An independent think-tank

Interfaith harmony in Pakistan: Perspectives, challenges and opportunities

Diversity is the Will of God and we should accept that. All religions preach similar truths and virtues, which along with shared cultural and social values can be built upon to enhance interfaith harmony in Pakistan. Interfaith dialogue and harmony are possible only on the basis of equality, respect and acceptance. We should revisit the Madina Charter to seek solutions to existing interfaith problems in Pakistan. These were some of the points of consensus reached among scholars and leaders of different faiths in Pakistan who participated in a one-day national seminar on “Interfaith Harmony in Pakistan: Perspective, Challenges and Opportunities,” organized by Pak Institute for Peace Studies in Islamabad on June 17, 2013.

The seminar was part of a PIPS awareness and advocacy programme that seeks to promote peace, and sectarian and interfaith harmony in Pakistani society through engagement of religious scholars and madrassas.

The focus of the first session was set on “Background and present outlook of interfaith harmony in Pakistan.”  Dr. Muhammad Akram Virk, professor at Government Postgraduate College Gujranwala presided over the session while the discussants included: Mr. Haroon Sarab, chairman of All Pakistan Hindu Rights Movement; Mr. Sohail Ahmad Raza, director of Interfaith Relations at Minhajul Quran, Lahore; Ms. Romana Bashir, executive director of Peace and Development Foundation; and Allama Zubair Ahmad Zaheer, president of Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadith Pakistan.

Mr. Haroon Sarab said an honest review suggests that prophets and founders of all religions promoted   peace, forgiveness, tolerance and love through their teachings and deeds. Analyzing the present state of interfaith frictions in Pakistan, he emphasized that if leaders and scholars of all religions do not strive for religious and sociocultural harmony in the country the next generations will not forgive us. He said multiple misperceptions exist among followers of different religions about one another which should be removed by enhancing interaction and dialogue among religious communities.

Mr. Sohail Ahmad Raza said followers of different religions had been living together in subcontinent in peace and harmony for thousands years and never faced the kind of problems we have today. Christians and other minorities also worked for establishment of Pakistan. He argued that religion is used as a tool to discriminate and commit violence against minorities in Pakistan whereas the real factors are largely political and sociocultural. He said it is important to address discriminatory aspects of education curricula and media.

Ms. Romana Bashir was of the view that there is need to celebrate and enrich commonalities among different religions, understand others’ faith and acknowledge it ‘as it is’ and get rid of presumptions about other religions. She wondered why the bright principles of interfaith harmony and co-existence set out in early Islam’s Madina Charter (Meesaq-e-Madina), and Quaid-e-Azam’s address on August 11, 1947 to members of Constituent Assembly could not be implemented in Pakistan.  The problem of lack of interfaith harmony in Pakistan, she argued, is more of identity crisis than a religious or communal conflict. State-led processes of education and legislation have also contributed to this identity crisis. For instance the history taught in Pakistan’s educational institutions is prejudicial and harmful for interfaith harmony. She condemned the militants who according to her target, among others, composite heritage of society that connects different communities such as shrines.

Allama Zubair Ahmad Zaheer said the Madina Charter had provided complete and unprecedented religious freedom to followers of all religions. He cited different agreements signed during the Prophetic Era with followers of other faiths, and also judgments from the Holy Quran that were more than sufficient to establish interfaith harmony if followed. He said, as in the United States, followers of all religions can have equal rights in Pakistan too but it requires a lot of efforts on state and society levels. He said the subject of interfaith harmony should be taught in schools and madrassas.

Professor Akram Virk said the first 23 clauses of the Madina Charter deal with international relations and the remaining 29 set out principles for establishing good relations with followers of other faiths, or interfaith harmony. He said Islam does not have any problem in developing good relations with other religions and their followers but it looks like Muslims have.

The second session focused “Challenges facing interfaith harmony in Pakistan.” Dr. Muhammad Saad Siddique, professor of Islamic studies in the University of Punjab, Lahore chaired the sessions. The discussants included Mr. Khurshid Nadeem, renowned religious scholar and TV anchorperson, Dr. Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, MNA and chairman of Pakistan Hindu Council, and Mr. Charan Jeet Singh, member of Guru Nanik Jee Mission Pakistan.

Dr. Ramesh Kumar said Pakistan belongs to all those who are living in it including minorities, who are sadly suffering from diverse problem. He highlighted the issue of forced conversions to Islam of members of Hindu community, particularly girls, and said Muslim scholars/leaders who convert them should ensure that such conversions are due to Hindus’ conviction only. He said every year more than 5,000 Hindus migrate out of Pakistan which brings bad name to the country.

Mr. Charan Jeet Singh drew the attention of participants towards education curriculum by describing his daughter’s concerns about discriminatory content against Sikh community present in social studies book of class 7. He said blasphemy laws in Pakistan should also cover profanation of symbols and personalities of other religions besides Islam.

Mr. Khursheed Nadeem was of the view that interfaith harmony could not be achieved in Pakistan without addressing some structural problems such as interpretation of religion, relationship between religion and politics, legitimacy/illegitimacy of violence, provision of security by the state and overstretched role of clergy.

Dr. Muhammad Saad Siddique said Islam provides a comprehensive and unprecedented arrangement for protection of rights of minorities that should be implemented in Pakistan in its true letter and spirit.

The third and last session was focused on “Opportunities and way forward.” Dr Qibla Ayaz, dean of Faculty of Islamic and Oriental Studies at the University of Peshawar, chaired the session. Among the discussants were Pir Atharul Qadri, khateeb at Jamia Masjid Muhaffiz Town, Lahore, Professor Dr. Syed Akbar Abbas, ambassador for National Peace Committee on Interfaith Harmony, Bishop Irfan Jameel (Lahore), and Sardar Sham Singh, chairman of Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee.

Pir Atharul Qadri said the Madina Charter provided that disputes related to Jews’ faith would be resolved according to their religious law or shariah. That provided a fundamental principle for treatment of minorities in an Islamic state.

Professor Syed Akbar Abbas was of the view that lack of education and understanding of other religions is a basic hurdle in establishing harmony among followers of different faiths.

Bishop of Lahore Irfan Jameel said government and civil society should establish common study centers for followers of all religions where they could interact and understand one another’s religion. He said we need to promote ‘acceptance’ instead of ‘tolerance’ because the former is more effective in establishing pluralism. He emphasized the need for developing social welfare programmes in education and health sectors that should involve followers of all religions. He said we should promote Pakistani nationalism and also secularism instead of religion-based identities.

Sardar Sham Singh said culture can become a great connector among followers of different religions in Pakistan.

Dr. Qibla Ayaz appreciated the efforts by religious political parties in Pakistan to extend their membership to minorities and establish minority wings.