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Paintings outrage Islamic hard-liners in Pakistan

Published: Tuesday, July 28 2015 4:24 p.m. MDT

In this photo taken on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2012, Pakistani students carve wooden statues in the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan. A series of provocative paintings of Muslim clerics in scenes suggesting homosexuality has sparked a moral and legal crisis at Pakistan?s leading arts college after extremists threatened violence, declaring that the works insult Islam.(AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary) (Associated Press) In this photo taken on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2012, Pakistani students carve wooden statues in the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan. A series of provocative paintings of Muslim clerics in scenes suggesting homosexuality has sparked a moral and legal crisis at Pakistan?s leading arts college after extremists threatened violence, declaring that the works insult Islam.(AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary) (Associated Press)

LAHORE, Pakistan — Pakistan's leading arts college has pushed boundaries before in this conservative nation. But when a series of paintings depicting Muslim clerics in scenes with strong homosexual overtones sparked an uproar and threats of violence by Islamic extremists, it was too much.

Officials at the National College of Arts in the eastern city of Lahore shut down its academic journal, which published the paintings, pulled all its issues out of bookstores and dissolved its editorial board. Still, a court is currently considering whether the paintings' artist, the journal's board and the school's head can be charged with blasphemy.

The college's decision to cave to Islamist pressure underscores how space for progressive thought is shrinking in Pakistan as hardline interpretations of Islam gain ground. It was also a marked change for an institution that has long been one of the leading defenders of liberal views in the country.

In this photo taken on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2012, a man walks in a corridor of the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan. A series of provocative paintings of Muslim clerics in scenes suggesting homosexuality has sparked a moral and legal crisis at Pakistan?s leading arts college after extremists threatened violence, declaring that the works insult Islam.(AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary) (Associated Press) In this photo taken on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2012, a man walks in a corridor of the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan. A series of provocative paintings of Muslim clerics in scenes suggesting homosexuality has sparked a moral and legal crisis at Pakistan?s leading arts college after extremists threatened violence, declaring that the works insult Islam.(AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary) (Associated Press)

Pakistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, and the majority of its citizens have long been fairly conservative. But what has grown more pronounced in recent years is the power of religious hardliners to enforce their views on members of the population who disagree, often with the threat of violence.

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."

The uproar was sparked when the college's Journal of Contemporary Art and Culture over the summer published pictures of a series of paintings by artist Muhammad Ali.

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