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Paintings of Muslim clerics spark uproar among Islamist hard-liners in Pakistan

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By The Associated Press
Friday, Dec. 28, 2012, 7:02 p.m.
 

LAHORE, Pakistan — Pakistan's leading arts college has pushed boundaries before in this conservative nation. But when a series of paintings depicting Muslim clerics in scenes with strong homosexual overtones sparked an uproar and 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 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 hard-liners to enforce their views on members of the population who disagree, often with the threat of violence.

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 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.

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. 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.”

“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.

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