Transcending Fundamentalism – The Lahore Literary Festival

Reports from Afghanistan this week tell of of gunmen storming Kabul University just before the opening of a book fair. It reminds me of similar anti-cultural violence in Pakistan in 2015. Just two days before the Lahore Literary Festival was due to begin, a suicidal fanatic had blown himself up nearby. Officials tried to cancel the event but the organizers refused to be intimidated. Both the army and police vowed to provide protection. Some foreign ambassadors declined to attend, but over the course of three days thousands of Pakistanis and guests from around the world joined in a resounding repudiation of fanaticism and barbarism.

A good Pakistani friend had made it possible for me to visit Lahore after a conference in Karachi. I had long wanted to go because it’s a legendary centre of culture, mentioned in western literature ranging from John Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost” to Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim”. A day after attending the memorable sunset ceremony at nearby Wagah Crossing, my hosts and I immersed ourselves in some of Lahore’s rich culture; admiring student thesis exhibitions at the National College of Arts, attending the Lahore Literary Festival and ending the day dining atop the historic Haveli Khalil Khan, a restaurant and art gallery overlooking Lahore’s Badshahi mosque, once largest in the world.

We were aware of the bombing two days earlier of course but, if anything, that made us more determined to attend. Passing through armed checkpoints, searches and metal detectors, we emerged into the spacious grounds of the Alhamra Art Centre where hundreds were celebrating prose, poetry, music, visual arts and healthy debate, albeit under the watchful eyes of rooftop snipers and unobtrusive guards.

The festival, free and open to the public, was as far from many western stereotypes about Pakistan as could be imagined. The keynote address was given by an Indian historian. One session was entitled Fifty Shades of Feminism. The American feminist who created Vagina Monologues discussed her recent memoir. A Jewish American author discussed his book “The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family”. Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamad was there — his novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” should be recommended reading for anyone trying to understand that phenomenon. I was delighted to spend some time chatting with Aminatta Forna, the Scottish-Sierra Leonean author who signed my copy of “The Hired Man”, her novel about Croatia in the aftermath of the war with which I had some experience. Galleries displayed art on themes ranging from the beautiful to the political. The smell of outdoor cooking and music of ghazals filled the air. It was more than just an enjoyable day. It was a privilege to join thousands of good people, determined that crude fanaticism, violence and barbarity will not prevail.

With host at the Lahore Literary Festival, 2015

I do wish that people would stop dignifying suicidal murderers with the label of “islamist”. Pathological killers no more represent Islam (“submission” to “God, the Compassionate and Merciful”) than the Ku Klux Klan or doctor-killing gunmen represent Christianity (“Love God”. “Love your neighbour”. Unconditionally. That’s all.). For that matter, “jihadist” should be out too. In Islam, the ideal of  jihad refers to internal spiritual struggle, not killing innocents. Gunmen, bombers and knife-wielders are pathological killers  — period! Justifying themselves with isolated texts taken out of context just proves that they are also theological illiterates.

Nor should we label them “fundamentalists”. Fundamentalism was (and is) an American Protestant movement developed in the late 19th and early 20th Century, arguing that accepting the Bible as literally true and without error is fundamental to being Christian. It continues to flourish today. A non-partisan survey of more than 35,000 Americans in 2014 revealed that 31% still held that belief. That hasn’t changed. About one third of Americans still believe that the Bronze Age allegories and legends in the book of Genesis are literal science and authoritative history – and most own guns. As writer Ronald Wright observed back in 2008, and as recent politics corroborate, America itself has “drifted a long way from the mainstream of western civilization.”

Pakistan’s sophisticated and eclectic Lahore Literary Festival still flourishes despite threats from ideologues, murderers, and now a global pandemic. Long may tolerant, cosmopolitan culture prevail. Everywhere.

Dinner overlooking Badshahi Mosque (