PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani comedian Alamzeb Mujahid had bad news for his fans after being freed by Islamist militants who kidnapped him in Peshawar city last month.
“I’m retiring from showbiz,” Mujahid, whose stage name is Janaan, told a news conference without going into details about either the kidnapping or his reasons for quitting the stage.
Friends and colleagues were less circumspect.
They say Mujahid, an ethnic Pashtun, was kidnapped by Islamist vigilantes hell-bent on imposing Taliban-style values in North West Frontier Province (NWFP), a volatile region bordering Afghanistan.
A veteran of hundreds of theater and television plays, the slim, clean shaven 38-year-old actor has begun growing a beard for his life after comedy.
Reluctant to speak about his life-changing experience, Mujahid told Reuters he was joining Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim missionary group, to preach religion.
“God has fed me before and will continue to feed me now,” he said solemnly.
Mujahid was lucky.
Others who have fallen foul of militant morality squads, didn’t get a second chance.
Catalog OF MURDER
In January, a woman dancer, Shabana, was dragged onto the street and shot in the center of Mingora, a town in Swat, a valley about 130 km (80 miles) north of the capital Islamabad where militants are virtually in complete control.
Gunmen tried to kill Pashtun singer Sardar Yousafzai in Dir district as he returned home after performing at a wedding party in December. He escaped but his harmonium player, Anwar Gul, was killed and four other people were wounded in the attack.
The climate for anyone associated with the entertainment industry in the region turned hostile after Islamist parties rode to power in NWFP on a wave of anti-American sentiment following the U.S.-led invasion of neighboring Afghanistan in late 2001.
The disapproving Islamist parties banned music on public transport and had movie posters featuring women torn down.
Militants went a lot further.
At first, music shops in tribal areas such as Waziristan were blown up and then attacks spread across the northwest as the Islamist tide radiated outwards, toward cities and towns.
Last June, gun-totting Taliban fighters roamed Peshawar, the provincial capital, in pick-up trucks, warning music shop owners to close their businesses or face the consequences.
The sight of them sent a shock wave through Pakistan three months after a civilian government had come to power, and security forces were ordered to launch an operation.
Since then more tribal regions and districts of the NWFP have become the stomping grounds of militants.
The army has conducted offensives in tribal regions such as Bajaur and Mohmand. While advances are made in some areas insecurity worsens in others. Peshawar is no exception.
The defeat of Islamist parties in NWFP following an election a year ago raised hopes that the northwest would again become a safe place to sing, dance and make people laugh.
But the secular Pashtun party now heading the provincial government has been unable to deliver despite good intentions.
Syed Aqil Shah, provincial minister for sports and culture, said everyone needs to stand up against the militants.
“It’s wrong to assume that only the government can handle it,” said Shah. “The entire population and the civil society have to confront these threats.”
People don’t want to wind up dead, though.
Several singers and musicians have already fled abroad, and others plan to follow.
“I’m scared of leaving my home. Even if I go out, my wife keeps calling to check on me,” said one singer, who asked for his name to be withheld for fear of reprisal by militants.
“We are very scared. That’s why I am planning to go abroad.”
Others have simply found safer ways to earn money for their families.
“Ninety percent of the music is dead,” said a musician, reduced to selling fruit and vegetables for a living.
Beside him lay his harmonium gathering dust.
Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Megan Goldin