LAHORE — Pakistan's second city, widely considered to be the country's cultural capital, is undergoing gradual but unsettling change.
For hundreds if not thousands of years a bastion of social and cultural life for not only the region but the world, the city has become a soft target for those who disagree with the Pakistani government and its policies, or with society at large.
Terrorists and militants no longer see a reason to limit their attacks to security forces and government institutions and they now increasingly see value in targets of deep cultural significance.
Ayeda Naqvi, a writer based in Lahore says she believes such attacks "aren't just isolated acts of terrorism."
In November last year, Naqvi was at the "Al-Hamra" open air theater in Lahore to see her favorite mystical Pakistani folk singer perform at the World Performing Arts Festival. The festival which showcased Pakistani artists and others from around the world was attacked with handful of planted bombs on its final night. Such acts of terrorism are "part of a larger effort to wipe the slate of Pakistani culture clean," Naqvi said.
While threatening video stores and burning CDs and tapes has been a trademark of the Taliban since their heyday in Afghanistan during the 1990s, the targeting of public places in Pakistani cities has spiked in the past few months.
An attack on a visiting cricket team earlier this month in Lahore was only the most recent example. Sports also became a target in the city of Peshawar in November last year, when a suicide bomb killed three people at a crowded stadium. The bomb went off as fireworks lit the sky at the closing ceremony of a national sports event in which athletes from all provinces of the country competed.
Also in Peshawar, this month, the shrine of Sufi Saint Rahman Baba was bombed in the middle of the night leaving the centuries old structure in ruin. A newspaper called it "an attack on
In August last year, back in Lahore, a suicide bombing in a busy marketplace killed three people as crowds poured into the streets before midnight to celebrate Pakistan's independence day.
With such attacks, terrorists are involved in their own "terrorism as theater," says Stephen Cohen, a South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
Some militant groups, he says, appear "interested in expanding the cultural war against the people rather than fighting a strategic war," against the state.
But while Lahoris and Pakistanis in many cities and towns continue to feel insecure in ways they never have before, followers of Sufi Islam, which has been indigenous to large parts of South Asia for centuries, continue to practice their centuries old traditions with a passion and vigor that suggests cultural resilience might just win the day.
At the Shrine of Saint Shah Jamal, in the center of Lahore each Thursday night, a centuries old tradition is still going strong. The ceremony offers a refuge to many from the worries of the outside world but it might also prove to be crucial to maintaining, or even restoring, the cultural fabric of this proud cultural capital.
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