An independent think-tank

Third Workshop on ‘Youth for Interfaith Harmony’ in Peshawar

Date: 21st-22nd January 2021


PIPS held its third workshop on ‘Youth and Interfaith Harmony’ in Peshawar from the 21st to the 22nd of January. The workshop was attended by more than 30 university students from the merged districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 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 were also conducted.

Day 1

The workshop was commenced with opening remarks from PIPS Program Manager, Mr. Ahmed Ali, who welcomed the students.

  • The first session was led by journalist Mr. Sabookh Syed, who stressed the importance of being vigilant on social media. According to Mr. Sabookh, social media acts as a two-way method of communication between citizens and their policymakers, making it easier to directly convey public grievances to state officials. However, ease of access and anonymity on social media also make it a major hub of extremist contents, and the youth who are the top social media users in Pakistan are susceptible to online radicalisation. To that end, Mr. Sabookh shared ways to use social media safely and avoid extremist content, while promoting interfaith harmony and disseminating messages of empathy. Students were also encouraged to make their own Twitter accounts (if they did not already have one) to promote messages of peace and harmony.
  • The second session was an interactive session led by PIPS director, Mr. Muhammad Amir Rana about the importance of common sense and critical thinking, 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 fact rather than perceptions from others. 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.
  • The following session was led by 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.

Dr. 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 next session was a panel discussion led by renowned journalist, Mr. Rifatullah Orakzai, and Mr. Haroon Sarab Diyal, Chairman of the All-Pakistan Hindu Rights Movement, about the youth’s perspectives on religion, minorities 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. One can argue this also includes members of the Ahmadiyya community. 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 final session of the day was hosted by renowned constitutional expert, Mr. Zafarullah Khan, who would discuss the constitution as well as broader concepts of rights and freedom. Mr. Khan expressed his amazement that university-level students had never 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 the first day.

Day 2:

  • Day 2 started with a panel discussion where successful women would share experiences of the challenges they faced and overcame whilst striving for success in their chosen fields. The speakers were journalist and entrepreneur, Ms. Anmol Sheraz, and MPA from Peshawar, Ms. Shagufta Malik. Ms. Malik hails from a culturally conservative background, and as such her journey to public office, a male-dominated occupation, was met with numerous challenges and roadblocks; Ms. Sheraz faced similar problems when trying to enter the field of journalism, another male-dominated field. In spite of these challenges she managed to make her way into public office as a provincial-level policymaker. Ms. Malik encouraged women to pursue their dreams, in spite of society’s views towards women in public life, and to persevere when faced with roadblocks. Through perseverance and hard work, criticism of her abilities as a policymaker turned to acknowledgement. She also remarked on the under-reporting of sexual violence and rape in rural areas of Pakistan, though she added that this is starting to change as opinions in rural populations are moving away from tradition.

Ms. Sheraz stated that at times women need to take a stand for themselves, and say no to those who impose their views and will on them. Women, according to Ms. Sheraz, share equal citizenship as men and are entitled to the right to seek the same opportunities as men. In spite of this, she herself faced challenges from her family when she chose to pursue a career in journalism. She eventually carved her way through a male-dominated profession and achieved success as a journalist, running her own media platform, the Voice of KP. Ms. Sheraz remarked upon the shift in society’s perception of women, where women’s education, their careers and their emancipation are now met with growing acceptance. Additionally, Ms. Sheraz touched upon her experiences as a Christian in Pakistan, stating that her faith has never been an issue for her.

  • The next session, led by investigative journalist Azaz Syed, imparted upon the students the need for positive thinking and the rights they enjoy with regards to freedom of information. Mr. Syed identified how children in Pakistani schools are taught according to certain biases related to particular religious and 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.

In addition, Mr. Syed stated the importance of “The Right to Know” laws, which are akin to Freedom of Information requests elsewhere in the world, and allow for public access to state records. Their importance, according to Mr. Syed, is that the youth deserve transparency and accountability for the actions of policymakers.

  • Sabookh Syed led the final session of the workshop where he discussed the demolition of a Hindu shrine 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.

Key Takeaways and the Way Forward:

  • Social attitudes, particularly in rural areas, are beginning to shift and be more accepting of women in society. Despite this, sexual violence against women remains rampant and under-reported in rural areas.
  • We continue to hold myths and preconceptions about ethnic and religious minorities.
  • Young people have not read the constitution and therefore do not understand the rights and freedoms they enjoy. Familiarizing themselves with the most important or relevant articles and clauses is essential.
  • Success is possible even if one is born an ethnic/religious minority or as a woman. These are barriers that can be overcome through perseverance and determination.
  • Pakistan’s religious and cultural diversity deserve to be celebrated and acknowledged, not vilified.
  • Islam’s acceptance of the existence of other faiths undermines narratives employed by extremists.