Performers Urge UK Government to Provide Visas to Silenced Afghan Musicians

Conductor Sir Simon Rattle, pianist Mitsuko Uchida, and cellist Julian Lloyd Webber are among over 200 signatories in an open letter asking for security for Afghan musicians

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Sitar practice (Image courtesy: Wall Street Journal)

 

Public music-making became prohibited in Afghanistan when the country came under Taliban rule in August 2021. 

“Music is forbidden in Islam,” confirmed Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, in an interview with the New York Times (NY times). “But we’re hoping that we can persuade people not to do such things, instead of pressuring them.”

According to the BBC, Northern Ireland's assembly members and MPs have called for Afghan musicians to be given asylum in the UK. They joined 250 other artists and politicians in signing an open letter. Signatories include the Musician’ Union, Peter Gabriel, the Kanneh-Mason family, Dame Evelyn Glennie, Stephen Fry, and Nitin Sawhney.

Assembled by the Campaign to Protect Afghanistan's Musicians, the letter written to the Sunday Times calls on “the world’s governments to recognize that all of Afghanistan’s musicians are targeted by the Taliban as members of a particular social group; and to explicitly name musicians as a priority for humanitarian visas under their Afghan resettlement schemes.”

The open letter reads: 

“In the past six weeks the Taliban have carried out assassinations of traditional musicians; brutally beaten performers; banned music on radio stations and in public places; and destroyed instruments in institutions such as the national broadcaster, RTA. Afghan musicians are now in hiding, moving from house to house, terrified for their lives. They are at imminent and extreme risk.

“All of these musicians embody a vision of Afghanistan’s future in which freedom of expression and ethnic harmony can flourish. We believe that the public, and our own musical and creative arts community, would overwhelmingly support the resettlement of these unique and highly skilled musicians in the UK, offering them homes and opportunities to perform.

“As a global champion of freedom of expression, the United Kingdom has given sanctuary to many refugee musicians over the years, who in turn have enriched our musical life. In light of this, we call on the government to offer urgent humanitarian visas to Afghan musicians so the UK can play its part in ensuring they — and their invaluable cultural heritage — are not lost forever.”

 

The Taliban previously ruled between 1996 and 2001, a period in which, according to Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) founder Ahmad Naser Sarmast, was long enough to lose the nation’s musical heritage, especially in younger generations. Sarmast told the BBC that after rebuilding those skills and knowledge in a new generation, they now risk being lost again.

Currently shut down, ANIM was established in 2010 and once functioned as a co-educational institution teaching music from both Afghanistan and the West. As a rarity in the country, it faced threats from the Taliban for years.

The school was known for supporting the education of girls, who comprised about a third of the student body. The school’s all-female orchestra, Zohra, toured internationally to wide acclaim, becoming a symbol of Afghanistan’s changing identity. 

 

Zohra ensemble (Image courtesy: Opera Wire)

 

“The students are all fearful and concerned,” Sarmast told the BBC. “They clearly understand that if they return to the school, they might face consequences or be punished for what they've been doing.” 

As the Taliban continues to seize control, many musicians are applying for visas abroad. “Musicians do not belong here anymore,” an Afghan drummer told The Diplomat. “We must leave. The love and affection of the last years are gone,” said the musician, who directed a leading music education center in Kabul.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma was among those who raised awareness about the plight of Afghanistan’s musicians. “It would be a terrible tragedy to lose this essential group of people who are so deeply motivated to have a living tradition be part of the world tradition,” the cellist told the NY Times.  

In August, the UK evacuated over 8000 people eligible for the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy. The UK Home Office announced that Afghans who worked for the British military and/or UK government may relocate to the UK permanently. 

The UK government also announced an Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme, aiming to admit up to 20,000 refugees over the coming years, according to the BBC. 

The Musicians’ Union stated that the aforementioned open letter, published on October 3, 2021, requests that the UK Government “explicitly prioritize musicians under the Afghanistan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme.” The UK government is yet to officially respond to the letter.

“There is speculation that today’s Taliban has changed,” wrote Sarmast in the Wall Street Journal. “They promise respect for diversity and human rights, but we must watch and wait to see if the change is genuine and lasting, as they have not yet announced their policies toward music and other creative endeavors they banned a generation ago.

“I ask the international community to join me in my heartfelt hope that things will be different this time around,” he continued. “I ask for us to work together to ensure that ANIM and other Afghan musicians will have their musical rights respected and the freedom to continue to share their unique cultural heritage with music-lovers around the world.”

Further information and the open letter’s full list of signatories can be found here.