The Lal Topi brigade has released a video showing delegates of the South Asian Free Media Association (Safma) dancing together. Not just dancing, but mixed dancing — men and women, Pakistanis and Indians, all dancing together. Haw hai! Not surprisingly, the soundtrack to the video seems to have been stolen from the more melancholy portions of Pakeezah!
From the comments appended to the video on YouTube, it seems as if many people agree that public dancing is a sign that Pakistan has gone to the dogs and that Safma is evidently part of a giant conspiracy against our beloved country. My question today is this: what is the connection between dancing and anti-state behaviour?
Some years ago, Pakistan won the T20 World Cup. That night, my family and I did the Lahori thing, which is to say we celebrated by driving around with our horns blaring. What I remember from that night though is that at different points along the impromptu parade route, young boys had simply parked their cars and were dancing with joy in the spotlighted stage created by the headlights of their vehicles. So it is an undeniable fact that we dance for joy. More specifically, it is an undeniable fact that young, Muslim, patriotic Pakistani males dance for joy. Why then are we so uptight about dancing?
Let us begin with the simple fact that we Pakistanis are not alone in our predilection for dancing when happy. Everybody dances the world over. Let me repeat that: every single culture dances for joy. Even the Saudis have their own national dance called the al ardha (or sword dance). More importantly, everybody has always danced for joy. Archeologists have found evidence of dance in the 9,000-year-old rock shelter paintings in Bhimbetka; one of the most famous artifacts of the Indus Valley culture is a 5,000 year old bronze statuette of a dancing girl; and pictures of dancers are ubiquitous from the ancient Egyptians onwards. So why are so many of us now convinced that dancing is evil?
The answer to this question is that we are continuously told by so-called religious scholars that Islam forbids dancing, especially ‘mixed’ dancing. Because mixed dancing can lead to ‘like like’, and ‘like like’ can lead to... well, you get the point.
Since I have no pretensions of being a religious scholar, I will leave the heavy theological lifting to others. Let me, however, make a few simple points. Religion is not culture. Yes, the two do get mixed up, but the argument that there is only one proper way of following a religion is self-evidently false. Muslims live the world over. While they have much in common, there is also much that they do not share. The lives of Indonesian Muslims are radically different from subcontinental Muslims, which are in turn different from the lives of Middle Eastern Muslims, which are different from the lives of West African Muslims, which are again different from the lives of the vast majority of Muslims living in North Africa. When we insist that all Muslims conform to one particular cultural model, what we are saying instead is that everybody who doesn’t order his life according to the cultural practices of Saudi Arabia is not a good Muslim. And that is an approach doomed to failure.
Secondly, there is only so much that laws can accomplish in the face of basic human desires. According to philosopher John Finnis, appreciation of beauty is one of the seven intrinsically valuable basic goods in life. In other words, just as we seek knowledge for its own sake, we seek beauty for its sake. These are things which are ‘self-evidently good’ and no amount of social conditioning is ever truly going to eradicate that primeval desire to get up and boogie.
Thirdly, it is particularly asinine, in the specific case of Pakistan, to try and insist upon a peculiarly narrow vision of Islam which forbids all mixing between the sexes and which treats dancing as forbidden. It is not in dispute that Pakistan is a society at war, facing an existential struggle in which the bad guys are people who have a particularly narrow and violent vision of Islam. Yet, at the same time, we are a society whose leaders lack the courage to tell our enemies that we are indeed different from them. Imagine an England in which Churchill kept on reassuring Hitler that Nazism was a truly wonderful philosophy but would he please just focus his anger on other countries instead. How long do you think English resistance would have lasted then?
The point is that nations under attack need to defend themselves ideologically as well as militarily. In our case, we are certainly making efforts on the military front but we are completely supine on the ideological front. More importantly, the position we’ve taken is one in which we are outflanked by the Taliban. As somebody already noted, our jawans are being sent off to fight and to shout Allahu Akbar against people who have been trained to shout Allahu Akbar a lot louder. No wonder then we’re confused.
Our current situation is that we have disowned most of our heritage, choosing instead to reaffirm only those bits that we share with the people trying to kill us. The obvious solution then is to reaffirm our entire heritage, even the bits that we share with the infidels across the border. I’m not just talking about bhangra sessions: I’m talking about qawwalis, raags and naats; Waris Shah recitals and khattak dances and all of the things that the millions in this country do to make themselves happy.
Let me put this more simply. One of the cardinal sins of military strategy is to get stuck in a two-front war. Currently, Pakistan is stuck in exactly such a war. One front is the war against the Taliban and their sympathisers. The other front is the war by the state against every iota of our heritage which is not Wahabi sanctioned. We need to choose which front is more important. Or else, the Taliban will make that choice for us.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 6th, 2011.