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Peace, harmony and coexistence: National and religious obligations

It is not so much the religious conflict as a matter of social behaviours that fuels intolerance and extremism in Pakistani society. Poor academic and intellectual responses, absence of dialogue and interaction among different sections of society, the use of religion as a political tool by Pakistani state, presence of extremist groups and ideologies in the country, and socioeconomic injustices and marginalisation are some other factors. These views were expressed by prominent scholars and intellectuals who participated a national seminar on “Peace, Harmony and Coexistence: National and Religious Obligations,” organized by Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) on August 27, 2013 in Islamabad.

The seminar was held as part of PIPS’ engagement with religious scholars to promote harmonious and tolerant values in society through enhanced interaction and dialogue between religious and secular segments of society on issues of vital significance linked to peace, and sectarian and interfaith harmony.

The first session, on “Peace, tolerance and coexistence: religious and socio-cultural perspectives,” was chaired and moderated by journalist and author Zahid Hussain. The panellists included: Khurshid Nadeem, religious scholar and columnist; Dr. Raghib Naeemi, principal Jamia Naeemia, Lahore; Farzana Bari, human rights activist; and Mosharraf Zaidi, scholar and political analyst.

Zahid Hussain said tolerance is decreasing at all levels within Pakistani society. This dysfunctional social behaviour developed in parallel to state’s use of religion as a tool to protect its interest, he underlined. He argued that concept of an ‘Islamic state’ is perceived in sectarian context as each sect has different notion of it. He raised a question if the war between two Muslim groups was ‘Jihad’ and lamented that maximum number of mosques were attacked and destroyed in Pakistan by ‘Muslims’. He observed that although religious and sectarian differences are not a new thing in Pakistan but incidents of extremism were almost unheard of in the country until 1960s.

Khurshid Nadeem said that the so-called religious intolerance in Pakistan is indeed a social issue because sectarian differences are not in either way linked to academic or legal debate. He dubbed the conflict between the Middle East and Iran a political issue which has sectarian implications for other countries including Pakistan. He argued that although secularism is not a solution to the current state of ideological crisis in the country, but state should not leave it to clergy to establish social and political orders at societal level.

Dr. Naeemi said our bond with cultural roots should not be ignored as a remedy of intellectual crisis in the country. He said it is highly unlucky that moderate tendencies are ignored both by state and society. He called for reforms in Pakistan’s education systems to address the issues of sectarian violence, intolerance and ideological polarization. He also held the media responsible for creating confusion and frustration among the general public.

Mosharraf Zaidi emphasized the need to highlight commonalities in socio-cultural and religious trends. He maintained that the secularists and Islamists were two very small classifications in the larger global context. He said there is no clear distinction between the two as we extract our value systems and concepts from religion and other worldly factors from state and society so it highly unacceptable to divide the world into Muslims and non-Muslims, Shia and Sunni,  or Islamists and secularists.

Farzana Bari said while peace and tolerance are the common values of all religions, it is also religions which are used to trigger violence and intolerance. She underlined contradictions within the Constitution of Pakistan, which on the one hand claims there is no discrimination on the basis of gender and on the other hand contains the Hudood Ordinance. She dubbed the Pakistani political system patriarchal and gender-based.

The focus of the second session of the seminar was set on “Hurdles in the way of fostering dialogue and achieving harmony & coexistence in Pakistan.”  Renowned scholar and writer Ashfaq Saleem Mirza chaired the sessions while among the discussants were Mufti Muhammad Zahid, vice principal, Jamia Islamia Imdadia, Faisalabad; and Dr. Syed Muhammad Najfi, deputy director, Taqreeb Mazahib-e-Islami, Pakistan.
Ashfaq Saleem Mirza said that economic deprivation and political and social disempowerment are the main causes of frustration and dissatisfaction, which forces people to align with extremist groups. “If we equate economic disparity with cultural diversity, there is a problem,” he said. He touched upon sectarian differences before social and economic developments took place in first-world countries where industrial revolutions were major game changers.

Mufti Zahid said intolerance is a common behavior in Pakistan which is not confined to religious classes only. He was of the view that with a view to promote culture of tolerance and art of coexistence, Pakistani state should try to create space for broader dialogue and interaction in the society including between moderates and hardliners, among sectarian schools of thought, and across the social strata of society.
Dr. Najfi said clergy and its personal biases are primarily responsible for disharmony in the country. He referred to the ongoing research work in Iran, which showed that sects agree on 90 percent of the basic principles of Islam. Beyond the scope of discourse and rhetoric, he underscored the need for the government to exercise political will to change the existing intolerant and extremist narratives.

The third session, on “Ways to realize national and religious obligations for promoting peace and coexistence,” was chaired by Maulana Zahid ur Rashidi, principal, Al-Sharia Academy Gujranwala. The panellists included: Ahmer Bilal Sufi, former Law Minister and president Research Society of International Law Pakistan; Dr. Fareed Ahmed Paracha, Jamaat-e-Islami leader and director Ulema Academy, Lahore; Aniq Zafar, CEO, Communications Research Strategies (CRS); and Dr. Tahir Mehmud, principal, Jamia Salafia, Islamabad.

Maulana Rashidi said focus should be on solving real economic and social issues of people and on ending disparities. He called for correcting social behaviours and building alternative narratives to curb violence in the society. He said the Quran and the Sunnah offer solutions to and not justification for extremism and terrorism.

Ahmer Bilal Soofi said as Islam demands that Muslims should actively participate in the worldly affairs, it is our religious obligation to excel in our disciplines and professions. He said the age of occupying territories is over and now states settle matters through legal justifications and influence events with intellectual discourse. He said Pakistan has 8,000 laws and almost all of them are in line with the principles inherent in Islam.

Fareed Paracha said promotion of democracy would be instrumental in turning the tide of terrorism and extremism. He said Islam stresses on values of peace, brotherhood, tolerance, and social justice, adding that mosque and religious institutions should connect with youth to mitigate the negative effects of extremism. Meanwhile the Pakistani state must ensure rule of law in the country.

Aniq Zafar was of the view that economic integration can pave the way for societal integration. He said state adopted a religious sect and tried to resolve identity crises through it, an approach that proved counterproductive. Identity crisis, he said, is triggering different types of radical tendencies. Economic justice can resolve this identity crisis and develop people’s functional relations with state.

Dr. Tahir Mehmood said biases are sins and need to be avoided. He noted that peace is missing on the whole in Muslim world because tolerance is not a normal practice there. “Justice and balance in everyday affairs is the key to peace, he said.