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A composite of some of the paintings that caused the controversy (image via (click to enlarge)

Facing criticism and threats from hardline Islamists, the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan, has shut down an academic journal that published a series of homosexually suggestive paintings. The college pulled the issues from bookstores and dissolved the journal’s editorial board, but that board and the head of the school, as well as an art critic who wrote an accompanying essay and the artist, still face a potential lawsuit on charges of blasphemy, the Associated Press reports.

The paintings by artist Muhammad Ali show Muslim clerics and teenage boys in homoerotic scenes, a combination that AP writer Asif Shazhad calls “deeply taboo” in Pakistan. In one work, a cleric reclines in front of a Muslim shrine, which features verses from the Quran, while holding a book by Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho and lighting a cigarette for a boy who sits at the cleric’s feet; according to the AP description, the boy is naked, although if the painting is one of the images we found online (see left), the boy appears to be shirtless but wearing pants. Aasim Akhtar, the critic potentially included in the suit, wrote that Ali’s imagery was “deliberately, violently profane” in an attempt to challenge Pakistan’s widespread homophobia.

Images of the paintings were published in the academic journal last summer. The response was ugly: the group Jamaat-ud-Dawa issued a statement demanding that the college withdraw all the issues and provide a public apology; a lawyer named Mumtaz Mangat  petitioned in court for blasphemy charges; and college staff members began receiving threatening text messages.

Shazhad writes that the school has long been a strong liberal voice in Pakistan, and its response to the current controversy is dismaying. The biggest problem is that not just threats but acts of violence have become increasingly common throughout the country, making it harder for liberals to stand their ground. In Shazhad’s words:

The government is caught up in a war against a domestic Taliban insurgency and often seems powerless to protect its citizens. At other times it has acquiesced to hardline demands because of fear, political gain or a convergence of beliefs.

“Now you have gun-toting people out there on the streets,” said Saleema Hashmi, a former head of arts college. “You don’t know who will kill you. You know no one is there to protect you.”

This seems particularly pertinent given the news that Malala Yousufzai, the 15-year-old girl shot in the head by members of the Taliban last fall for promoting girls’ education, has been released from the hospital. Doctors are optimistic about Yousufzai’s chances for recovery, but she will enter the hospital next month “for another round of surgery to rebuild her skull.” More and more, it sounds like being a liberal voice in Pakistan is becoming an increasingly life-threatening prospect.

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...