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Pakistan’s cultural capital in Taliban’s sights: Lahore, shaken but not stirred

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Residents of Lahore like to think their metropolis is a cut above the rest of Pakistan — a hallowed centre of education, intellectual thought and a cultural bell-wether. Students mill around the quiet, hilltop grounds of Government College University in the shadow of 19th century spires, while risque art and a booming theatre scene provoke debate in bohemian galleries and cafes.

At the gates of the university, however, a police officer barricaded behind sandbags trains his assault rifle on the entrance. Students say they fear their journey to school in the mornings.

“I am scared when going to any area where security is concentrated. If I pass a police or army vehicle, I go fast,” said 20-year-old history student Mateeullah Tareen. “But you can’t just sit at home.”

The traits Lahoris value in this city of nearly eight million put it in the crosshairs of the Taliban and other insurgent groups: five militant strikes this year have killed more than 70 people. “They (the militants) want to destabilise Pakistan,” said Tahir Kamran, who heads the university’s history department

“Lahore is very, very important. In many ways it’s more important than Islamabad and Karachi because of culture, because now it has become the knowledge centre — opinion is formed mostly from Lahore.””

Police roadblocks have sprung up across the city, but on the surface Lahore gives no impression of being cowed by fear, unlike Peshawar, where devastating suicide blasts have emptied public markets.

Schoolgirls sit cross-legged and giggling on the floor of Lahore’s museum filling sketchbooks with drawings of relics, while in the evenings crowds flock to see bawdy comedies at the theatre.

But Lahore is also blighted by the poverty that engulfs much of the country. Blinkered donkeys battle through indignities of the city’s choking traffic, their drivers in dust-caked clothing perched perilously on carts. Beggars haul themselves between vehicles at traffic lights, hopefully tapping on car windows.

History professor Kamran says that for all Lahore’s pretensions and intellectual elitism, most of the residents struggle with daily hardships, while there is a strong undercurrent of religious conservatism. “Lahore can offer (the militants) far more assistance because right-wing politics has been very, very strong throughout the history,” he said.

Although most Taliban attacks hit the northwest and are plotted in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, he says Islamist extremism has taken root in Punjab, the most populous province in Pakistan, of which Lahore is the capital.

In the university’s politics department, lecturer Ahmad Raza Khan says rising unemployment and Punjab’s spluttering industry create an army of disenfranchised men and potential militant recruits. “In Lahore, you can find many people who will be ready to kill somebody or die if they are given an amount of money,” he said. “If anybody has his pockets filled with money on one side, and grenades and ammunition in the other side, it becomes easy. I’m not saying they are doing it, but logically it becomes easy.”

Police chief Muhammad Pervez Rathore, however, puts on a brave face. He says reports of rising extremism in Punjab “is not a correct assessment” and says the city is functioning normally. Asked what measures police are taking to protect Lahore citizens, he looks weary and jokes: “We are praying for the long life of the suicide bombers.” Afp

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