LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan's leading arts college has pushed boundaries before in this conservative nation. But when an uproar erupted over a series of paintings depicting Muslim clerics in scenes with strong homosexual overtones, prompting threats of violence by Islamic extremists, it was too much.
Officials at the National College of Arts in the eastern city of Lahore shut down its academic journal, which published the paintings, pulled all its issues out of bookstores and dissolved its editorial board. Still, a court is currently considering whether the paintings' artist, the journal's board and the school's head can be charged with blasphemy.
The college's decision to cave to Islamist pressure underscores how space for progressive thought is shrinking in Pakistan as hardline interpretations of Islam gain ground. It was also a marked change for an institution that has long been one of the leading defenders of liberal views in the country.
Pakistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, and the majority of its citizens have long been fairly conservative. But what has grown more pronounced in recent years is the power of religious hardliners to enforce their views on members of the population who disagree, often with the threat of violence.
The government is caught up in a war against a domestic Taliban insurgency and often seems powerless to protect its citizens. At other times it has acquiesced to hardline demands because of fear, political gain or a convergence of beliefs.
"Now you have gun-toting people out there on the streets," said Saleema Hashmi, a former head of arts college. "You don't know who will kill you. You know no one is there to protect you."
The uproar was sparked when the college's Journal of Contemporary Art and Culture over the summer published pictures of a series of paintings by artist Muhammad Ali.
Particularly infuriating to conservatives were two works that they said insulted Islam by mixing images of Muslim clerics with suggestions of homosexuality, which is deeply taboo in Pakistan.
One titled "Call for Prayer" shows a cleric and a shirtless young boy sitting beside each other on a cot. The cleric fingers rosary beads as he gazes at the boy, who seductively stretches backward with his hands clasped behind his head.
Mumtaz Mangat, a lawyer who petitioned the courts to impose blasphemy charges, argued the image implied the cleric had "fun" with the boy before conducting the traditional Muslim call for prayer.
A second painting shows the same cleric reclining in front of a Muslim shrine, holding a book by Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho in one hand as he lights a cigarette for a young boy with the other. A second young boy, who is naked with his legs strategically crossed to cover his genitals, sits at the cleric's feet. The painting has caused particular uproar because verses from Islam's holy book, the Quran, appear on the shrine.
Aasim Akhtar, an Islamabad-based art critic who wrote an essay accompanying the paintings in the journal, wrote that Ali's mixing of images was "deliberately, violently profane," aimed at challenge "homophobic" beliefs that are widespread in Pakistani society.
"Ali redefines the divine through a critique of authority and the hypocrisy of the cleric," wrote Akhtar, an Islamabad-based art critic who is also listed as a potential defendant in the blasphemy complaint.
Jamaat-ud-Dawa, widely believed to be a front for the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group, issued a statement after the paintings were published demanding the college issue a public apology and withdraw all issues of the journal.
College staff members also began receiving anonymous text messages threatening violence, said a member of the journal's editorial board. They were afraid to push back for fear of being killed, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted.
Extremists gunned down two prominent Pakistani politicians last year for speaking out against the country's harsh blasphemy laws, which can mean life in prison or even death. Human rights activists have criticized the laws, saying they are often used to persecute religious minorities or settle personal scores.
Yahya Mujahid, the spokesman for Jamaat-ud-Dawa, denied the group sent any threats but said the state should punish those responsible.
"It's part of Western and American plans to malign Islam," claimed Mujahid.
A court considering whether to press blasphemy charges held its latest session in mid-December, but it has not said when it will rule whether such charges apply in the case.
Shahram Sarwar, a lawyer representing the college's editorial board, said his clients did not intend to hurt anyone's feelings but he was prepared to apologize on their behalf if they did.
Besides shutting down the journal, the college also closed the department where its staff worked, said Sarwar.
The current head of the National Arts College, Shabnam Khan, denied the institution caved to pressure from hardliners, saying the editorial staff quit voluntarily. She said the department was closed because no one was left to run it.
A member of the editorial board disputed this version of events, saying the college administration asked him and his colleagues to resign. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted by extremists.
The school has long been a progressive voice. A research project at the college in 2008 focused on the idea that rising Islamic conservatism and violent religious fanaticism was a fundamental threat to peace and democracy in Pakistan. In the 1980s, when former dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq, a notorious Islamist, ordered all female students and teachers to cover their hair, the college pushed back.
Individual graduates have pushed the envelope with their work. Amra Khan's latest work, which was exhibited at the college and a gallery in Karachi this year, included Muslim veils embroidered with a pink Playboy bunny and The Rolling Stones' big red lips logo.
Evidence of the growing influence of Islamic hardliners abounds in Pakistan. In September, clerics wielding sticks forced their way into a wedding reception in the southern city of Ghotki to stop the guests from singing and dancing. A different set of clerics forced a five-star hotel to cancel a planned concert in August in the northwest town of Bhurban because they argued the music was counter to Islam.
Hardliners have had success influencing Pakistani institutions as well. The Supreme Court ordered the country's media regulatory body in August to look into blocking "vulgar" and "obscene" content on TV in response to a petition filed by conservative Islamists.
In November, the government's telecommunications arm banned late-night cell phone call packages, saying they encouraged immoral behavior by young people. The government banned YouTube earlier this year because of an anti-Islam video posted on the site, and one of the country's highest courts has blocked access to Facebook twice because of material considered anathema to Islam.
Khan, the head of the college, refused to discuss the case in more detail because of the court proceedings, but said that people across the political spectrum were becoming more alarmed by the use of violence to enforce views.
"I have heard recently even from conservative people that enough is enough," said Khan. "It is wrong that people interfere in others' lives, that people interfere in others' beliefs."