The Quest For Interfaith Harmony In Pakistan – OpEd


It is often debated whether Jinnah envisioned Pakistan to be a secular or an Islamic state. The Quaid’s 11 Aug speech is cited as an invitation and assurance to non-Muslims who’d join the fledgling country that their rights shall not be trampled upon, and they can live in Pakistan as equal citizens in the eyes of the state. The idea of Pakistan was in essence to disallow any religious or ethnic majority to monopolise the political affairs of the state and subugate the other. “In the course of time, Muslims will cease being Muslims; Hindus will cease being Hindus, not religiously, but politically”, said Jinnah. 

During the course of its history especially in the 70s and 80s, Pakistan adopted a greater Islamic outlook chiefly because some politicians and members of the civil-military establishment found it convenient to use religion as a political tool to their own advantage. The ‘73 constitution bars any non-Muslim from holding the highest political offices of President and Prime Minister, after which any semblance of equality dissipates. Although the likelihood of a non-Muslim ever occupying these posts is miniscule yet the very existence of such clauses in the constitution puts a ceiling on the aspirations of a member of minority group.

With the presence of controversial laws, the disharmony is institutionalised in Pakistan at various levels. First it is problematic for a state to style itself as Islamic without making it clear which strand of Islam does it really align with. Unlike Saudi Arabia and Iran, Pakistan is religiously as well as ethnically heterogenous and various sects of muslims inhabit the country from Salafis and Shias (both Twelver and Ismailis) to Sufis and Barelvis. While the state allows each group to practice, profess, and propagate their faith, it does not take much to figure that it actually represents the majority Hanafi Sunni branch of Islam. The ‘bastion of Islam’ notion is also reflected in Pakistan’s foreign policy where it needlessly entangles itself in conflicts relating to Muslims in any part of the world such as Bosnia, Azerbaijan, and Palestine.

Blasphemy law, Hudood ordinance, and presence of Federal Shariat Court which has the power to disaffect any parliamentary bill if it is deemed to be in violation of the teachings of Quran and Sunnah, are all instruments that widen the deep-seated religious fault lines. To do away with them would mean to dump the Objectives Resolution 1949 altogether and begin a new chapter in country’s history which seems to be a long shot given the present circumstances. No politician can risk debating such issues let alone condemning them owing to the response it may ignite such as was the case of Salman Taseer and PTI’s Law Minister who was forced to resign following protests on dubious allegations of altering the wording of an oath.

On communal level the clerics who exercise a considerable influence over the common people’s beliefs use edicts arbitrarily without realising what implications they may have. No state sanctioned council exists that can ratify these ‘fatwas’ after careful evaluation. This leads to mob violence and people taking the law in their own hands. Like we saw in the Jaranwala incident, and the attempt on former Prime Minister’s life are examples of how some persons and parties have misused allegations of blasphemy to take revenge on oppenents. 

The most frequent victims of such assaults are the members of Ahmadiyya faith who can be convicted by law even if they attempt to pose themselves as Muslims in the slightest degree. There places of worship are destroyed in broad daylight and even the police dare not intervene to protect the victims or the accused in that sense. Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony has done little to nothing in improving the lot of minorities besides holding occasional conferences. International NGOs have raised concerns over the Blasphemy law in Pakistan but so far nobody has actually been executed under it despite a few being on death row.

Nind Lal, a 23 year old literature student in Islamabad and an activist of minority rights hails from a Hindu family from Badin. He feels alienated when people ask him which side he’s supporting during India vs Pakistan cricket match. So much so that in Punjab and KP most people do not know that we have a significant population of Hindus dwelling inside Pakistan. Lal says that his university’s administration did not permit him and his fellow Hindu students to Celebrate Holy festival which they thought would be against the values of our national identity.

When a top-down approach to cultivate harmony seems improbable then the best starting point is at grassroots level. In schools alongside Pakistan Studies or incorporated as part of it, material on world religions and minorities of Pakistan should be included in the National Curricula. The national television should also broadcast special documentaries on holy festivals of minorities such as Easter, Christmas, Diwali, Visakhi etc. Hostility normally stems from lack of exposure and interaction between the followers of two different faiths. In remote areas of Sindh such as Mithi and Omerkot, the Hindus partake in Muharram procession and can be seen donning black garments to mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hussain. Similarly in Rawalpindi’s old town where there are several Christian neighbourhoods, crosses feature every year on 10th of Muharram with members of community chanting ‘Hussain too is ours’.

As these instances suggest, the state of affairs is not beyond repair and tactful use of media to promote plurality and tolerance can pay early dividends. Cultural exchanges would help build inroads and mitigate the sense of ‘otherness’ attached to believers of different faith having roots in a country that has a growing problem of radicalism. The pulpit first and foremost must never be used to spew hate and while proselytization is a common practice, it should be voluntary and confined within the walls of the places of worship. The white in Pakistan’s flag represents the minorities and they have made tremendous contributions for the country. They are our country’s assets therefore we should collectively ensure their freedom, security, and prosperity to build an inclusive society and project a welcoming image of Pakistan to global community. 

Syed M Hassan Raza

Syed M Hassan Raza is affiliated with Institute of Strategic Studies, Research and Analysis, National Defence University Islamabad. He is an alumnus of University of Glasgow and National University of Sciences and Technology. His areas of interest include modern history, education and minority rights.

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