A Pakistani security guard keeps watch outside the shrine of 13th century Muslim Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a day after a bomb attack at the shrine in the town of Sehwan in Sindh province, in February.  (Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images)

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 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 Sept. 8.

The incident, widely reported in 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 free of religious oppression.

But the attackers turned out to be from a mystical strain of Islam called Sufism, which features trancelike dancing and inner communion with God. Many Sufi shrines have been attacked by extremists as un-Islamic; more than 70 devotees died in a suicide bombing in February at a historic shrine in Sindh province.

It is also extremely rare for a Sufi group to be linked with violence. In this case, though, the family of Binori had an unusual history of condemning and acting to stop what it regarded as immoral public behavior, such as music, and its zealotry had reportedly been accepted in the past by some in the conservative Muslim region.

“This is a shocking incident for all of us,” said Ashraf Gulzar, an Afghan Pashto singer in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, saying it was the first time in years that he had heard of a musical event being attacked or threatened. 

Binori denied having ties to militant groups and said the shrine he looks after was bombed several years ago. “We are victims of terrorism, so we should not be called terrorists,” he said in an interview. Yet he also declared that his group views music, gambling and alcohol as “un-Islamic and unlawful” and that members often take punitive action to stop them.

“We seize their instruments and punish them by burning their houses. We burn their equipment after Friday prayers,” Binori added. His nephew, Ishaq Binori, said, “We have done nothing wrong, only stopping un-Islamic and antisocial activity.” 

A local government administrator, Tehsin Ullah, said there was no official ban on music and that his office had summoned the cleric about the attack. “He signed a written apology that he would not take the law into his hands in the future,” Ullah said. 

But Binori and his aides said they had not apologized and did not regret their actions. They said they had only signed an agreement not to take part in “anti-state activities” but said that they would “continue our mission as jihad” if officials failed to stop activity they consider immoral.

Some community residents said the Binori family was respected but that such raids were counterproductive.

“Music was never banned in the past, except during Taliban time,” said Shakir Ullah Afridi, a local elder. He said there had been no public musical events in the area for nearly a decade, mostly for fear of violence. But in the past several years, he said they had been revived and that he had hosted a public music party with fireworks.

 “Such events are needed to do away with the fear of militants,” he said.

Constable reported from Islamabad, Pakistan.