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.
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."
Actually, if they're young boys we're talking pedophilia, which is not uncommon in any religion, but the easily offended have decided that this constitutes blasphemy, even though it has nothing specifically to do with either the Quran or their prophet Mohammed. Lawyer Mumtaz Mangat has therefore petitioned the courts to pursue blasphemy charges against the artist, the journal's board, the head of the school and the critic Akhtar, even though as a result of the threats the college said bye-bye to the editorial staff, stopped publishing the journal, and removed all remaining magazines from stores. Exactly what the radicals wanted and demanded, though it seems they'd like a little blood added to the equation, including a public apology.
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.
It seems Pakistan has become the wild west of the East. It's quite normal for mobs of vigilantes to take the law into their own hands, but in most cases it's usually innocent people they murder. According to former head of the college Saleema Hashmi:
"Now you have gun-toting people out there on the streets." "You don't know who will kill you. You know no one is there to protect you."
Although the hard-liners Jamaat-ud-Dawa deny it, staff members of the college claim they received threats via text message. And though the college head Shabnam Khan says the editorial board quit of their own volition, one of the staff members said they were told to resign. If they did cave, it's a sad day for the college considering they've fought back before.
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.
If people continue to kowtow to the extremists, we can say goodbye to our freedom.