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Lahore’s “Wall of Tolerance”

Inteha pasandi ab nahin” (no more extremism) was the refrain heard as Pakistanis marched from Lahore’s Jinnah Hospital to Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park.

In that park this past Easter, a Pakistani Taliban faction had killed 78 people and injured more than 300. When Pakistan was created in 1947, the green on the national flag was chosen to represent Islam, while the white was reserved for religious minorities. At a recent anti-terror rally in Lahore, red, representing bloodshed, spilled across the white part of the flag as attendees recited the names of the dead.

Pakistanis have grown weary of brazen attacks in public spaces and on the most vulnerable groups: schoolchildren, religious minorities, and the economically marginalised. Since the Easter Day suicide bombing singled out Pakistan’s 2.5 million-strong Christian community for attack, a group of Pakistani artists, students and activists have gathered in Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park to create the Wall of Tolerance, an Urdu-language art mural expressing tolerance and inter-faith harmony. The project, organised by the leftist Democratic Students Alliance (DSA), was held in conjunction with a public demonstration against terrorism. Participants raised their voices to shout slogans against extremism, arranged open-mics, and heard words by the revolutionary poets Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib.

'Wall of Tolerance', Lahore, 2016 by Maham Iqbal Bosan

At the rally, the mural’s designer Shehzil Malik told me the group had received heartening responses from passers-by, policemen and ordinary families alike, many of whom lived in the neighborhood of the attack.

“Grief was shared and tea was offered, which is the most wonderfully Pakistani thing to do,” Malik said. “This was my second time doing public art for a subject so emotional,” referencing her prior work with artist Shilo Shiv Suleman in Lahore’s Anarkali Bazaar. “Shilo taught us the process of mural painting, but most of all she taught me the value of staying positive in the face of adversity and using public art to heal collectively.”

“Public art takes this sharing to the place where it probably matters most: to the streets,” Malik adds. “One can only hope this is art that counters violence. I felt it was important to send a message of love and empathy, and not channel the anger we all feel at the horrific events that occurred.”

I spoke to some participants about what had brought them to Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park. Maham Bosan, a 21-year-old student, said the project was her “bit in bringing some sort of hope in the eyes of all the children who would pass by this park.” Anwar, a student from Lahore, described the project as a gesture of solidarity to the Christian community in Lahore, reclaiming a space made ugly by terrorism. “People just want to be able to go to school, to the market, to a park with their kids without fearing for their lives,” she said.

From open mics to sit-ins, DSA has painted murals, arranged flowers, and provided other solidarity gestures in support of vulnerable communities. In December 2015, the group staged a ‘die-in’ at Lahore’s Charing Cross to mark the anniversary of the 2014 Peshawar school massacre, as well as recognise the death of every Pakistani killed in a terrorist incident in that one year. The group has used the demonstrations — candlelight vigils, human chains, protests — to amplify the voices of resistance against terror.

“We want to make sure we do not give into apathy or participate in the normalisation of these attacks,” Anwar said. “We understand, however, that at times apathy is a survival mechanism in a society wracked by trauma.” Still, “engaging in creative forms of protest will encourage more people to participate in these small resistances against terror and apathy. We wanted to reclaim the space that terrorism had tried to take,” she said. “We see violence in public spaces in both the response to terror and the normalised intolerance that is quietly complicit in terrorism that targets specific religious or ethnic minorities. Art, like this wall, takes up public space. Public space is always contested ground for those resisting power and the status quo.”

Anti-terrorism rallies represent a new form of collective resistance to violence in the metropolis, according to organisers. Anwar says the gathering elicited widespread approval, with spectators raising their fists, saluting their hands, and passers-by even joining the group during the march.

Wall of Tolerance, Lahore, 2016 by Maham Iqbal Bosan

This recent demonstration falls under the umbrella of Ab Nahi (Not Now) mobilisations DSA has organised to articulate opposition to illiberal trends in Pakistan, including discrimination against persecuted religious groups such as Ahmadis, and rape trivialisation. According to Anwar, it is not radical to oppose terrorism. “These mobilisations after terrorist attacks are never about simply saying ‘terrorism must stop,’” she says. “Any sort of mobilisation tries to say ab nahi to the political apathy we see around us in a society constantly traumatised with terror, it says ab nahi to the devaluation of human life, ab nahi to hyper-militarisation as a response, and ab nahi to being complicit in extremism through everyday intolerance.”

This article originally appeared in White Noise (UK).

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Published in Pakistan