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Islamic Radicals Threaten Pakistan's Pagan Tribe

Kalash tribe celebrating spring with dance.
Kalash tribe celebrating spring with dance.
For centuries members of an ancient pagan tribe celebrated their seasonal festivals with wine and dance in northwestern Pakistan's Hindu Kush valleys.

But the Kalash people's age-old traditions are now at risk because radicals among their Muslim neighbors want them to abandon their unique lifestyle in the predominantly Muslim nation.

Said Gula has dedicated her life to researching the Kalash society, and tells Radio Mashaal that thousands of years of her community's cultural heritage are threatened by religious zealots.

A teacher writes letters from the Kalasha alphabet on a blackboard.
A teacher writes letters from the Kalasha alphabet on a blackboard.
"The Kalash are well-known as pagans. Now many people want to change our way of life and want us to abandon our religion by scaring us," she said. "We constantly receive threats and we can't hope for protection because nowhere in Pakistan is safe."

Gula says that during the past couple years there were numerous incidents of Kalashi people being killed and kidnapped by militants in their remote valleys in the Chitral district of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. "Our government has failed to defend itself from militant attacks. How can they protect us?" she asked.

Sikandar Kalash, a community member now studying in Greece, says that like most religious minorities in Pakistan, the Kalash are threatened by Islamic extremists who want them to abandon their faith.

A celebration in a Kalash community.
A celebration in a Kalash community.
He said that attacks on Western tourists and researchers over the past few years have added to their sense of insecurity and have harmed the local economy by keeping tourists away.

Two years ago, Pakistan deployed military units to the three remote Kalash valleys -- Rumbor, Bumborate and Birir -- after the Taliban abducted a Greek sociologist researching the tribe. Athanasios Lerounis was released from several months of captivity in 2009 after Islamabad freed several Taliban detainees and paid a handsome ransom.

Shameem Gul, a Kalsash woman, says threats have already forced them to abandon their colorful seasonal festivals.

"The Taliban and some hardline Muslim clerics threaten us because of our religious beliefs," she said. "If we stop practicing our culture, how can we preserve our way of life for our future generations?"

A Kalash girl in traditional dress.
A Kalash girl in traditional dress.
Shammon Alferd Gill, spokesperson for the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, says they have repeatedly petitioned authorities about the threats to the Kalash. "Nowhere in Pakistan is safe from religious extremists," he said. "The Kalashis are particularly vulnerable because they live in a remote part of the country and are in an urgent need of protection."

But senior government figures reject such claims. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's Minority Affairs Minister Suran Singh says he is unaware of any threats to the Kalash tribe. "We have provided them full security to celebrate their festivals."

But in an apparent contradiction he added, "In Pakhtunkhwa no one is immune from attacks. Even the mosques and markets are regularly attacked," he said. "This is why our administration is trying to promote negotiations with the Taliban to restore peace to the region."

Some historians consider the Kalash descendants of Alexander the Great. The tribe worships an array of gods in line with its polytheistic tradition. Members observe religious rituals revolving around seasonal festivals, and speak a distinct language, Kalasha.

A drummer celebrates spring in a Kalash village.
A drummer celebrates spring in a Kalash village.
Up to 5,000 Kalash people remain of what was once a thriving pagan community spread across high mountain valleys in northwestern Pakistan and neighboring eastern Afghanistan. Amir Abdul Rahman, a 19th century Afghan monarch, forced the tribes in the eastern Afghan province of Nuristan to convert to Islam.

During the past three decades, some of Pakistan’s Kalash have converted to Islam, but the remaining members are keen to maintain their unique cultural identity. For generations, posters of Kalash women adorned with headgear made of colorful beads have been mainstays of Pakistan's tourist industry.

In addition to attacks on its traditions, the community is suffering from poverty, insecurity and rapid environmental changes that have brought deforestation and heavy glacial melting.


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story described Sikandar Kalash as living in exile in Europe. He is actually a student in Greece. Gandhara regrets this oversight.