Workshop on Youth for Interfaith Harmony
Date: 14th-15th January 2021
Religious extremism is a continuing problem in Pakistan despite the immense diversity of religions, faiths, cultures, and languages etc. in the country. Extremism has manifested in acts of violence against members of other faiths as observed during the destruction of a Hindu shrine in Karak on December 30th 2020; as well as against members of other sects of Islam as evident by frequent violence against Shias, Hazaras, and other communities. This culture of intolerance, even if nonviolent, could affect the youth by either making them the targets of intolerant rhetoric and violence, or making them intolerant themselves.
In this backdrop, the Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) has designed an advocacy campaign for interfaith harmony, engaging a critical class of citizens – the youth. Under this, a series of nationwide workshops is being held on ‘Youth for Interfaith Harmony’ with university students in different cities and towns. Speakers from various professions and communities host the sessions. These workshops aim to encourage interfaith tolerance through dispelling myths and preconceptions about different faiths and groups in the country and inculcate concepts like critical thinking, positive thinking and empathy, in an effort to make the youth less susceptible to the intolerance that has plagued Pakistan for so many years. In addition, the workshops intend for the students to pass on what they learn to others as well.
The two-day inaugural session of the workshop was held in Islamabad on January 14th and 15th 2021. The workshop was attended by university students from Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Attock, and Chakwal, and featured talks and interactive discussions from a variety of renowned speakers and subject matter experts. The event also included a survey of the participants’ opinions on various topics relating to interfaith relations, diversity, and inclusion.
- On Day 1, the workshop was opened by PIPS program manager, Mr. Ahmed Ali who welcomed all the students to the workshop.
- The first session was led by renowed journalist, Mr. Sabookh Syed, who talked about the effective and positive use of social media. He discussed how users could identify and avoid extremist or sectarian content on social media.
- The next session was an interactive discussion held by PIPS director Muhammad Amir Rana, explaining how common sense can be applied to political issues and daily life, as well as how one can be a good citizen and therefore, a good Pakistani. According to Mr. Rana, social behaviors and opinions are often formed on the basis of perceptions instead of facts. He urged students to base their opinions on factual information, and develop the habit of reading books in order to broaden their minds.
- Following this, a panel discussion with Senator Krishna Kumari was held which was moderated by Mr. Imran Khan, a dynamic development professional. The session focused on the ideas underpinning interfaith harmony, the barriers the minorities faced in the society. Senator Kumari’s discussion revolved around the challenges she faced, on the basis of her religion and gender, in pursuing her education and arriving at the point where she is today. She urged the audience to “see Pakistan’s cultural and religious diversity as a blessing” and that Pakistan is “still a promising country for those who work hard”, citing herself as a living example of that.
- The next session was another panel discussion, featuring renowned scholar and columnist Mr. Khursheed Nadeem, and Dr. Khalid Masud, former Chairperson of the Council of Islamic Ideology. The discussion, moderated by Mr. Rana, focused on how faith and culture interact within Pakistan. Dr. Masud stated that the youth lack clarity about the political system they desire to see in Pakistan, while Mr. Nadeem argued that as political and social traditions change over time, it creates confusion as to the political future of the nation, and such an issue has found its way to the youth; he cited the political backwardness present in Muslim countries as an example.
- The following session featured a debate between renowned constitutionalist, Mr. Zafarullah Khan, and Dr. Fouzia Saeed, the director of Pakistan National Council of Art. The discussion touched on the concepts of freedom and rights under the constitution, as well as discussion of critical issues. According to Mr. Khan, constitutions are “the most basic documents underpinning the existence of the state”. He stated the importance of the youth having an understanding of the most important articles and clauses of the constitution at the very least, in order to understand the rights and freedoms they enjoy as citizens of Pakistan. When interacting with the audience, it so happened that the students had largely never had a chance to read the constitution. Dr. Saeed expressed the importance of embracing diversity in Pakistan and “appreciating differences in the mosaic of society”. The discussion was interactive and the audience could pose questions to the speakers. This concluded Day 1.
- Day 2 began with a panel discussion featuring four female speakers: Ms. Amber Rahim-Shamsi, a journalist and anchorperson; Ms. Puruesh Chaudhry, the founder of development NGO Agahi; Ms Mava Rajput, a social activist and entrepreneur; and Bisma Shoukat, an entrepreneur. The four speakers shared their experiences and the challenges they faced as they strived for success in their respective fields. Ms. Chaudhry emphasized the importance of looking for inspiration in the people around her, such as those she trained through Agahi. Ms. Shamsi achieved success in a field dominated by men through perseverance and determination. The discussion was interactive, and the speakers entertained questions from the audience.
- This was followed up by a talk by Mr. Dilip Doshi, a lawyer and humanitarian activist. Mr. Doshi outlined the necessity of positive thinking when pursuing success in one’s professional life in Pakistan, particularly as a minority.
- Sabookh Syed led the penultimate session of the workshop where he discussed the demolition of a Hindu shrine in Karak, KP. Mr. Sabookh covered the demolition’s aftermath, and the talk focused around what really took place there whilst dispelling preconceived notions and myths held about Pakistan’s Hindu community; an example was showing that Hindus are also buried along with being cremated. He also produced a documentary on what really happened in Karak, which was shown to the audience.
- The workshop came to a close with closing remarks by Mr. Ahmed Ali and Mr. Sabookh Syed, and the presentation of certificates to the audience for their participation.
- Being born into a minority community does not necessarily decide one’s fate for them; Senator Kumari was born into an impoverished village and is Hindu, yet she holds political office.
- Hard work and perseverance are essential to success.
- There are a great many myths about non-Muslim faiths and ethnic communities within Pakistan which need to be dispelled.
The youth need to be familiarized with the Constitution, both to understand their own rights and freedoms as well as those afforded to othe