An independent think-tank

Workshop on ‘Youth for Interfaith Harmony’ in Peshawar

Date: 19th-20th January 2021

PIPS held its second workshop on Youth and Interfaith Harmony in Peshawar from the 19th to the 20th of January. The workshop was attended by over 30 students from universities across Peshawar and its nearby cities and towns, as well as several renowned speakers from a variety of fields and backgrounds such as journalists, activists and experts who all weighed in on interfaith harmony in Pakistan and the role of young Pakistanis to promote it. An opinion survey of the participants was also conducted during the workshop.

Day 1

  • The first session was led by journalist Mr. Sabookh Syed, who imparted upon the students the importance of being vigilant on social media. According to Mr. Sabookh, social media acts as a two-way method of communication between the Pakistani citizenry and policymakers and opinion makers, making it easier to directly convey grievances within the population. It is also a major hub of extremist content and the youth (who use social media the most out of Pakistan’s population) are susceptible to radicalisation online. To that end, Mr. Sabookh also shared ways to use social media effectively and safely, and how to avoid extremist content while sharing content promoting interfaith harmony and messages of empathy. Students were also encouraged to use social media for sharing messages of peace and harmony.
  • The second session was an interactive session led by PIPS director, Mr. Muhammad Amir Rana about how common sense can be applied to both observing political issues and one’s day to day life, as well as how one can be a good citizen and therefore, how to be a good Pakistani. Mr. Rana stated the importance of forming opinions on the basis of proven facts, as opposed to perceptions. This bears greater importance now in a post-truth age where misinformation is rampant. He also urged the students to broaden their horizons in order to counter misinformation, and cited reading books as a method of doing so.
  • Rana’s session was followed by a panel discussion featuring renowned journalist, Mr. Rifatullah Orakzai, and Mr. Haroon Sarab Diyal, a Hindu rights activist and Chairman of the All Pakistan Hindu Rights Movement. The discussion revolved around the youth’s perspectives on religion, religious minorities, culture and diversity. According to Mr. Diyal. Islam is a universal religion that promotes peace among followers of different faiths, undermining and dispelling widely proliferated extremist narratives targeting non-Muslims. He also stated that non-Muslims are equal citizens of Pakistan as much as Muslims. Quoting Jinnah, Mr. Diyal also states that faith is not a criterion for one’s loyalty to the state, or indeed a criterion of one’s service. Students were able to pose questions to the speakers.
  • The next session featured a discussion with Dr. Qibla Ayaz, Chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology, and Dr. Rashid Ahmed, Professor of Islamic Studies at Peshawar University. This discussion focused on faith, religion and culture, and how they interact with Pakistan itself. According to Dr. Ayaz, Pakistan is a land of rich religious and cultural diversity, with values and customs varying from province to province, sometimes even within provinces themselves. Diversity is therefore inherent within Pakistan’s social landscape. Dr. Ayaz also highlighted the existence of numerous non-Muslim communities in Pakistan, such as Jews, Zoroastrians and lesser-known Muslim sects, further reinforcing his points about the diverse nature of Pakistani society. In addition to religious and cultural diversity, Dr. Ayaz also highlighted the change of traditional lifestyles in Pakistan and a more open-minded populace, as well as the gradual phasing-out of obsolete practices like honour-violence. Honour-killing is not linked to religion, according to Dr. Ayaz, and any attempts to link the two are misleading.
  • Rashid Ahmed remarked on the continual manifestation of symptoms of extremism and intolerance in Pakistan, calling the phenomenon unfortunate. He also explained the history and ideas underpinning extremist movements in Muslim societies, and discussed how Pakistan’s prosperity is predicated on handing a peaceful, diverse and cohesive Pakistan to future generations. This ties into how extremism has managed to run rampant in the absence of a cohesive national identity in Pakistan. During the session, Dr. Ahmed also urged the youth to develop habits of critical thinking, in order to be less vulnerable to extremist ideologies, as well as to contemplate why Pakistan is unable to appreciate its vast cultural and religious diversity.
  • The final session of the day was hosted by renowned constitutionalist, Mr. Zafarullah Khan, who discussed the constitution as well as broader concepts of rights and freedom. Mr. Khan expressed his amazement that university-level students had ever had a chance to read Pakistan’s constitution, therefore having little understanding of the rights afforded to themselves and other Pakistanis, as well as the duties of the state and the limitations of their exercise of power. Alongside reinforcing that the state serves the people, Mr. Khan urged students to familiarise themselves with the Constitution’s most important clauses and articles, in order to have an understanding of the rights and freedoms they have as citizens of Pakistan. This concluded Day 1.

Day 2

  • The day 2 began with a panel discussion featuring journalist, Ms. Anmol Sheraz, and MPA from Peshawar, Ms. Shagufta Malik. The session revolved around the challenges faced by women in Pakistan and how through perseverance and determination, women can reach positions of success. Ms. Sheraz, a member of the Christian community, recounted the challenges she faced as she entered the male-dominated field of journalism. Yet she proved her mettle as journalist, and the founded the Voice of KP media platform. Parallels can be drawn to Ms. Amber Rahim Shamsi, who in the first workshop recounted similar experiences when entering journalism, and who persevered to become a successful journalist. Ms Malik encountered similar social challenges, and is now a lawmaker in a province with conservative norms. Both speakers acknowledged how women face challenges and roadblocks in a male-dominated, conservative society, but they should not give up when they come across one. Success is still very much possible in a society like Pakistan, both speakers are the living examples.
  • This was followed by an interactive discussion led by investigative journalist, Mr. Azaz Syed, which explored thinking patterns and common social biases in the society. Mr. Syed identified the institutions of family, education, and the wider society instil biases in children’s minds. Those biases may relate to particular religious or ethnic groups and social situations. These biases not only close students’ minds, but they also contribute to the growth of extremism and intolerance in Pakistan’s youth. Mr. Syed urged students to recognise and identify their biases, in order to not only identify intolerant ideas, but ultimately to reject them. The need to inculcate critical thinking is essential for success in this area.
  • Sabookh Syed led the final session of the workshop where he discussed the demolition of a Hindu temple in Karak. 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. Students from Karak also shared their views on the incident.

Key Takeaways and the Way Forward

  • Being born a woman, a member of a minority community, or both, does not decide one’s fate. Perseverance, hard work and determination are keys to success.
  • There is a need to bust the myths and biases relating to ethnic and religious groups in Pakistan because misperceptions and assumptions often shape social behaviors.
  • Citizens particularly the youth should read and understand the Constitution in order to create a stable and law abiding society.
  • Diversity is Pakistan’s strength. And Pakistan’s prosperity is predicated on a diverse, peaceful and cohesive nation passed on to future generations. This requires the formation of a cohesive national identity, where people of all faiths and ethnicities are treated equally as Pakistanis.