The road not taken in Pakistan

“History can be dangerous,” Shahid Nadeem, Pakistan’s leading playwright, wrote to me, and he was not just speaking philosophically. His historical plays such as Dara and Bulha, both of which portray Sufi heroes from Indo-Pakistan history, have landed him in trouble with Pakistani authorities.

Dara, the first South Asian play ever to be performed at London’s most prestigious venue, the National Theatre, initially was banned in Pakistan. The Minister of Culture was concerned that Nadeem might make Aurangzeb, the younger brother of the play’s hero Dara Shikoh look badly, but the Senate Committee for culture overruled him, and the play premiered in Lahore in 2010. Imagine if the British Parliament censored a play about Henry VIII, and then allowed it to go forward as long as the playwright did not make Henry look as if he were unkind to women, and you have an idea of the charge given to Nadeem. After all, Aurangzeb delivered the head of his brother Dara to their father Shah Jahan, imprisoned by Aurangzeb in Agra Fort. Hard to sugar coat.

Why was a play about an actual episode in Indo-Pakistan history so threatening? The conflict between Dara, the eldest son of Shah Jahan, the Mughal Emperor best known for building the Taj Mahal, and his younger sibling Aurangzeb, mirrors the struggle for Pakistan’s identity today — between moderates who believe in tolerance, diversity, and creative expression, and the religious fundamentalists and extremists who condemn non-Muslims and would ban music, the arts, and rights for women.

Performing Dara also is threatening because Pakistan’s official history obscures him, and emphasizes his brother Aurangzeb and his adherence to strict sharia law. General Zia ul-Huq, who seeded the extremism of today’s Pakistan with his severe, authoritarian version of Islam, was inspired by Aurangzeb’s example. Since Zia’s time, images of Aurangzeb hang in many government offices. Outside the educated elite, Dara and his Sufi version of Islam — emphasizing pluralism and the arts — is little known.

Dara, like many of Nadeem’s plays from Burquavaganza (a satire on covering up in every sense) to Bulha (on the 18th century Sufi poet and humanist Bulleh Shah), challenges the government’s endorsement of the so-called Islamicization of Pakistani society. A particularly dark dimension of this approach has been the accommodation/support of the “good” Taliban. Shahid Nadeem’s plays truly threaten the official narrative because his theater company, Ajoka, performs for free, and draws large crowds that extend deep into society, well beyond the elite, who also attend.

The most compelling scene of the play — Dara’s trial for apostasy — pits two conflicting interpretations of Islam against each other: Aurangzeb’s puritanism versus Dara’s Sufism. The choice presented in the play is easily translated to the present: will Pakistan continue to tolerate attacks on Christians and Shiites, as well as individuals such as Salman Taseer, Malala Yousafzai, and Sabeen Mahmud continue or will the country honor its Sufi, pluralist past and let diversity and creativity flourish?

Another factor, the horrifying attack on the army school in Peshawar in December 2014, seems to have motivated the government to crackdown on the Taliban and other extremist groups. If there is a movement towards a more moderate — at least, less violent — version of Islam in Pakistan, history offers reinforcing support. The region’s greatest rulers accepted the diversity of the populations under their domain, and supported the flourishing of the arts for which the Mughal Empire is remembered.

This lesson applies equally to India, where intolerance of non-Hindus is on the rise, abetted by rhetoric from the government. Despite Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s protestations of tolerance, there have been recent attacks on churches and the Muslim minority.

One other way that Ajoka threatens the official Pakistani government line is in its capacity to bridge differences with India. Ajoka has been performing plays about the region’s shared history to enthusiastic crowds in India and Pakistan for over a decade. Shared history leads to shared visions for the future, or, at the very least, a more humanized view of the other.

As extremist attacks spread from Sydney to France to Kenya, and as recruits from the West are drawn to ISIS’s cult of violence in Syria and Iraq, governments search for effective antidotes to the pull of the fundamentalist message. No effective strategy for waging the ideological battle has yet emerged. This long-term struggle requires massive educational reform and an emphasis on critical thinking, but, more immediately, it requires effective, authentic counter-narratives — like Dara.

Human rights activist Peter Tatchell has argued that Dara, “a story that speaks to us in a world where modern-day Aurangzebs are raining down murder and mayhem in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and elsewhere… [it] should be on the national curriculum alongside Shakespeare.” Why? Dara presents an Islam rarely seen in the media — pluralistic, compassionate, and humanistic — that offers a different path for Muslims and counters negative stereotypes for non-Muslims.

Alternative Islamic cultural narratives can be found in every region. Mali — with its vibrant musical sounds (“the big bang of all the music we love,” according to Bono) and the humanistic and scientific traditions of Timbuktu, the center of Islamic learning during the Renaissance — offers compelling and enlightened alternatives to the nihilism of al-Shabaab and Boko Haram. The Timbuktu Renaissance project (which I co-direct) seeks to spread the word about this pluralistic, creative version of Islam through concerts and festivals, film, television, social media, and an international museum exhibition.

ISIS and different versions of Islamic extremism are capturing the imaginations of youth around the world. Alternative heroes and authentic stories can be equally seductive, but they have to be made accessible.

As ISIS floods the Internet, counter-narratives like those of Mali and Dara must also be spread. A film version of the National Theatre’s Dara will help extend its message throughout England. Although this is a good start, Shahid Nadeem believes more is needed: “The conversation has already started among the British Muslim youth, the mainstream theatre-goers, the highbrow theatre critics. But the momentum can only be kept if the play tours Britain and beyond and the conversation becomes a movement: a movement to relate to the true spirit of Islam and true face of Pakistan,” he told me.

Dara the play and Dara Shikoh the person offer the foundation for a different path for Pakistan. It is unclear if the country will take it, but filling the educational void around figures like Dara, and bringing the country’s Sufi heritage into the political and intellectual discourse can only help.

This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy.