An independent think-tank

Fourth Workshop on ‘Youth for Interfaith Harmony’ in Abbottabad

Date: 28th-29th January 2021

PIPS held its fourth two-day workshop on ‘Youth and Interfaith Harmony’ in Abbottabad from the 28th to the 29th of January. The workshop was attended by university students from the Hazara division, 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.

Day 1

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

  • 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 of the day was led by Mr. Muhammad Amir Rana, director PIPS. His interactive discussion revolved around the need of critical thinking and common sense. Mr. Rana explained the importance of using “scientific approach” to intellectual pursuits as well as everyday life, through forming opinions on the basis of fact rather than assumptions. 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 youth have the greatest impact because they make up a large portion of Pakistan’s population, making the application of common sense and critical thinking especially important for Pakistan’s prosperity and interfaith harmony.
  • The next session was a panel discussion with Dr Khalid Masud, former chairperson of the Council of Islamic Ideology, and Dr. Qibla Ayaz, the sitting Chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology. Both religious scholars and theological experts talked about how faith and culture interact with each other in Pakistan’s social landscape. According to Dr. Masud, no serious efforts have been made to understand and appreciate the diversity present in Pakistan, which according to Dr. Ayaz is vast and deeply engrained in Pakistan’s culture. Diversity of opinion is seen in Pakistan as hampering consensus. A similar attitude to diversity exists in Pakistan as that in the west: that the presence of perceived outsiders is an invasion of the native way of life and erodes the culture. Entire cultures cannot be suppressed, and should instead be learned from and cherished for providing new perspectives. Rather than eroding the way of life, they are adding to it and providing more.

Dr. Ayaz echoed Dr. Masud’s sentiments about religious and ethnic diversity, stating that they are “an ancient reality of this region”, likely referring to the rich cultural diversity of not just Pakistan but South Asia as a whole. Additionally, he argued that Islam is a religion accepting of followers of all faiths, and that faith-based persecution of others is forbidden and frowned upon in Islam. This dispels many extremist narratives stating that some faiths are fair game for persecution and targeted violence.

  • Sabookh Syed returned to host the final session of Day 1, where he provided an eyewitness account of the events in Karak on December 30th 2020, where an ancient Hindu shrine was demolished by a Muslim mob. The talk focused around what really took place there whilst dispelling preconceived notions and myths held about Pakistan’s Hindu community.

Day 2:

  • The second day began with an interactive talk hosted by Ms. Quatrina Hosain, a veteran journalist and Pakistan’s first female war correspondent. Ms. Hosain urged female students to stand up to discrimination and bias they come across in their daily life, as well as to recognise their indispensable value to Pakistan’s socioeconomic growth, as women make up half of Pakistan’s population. “Change begins from within and women must take responsibility for improving their lot in society”, Ms. Hosain stated, echoing the challenges she has endured on the basis of her gender as she entered the field of journalism. Parallels can be drawn to Ms. Anmol Sheraz and Ms. Amber Rahim Shamsi, journalists who attended prior workshops and spoke about the challenges they too faced during their careers in a male-dominated field. Ms Hosain also urged women to recognise toxic anti-women trends in society, and to use their skills and social media to identify, highlight and combat those trends.
  • Following this was an interactive discussion by investigative journalist Azaz Syed, who discussed the need for positive and critical thinking in Pakistan with the students. He stated that the youth have no outlets to channel their energy in Pakistan, and suggested they channel that energy into having a positive outlook, as well as approaching opposing viewpoints without aggression or violence, but rather assessing them using critical thinking.
  • The final session was led by renowned constitutional expert and parliamentary historian, Mr. Zafarullah Khan. Mr. Khan stated that the Constitution protects and enshrines the rights and freedoms of non-Muslims as equal members of the state. Non-Muslims were essential to Pakistan’s development, particularly in the early years of its statehood, and enjoy the same fundamental rights as everyone else in Pakistan. Mr. Khan also stated that Pakistan is “not some medieval kingdom and non-Muslims citizens are not conquered subjects”, emphasising the role of non-Muslims in building Pakistan. He 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. The Constitution is a sacred document, but its sanctity can only be upheld when citizens, particularly the youth, read it, apply it to their daily lives and understand the concepts and ideas underpinning it.

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.

Key Takeaways and the Way Forward

  • Though diversity is ubiquitous in Pakistan, little effort has been dedicated to understanding or celebrating it, as it is believed it will prevent unity of thought and consensus.
  • Opinions need to be formed on the basis of proven facts rather than assumptions. This is doubly important in the era of misinformation and alternative facts.
  • While diversity is perceived as the erosion of culture, it is not like that. Diversity offers different perspectives on life which provide intellectual stimulus and broadened horizons.
  • Muslims and non-Muslims are equal members of the state under the Constitution of Pakistan and faith must not be a barrier to enjoying the freedoms.
  • Women need to call out discrimination and bias they experience in their daily lives, and have the courage to recognize their worth and value to the country, which is immense.
  • Toxic anti-women trends exist in Pakistan and need to be combatted.
  • The Constitution can only be upheld if people read it and apply it to their lives. Additionally the youth need to read it and familiarize themselves with it.