Youth-led Observatory Training on Freedom of Religious Beliefs in Pakistan
After a year-long exercise to train university students on interfaith harmony and social peace, Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) selected 50 young observers (students) from across the country to monitor freedom of faith violations and hate speech. A two-day training program was conducted on 9-10 January in Islamabad in this regard. The event was part of a PIPS initiative to train and engage youth for social cohesion and interfaith harmony in Pakistan. The selected youth were trained to be observers on hate speech and freedom of faith violations.
The first day of the training program commenced with an awareness session on legislative framework on faith-based rights in Pakistan. PIPS team provided a training manual to the students. Muhammad Amir Rana, Director PIPS, explained definitions of key concepts to the students such as minorities, interfaith harmony, hate speech etc.
Harris Khalique, secretary-general Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), while addressing one of the sessions said, “we are victims of biases since our childhood and the youth should come out of these prejudices including linguistic, ethnic, and religious besides others”. In addition to this, he advised the observers that they should promote logical and evidence-based discussions on different issues by avoiding attacking anyone personally. “Always investigate facts before giving your viewpoint on any incident,” he said. Moreover, he told the gathering that fact-checking has become indispensable in the present times when plenty of unverified information flows through social media and urged the need to hold inter-people dialogue.
Chairman Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) Dr Qibla Ayaz talking to participants said that focus had always remained to make the Pakistani society “ritualistic” but the factor of behavioural change always has been missing in it, which is the primary part of such a society. He explained that behaviours like speaking the truth, and ensuring tolerance were missing in the society. “The face of the society is religious but its behaviours are non-religious.”
Development specialist and trainer Ms Romana Bashir speaking in a session underlined the need to resolve conflicts within the society through dialogue. She added that hate speech could be stopped by logically arguing with the “violator.” She called for engaging those who are “hardliners in their thoughts and difficult elements” of the society. “Hardliners become change makers if they are properly engaged,” she said.
Scholar and writer Khursheed Nadeem argued that two factors were important for a peaceful society. “It should be democratic and its laws should reflect those values of the society, which are in harmony with human nature.” He also underscored that dialogue could resolve conflicts in the society. He said that societies used to evolve but they should have some mechanisms to absorb conflicts. “Dialogue is the only way to absorb conflicts.”
Dr A. H. Nayyar, an author and academician, remarked that the Constitution provided a fundamental right to everyone to study religion of his/her own choice but minorities in Pakistan had been deprived of this right. He deplored that the children of non-Muslims were compelled to study the literature of the majority faith that has been included in the compulsory subjects of curriculum.
Visit to The Black Hole:
As part of their training and sensitization about relevant issues, the young observers were taken to ‘The Black Hole’, Islamabad where they had an interactive session with Usama Khilji, Dawn columnist and Director Bolo Bhi. Mr. Usama highlighted the importance of “speaking up” among other things to the observers. The session explored social, legal, political, and economic dimensions of the extremism problem in Pakistan.
On the 2nd day of the training program, Hazrat Bilal, IT Manager PIPS, gave a multimedia presentation to the students to orient them on how to use the online observatory portal for making complaints and sharing stories. In addition to this, Mr. Bilal shared the system for user registration and the different options available in the portal to file complaints and observe the progress on each complaint in terms of response from the relevant authorities. They were informed of the privacy and security policy to protect their identity. Moreover, he informed them about the importance of social media in countering faith-based violence and hatred. Hazrat Bilal answered questions of observers about the web portal and the complaint mechanism.
Moreover, Asif Khurshid, an activist and trainer, said that, unfortunately, the word “minority” has been connected with religion in our society. “This is the reason that people belonging to different faiths, other than Islam, consider themselves unsafe in Pakistan”, he told the gathering. Besides this, he urged the observers to come out of their comfort zones as they would have to interact with people belonging to different backgrounds in order to bring change in the society.
In addition to this, Ahmed Ali, Program Manager PIPS, posed a question to the sitting observers: What is minority? Most of the participants said that in Pakistan’s context, non-Muslims are considered as minority. Mr. Ahmed agreed. However, he explained further that the term “minority” isn’t exclusively applicable to religious groups but is a broader term and encompasses non-religious groups as well.
Furthermore, Sabookh Syed, a senior journalist and trainer, said that people should stop using the word “minority” because such terminologies tend to be counterproductive in establishing sustainable peace in the country. Besides this, he underlined that the observers should learn “what to say, where to say, when to say, & how to say.” Not only this, but he advised the observers to avoid giving knee-jerk reactions on certain issues on social media.
Visit to the Pakistan Monument and Lok Virsa:
Upon conclusion of the 2nd day of the training program, the observers were given a brief tour to the Pakistan Monument and Lok Virsa.
In Pakistan Monument, the observers were apprised of the importance of the monument as they were shown the museum which contained the remnants of the founding fathers and all those who struggled for Pakistan. Moreover, the observers also learned that the original aim of founding Pakistan was that Muslims could live alongside people from other faiths in a harmonious and peaceful way—free from any harm.
In Lok Virsa, the observers learned about the importance of music and art and how have art and music transformed the world over centuries and how can they play a key role in establishing lasting peace in today’s chaotic world. Besides this, the observers were awed by the cultural and religious diversity of artefacts and art-pieces displayed at the Lok Virsa Museum and discovered that religious and cultural co-existence is important as it fosters creativity and make the world a more beautiful place.