A cleric arrived, the music stopped, a melee ensued: Why hard-liners stopped a Pakistani wedding

For nearly a decade, nobody dared play live music at weddings or parties in much of the northwest region bordering Afghanistan, for fear of raids by the area’s Islamist government or violent reprisals by armed militants. Many local musicians and singers fled and relocated in large cities such as Karachi.

Things loosened up after the liberal Pakistan Justice Movement won political power in the region four years ago and the army drove out the most hard-line insurgent groups. Musicians drifted back to their workshops and the traditional sounds of stringed rebabs and drums poured from wedding halls.

But an alarming incident several weeks ago at a lively village wedding in the Khyber tribal area suggested that the threat of violent moral sanction from Islamist vigilantes had suddenly returned.

Hundreds of guests had gathered for an evening of entertainment on Sept. 4 when a stranger burst in and said they must suspend the performance or it would be halted by force, reportedly on orders from a local seminary leader.

“We were happy and the boys were dancing, but we didn’t want any trouble so we stopped everything,” said Nawaz Khan, an uncle of the bridegroom. Soon afterward, though, he said a group led by Syed Muhammad Ilyas Binori, a cleric known as Lala Khan, arrived carrying white flags and shouting, “God is great!” 

Witnesses said the intruders shoved the musicians and seized a drum and some microphones. Israr Gul, a drummer, said the lights went out in the melee and the performers fled. There were reports that Binori’s group publicly burned the instruments from the wedding after weekly prayers on Sept. 8.

The incident, widely reported on Pakistani media, raised alarms that Islamist militants seeking to purge what they see as modern vices were returning to a region that civilian and military leaders said was now free of religious oppression.

But the attackers turned out to be from a mystical strain of Islam called…

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