Abbottabad: The city that once stood against intolerance now welcomes it
Abbottabad, the capital of the Abbottabad District in the Hazara region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), is probably the second most important city of the province after Peshawar. It is a city of many famous tourist spots, as well as one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country.
Most importantly, it is a city that prides itself on education, with some of the most prominent universities in Pakistan being found here, including the Ayub Teaching Hospital and the Pakistan Military Academy. Thus, it is not surprising to expect Abbottabad to be a city of tolerance, open-mindedness and acceptance.
Unfortunately, this is no longer the case.
Last month, the 7Up Foodies Festival was held in Abbottabad, which was meant to be a fun event celebrating local food, culture and music. When the event was announced, the people of the city were ecstatic and excited as we’ve never really had an event like this before. Though concerts are organised in the city, they are mostly indoors and for a limited and selected audience only.
However, from the day the festival was announced, it drew criticism from the religious parties of the region, and keeping this in mind the event was restricted to families only.
The first day of the event ran smoothly, giving the people great food as well as great music at the concert that followed. The crowd was amazing, mainly because a large number of people attended it along with their families. There appeared to be a shared feeling of joy at the fact that this city too could now enjoy the entertainment that was previously restricted to cities like Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi.
However, this feeling of joy would not last long.
After the first day, the event drew stern criticism from right-wing groups, mainly due to it not being a segregated event. They complained that this gender mixing is against the cultural norms of the Hazara Division, and thus will not be tolerated. They then demanded that the district administration cancel the event altogether.
The liberal section of the city came forward to support the festival. They suggested it is hypocritical of such groups to not target the myriad of problematic things that are against our culture and yet continue to take place in the city, but take up issue over a harmless and decent family gathering.
Nonetheless, a day later, the district administration along with the police forced the organisers to cancel the concert to maintain peace and order in the city, as the religious crowd grew increasingly angry and threatened with consequences.
The event was finally restricted to food stalls alone, but even this didn’t sit well with them and an angry mob rampaged and vandalised the event, breaking the stage and the stalls and beating the organisers as well as the attendees. The police silently watched all this and let it happen, making an event that started with great excitement end in such a harrowing manner.
This really was an extremely disappointing development. Those who were excited earlier and expected more of such events to take place in the city are now apprehensive and wonder if anyone will ever organise such festivals in Abbottabad again, mainly due to the threat and uncertainty associated with doing so.
This was yet another incident of growing intolerance in Pakistan by religious extremists, the likes of which are frequently witnessed all across the country. The country has, after all, been nurturing this mindset ever since General Zia’s Islamisation began, and we are yet to come out of it.
Abbottabad, a city previously known for its tolerance, has also not been lucky enough to escape this plague. It wasn’t always like this.
Back in the 70s, women in Abbottabad could freely come and march on the streets in protest. Today, the Aurat March that visited many cities of Pakistan could not happen here. A city that previously had two cinemas now has zero. This is now a city that welcomes intolerance, when previously it would have stood up against it.
This is also not the first time in recent years that such an event was cancelled in the city. Over the past years, New Year celebrations have been cancelled many times by the district administration because of threats from religious parties. As mentioned earlier, while concerts do take place in the city, they are mostly indoors or in the auditoriums of educational institutes.
The terrorism that plagued K-P and the tribal belt may not have directly affected Abbottabad, but the radicalisation of the region has not spared this city. It is also directly impacted by the influx of people from surrounding areas affected by terrorism, who come here for better opportunities and a better life but also add to how conservative and intolerant the city has become.
Now that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government has launched its tourism policy and is committed to promoting a softer image of the country to the world, it needs to also add efforts to restrict the growing intolerance and radical mindset in the country. Only then can any tourism policy become successful.
As Pakistan decides to move forward and leave its violent past behind, we must accept a progressive path and teach compassion and tolerance to our people. After all, those who cannot accept a simple food festival without breaking into riots are perhaps not ready to welcome foreign tourists with open arms.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.