Challenges and opportunities of interfaith dialogue in Pakistan


Extremists may be gaining ground, but not winning hearts and minds



Although it’s extremely valuable, the interfaith movement in Pakistan needs more than the commitment and enthusiasm of local and international interfaith groups – it requires a consistent strategy to achieve its desired results. This article can’t lay out such a strategy on its own, but does seek to offer a few pointers of important issues to take into account when developing such a strategy.

Pakistan is a country of over 190 million people, and a home to people from diverse religious beliefs — facts which signify the need for a stronger and more pervasive inter faith and intra-faith dialogue. In a country like Pakistan, where religious beliefs are considered to be an integral part of the identity of a vast majority of people, the struggle to promote good interfaith relations between different faith communities is extremely important. The country has a poor history of communal violence, and many minority groups feel marginalised and targeted by various violent and extremist groups.

One of the biggest challenges posed to the interfaith struggle in Pakistan is inadequate understanding of interfaith dialogue and conflict resolution, and what they really mean. Many of the current interfaith initiatives in the country revolve around participation of religious leaders, discussing complex theological issues which may not always be understandable or relevant to the vast majority of young Pakistanis – who make up more than half of Pakistan’s population. The involvement of religious leaders in an interfaith seminar or meeting is meaningful and leaves a positive message with the participants, but if the goal is to strengthen the interfaith movement in Pakistan and create a real impact for different faith communities, the involvement of young people in this struggle holds a crucial position. They need to be trained and educated in interfaith dialogue, and should be well equipped with the ideas, knowledge, and techniques to promote interfaith harmony in Pakistani society.

One of the biggest challenges posed to the interfaith struggle in Pakistan is inadequate understanding of interfaith dialogue and conflict resolution, and what they really mean.

Another challenge, closely linked with this is the near-complete absence of interfaith education in school textbooks and curriculums. Introducing and outlining the basic teachings of all the major religions can be extremely helpful in breaking down stereotypes and hostilities about each other’s religions, and can promote greater and deeper understanding. Organising interfaith visits to various places of worship can also help in overcoming barriers to promoting interfaith harmony in Pakistan. Teachers need to be trained on community cohesion and religious diversity elements and the schools must arrange regular seminars to promote interfaith relations between students. This isn’t an attempt to convert young Pakistanis to a different religious standpoint – quite the opposite. This sort of learning is necessary both for better interfaith relations, and the maturing of one’s own beliefs.

Last, but not least, among these challenges is the issue of countering the dominant narratives against minority faith groups. One of the major obstacles in popularising the ideas of interfaith relations is the widespread social acceptance of prejudice against members of minority groups. Society at large needs to be sensitised over this issue, so that every person, irrespective of their religious beliefs, takes it as their prime civic responsibility to counter the hatred and violence prevailing in society. Media can play a central role in this. At the moment, some certain sections of media do raise and cover interfaith issues in Pakistan, but it does not always seem to be on the top of their agendas. Civil society organisations can play a large part in resolving this; they need to adopt a collaborative approach with the mainstream media to address these issues, and play their part to raise awareness on the importance of interfaith dialogue in Pakistan.

All these threats and challenges to the interfaith dialogue in Pakistan are not without opportunities to strengthen it, however. Pakistan is a country that originally came into being as a consequence of an ideological struggle of religious freedom and identity surrounding the Muslim minority of India. The founder of Pakistan’s vision was to promote citizenship and inclusiveness in Pakistani society – although Jinnah’s vision was later badly distorted by subsequent civil and military regimes. Nonetheless, contemporary Pakistani society is increasingly rediscovering the importance of promoting interfaith relations between communities. The case of Rimsha Masih, a 15 years old Christian girl accused of desecrating pages of Quran in 2012, is one example of this; the vast majority of the Pakistani society supported the girl, and the landmark case resulted in the arrest of the local imam who had wrongly accused her of blasphemy.

Teachers need to be trained on community cohesion and religious diversity elements and the schools must arrange regular seminars to promote interfaith relations between students.

Rimsha’s case is not the only one. Pakistan has set some brilliant precedents of Muslim leaders standing up firmly to promote minority rights, sometimes making great sacrifices to do so. In 2011, the Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, publicly supported a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who was accused of blasphemy charges. Although his fearless stance eventually cost him his life – he was murdered by his own security guard – his brave initiative encouraged other Muslim activists to work on the issue of persecution against minority faith groups in Pakistan.

Though tragic, these sorts of attacks against the many moderate voices in Pakistan have arguably helped in isolating the extremists, and begun to shape public opinion against them. Although extremist elements are gaining ground in the Pakistani society, they have failed to win the hearts and minds of the majority of the Pakistanis, who can increasingly see them for what they are. This recognition of the very real threat of extremism – for all Pakistanis – provides a powerful opportunity to enhance the coordination of all these moderate voices, and to counter the extremist narratives at various levels in society, in order to foster community cohesion and interfaith harmony.

It is also worth noting that Pakistan has a very large young population, with about 66 per cent of the population below the age of 30. The young people of Pakistan can bring about a revolution in terms of bringing peace and stability to the country – provided, that is, they are educated on the true theological teachings based on peace, love, tolerance and compassion. They also need to be aware of the contribution of members of minority faith groups in the creation and development of Pakistan – the unsung heroes who are rarely discussed in textbooks. This approach will promote a sense of citizenship and equality among citizens irrespective of their religious beliefs to make a just, united and inclusive Pakistan, where people are not oppressed because of their faith.