … tolerance and diversity.
Tolerance, Up in Flames
By STEVE INSKEEP
September 25, 2012
FOR 65 years, the Nishat cinema stood in Karachi, Pakistan. A giant screen showed blockbuster films from around the world, reflecting Pakistan’s relative openness compared with neighboring Muslim nations. Vast billboards over the door featured handsome movie stars flanked by young women with revealing clothes and long, luxurious hair.
The cinema also symbolized the country’s resilience. Opened in 1947, the year of Pakistan’s independence, the Nishat became a landmark in a lively district of theaters, nightclubs and cafes. An Islamist dictator closed the bars and many theaters after 1977, but the Nishat survived. Crowds attended movies even though boys and girls who sat together risked harassment by religious conservatives.
The show went on until last Friday, when a mob set the Nishat on fire. Although it happened on “Love of the Prophet Day,” a state-sanctioned holiday devoted to protesting an anti-Muslim video made in the United States, the attack was the latest episode in a long-running pattern of self-destruction.
The Nishat fire shows just how much mob violence and misgovernment have damaged Pakistan. The attack wasn’t about American influence or anti-Muslim videos. Small numbers of Pakistanis are wrecking their country’s values and traditions. At the theater in 2010 I met Masih ul Hasan, who had been working there for 46 years. He led me from the ticket booth to a tiny office, where he pored over handwritten ledger books as he told of the theater’s constant adaptation.
The Nishat drew thousands to see films made in India, Pakistan and Hollywood—“Terminator 2,” Mr. Hasan’s favorite, played for 16 weeks. Pakistan’s Urdu-language movies were popular for a time; Bollywood movies were banned because of conflict with India, but later returned. The cinema stayed closed for days in December 2009 after a bomb exploded down the street but reopened in the new year for “Avatar,” which drew huge crowds for five weeks before the theater closed because of more violence. By the time of my visit the Nishat was busy again, with moviegoers’ motorcycles parked on the sidewalk, and street vendors waiting for the movie to end.
The theater was temporarily closed again last week when the mob broke through its gates. Neighborhood residents told me that rioters, including teenagers, stole soft drinks from the snack bar before starting the fire. The roof and a wall collapsed, leaving only the blackened Art Deco facade. As several Karachi theaters burned, The Express Tribune of Pakistan quoted a teenager declaring, “The United States doesn’t know who they have messed with.”
He was right, in a way. Until recently, virtually no Americans knew of the offending video, and American life will be completely unaffected by this supposed act of revenge. Nor will such acts wipe out supposedly decadent outside influences. As the number of cinemas has declined, people have been watching movies at home; and a law against Muslims’ drinking alcohol has not stopped alcohol from being consumed.
What the protesters really oppose, though they may not realize it, is the nature of their own country. Pakistan is a cultural crossroads with many languages and religious sects, and the Nishat’s eclectic screenings mirrored the nation. Cultural diversity, like alcohol, quietly persists, but it is being driven underground by intolerant brands of Islam. And the recent protests have severely damaged the freedom of expression for which earlier generations fought.
Pakistan’s history is one long struggle to speak out. Both India and Pakistan won independence thanks to decades of speech and expression that were offensive to the men in power. British viceroys and soldiers tried in vain to stop their nonviolent protests. Since 1947, Pakistanis have been ruled by military dictators four times. Except for one who died in office, those strongmen never surrendered until Pakistanis spoke out so fiercely that the army stepped aside.
Given this history, it’s no surprise that many Pakistanis are admirably frank about their country’s problems and speak with scorn about their government’s failings. This is as true of Islamists as it is of liberals. Members of every political group, including Islamists, recall times when their leaders were unjustly imprisoned for what they said.
Their imprisonment was part of another, more oppressive, strand of Pakistani history. Dictators threatened their critics with death. The government branded an entire Muslim sect, Ahmadis, heretical and decreed the death penalty for blasphemy. Today, real or imagined blasphemy is punished by the state, by mobs or by a government that plays to the mob, as happened last Friday.
Criticism opens the way for improvement—but it requires the freedom to speak. The protesters had every reason to be angry about the portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad in a cheap American video. But when they burned the Nishat cinema, they were burning a part of themselves.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR’s “Morning Edition” and the author of “Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi.”