Salam Namaste

Published: January 31, 2013
The writer is a senior sub-editor at The Express Tribune and tweets @FarahnazZahidi

The writer is a senior sub-editor at The Express Tribune and tweets @FarahnazZahidi

It is said that there’s enough religion in the world to make men hate one another, but not enough to make them love. But what if religion were to become a common ground where shared religious and ethical values are celebrated? Perhaps, too far-fetched a dream for the world that we live in. Especially for Pakistan. For we do not unite in the name of God. We dissent, for God’s sake. Quite literally so.

But this might be a good time to take a closer look at the possibilities of an inter-faith understanding, if nothing else. Tomorrow, we embark on the World Interfaith Harmony Week, celebrated in the first week of February each year. What does this even mean? And what does it mean for Pakistan in particular, a county ravaged by polarisations. We are divided in the name of faith — we are Muslims and Christians and Hindus; we are majorities and minorities; we are the green and the white; we are the crescent and the star. Tier two of being poles apart: division in the name of denominations within the framework of the same faith — need I even say Shia and Sunni? It stares us in the face, way too close for comfort.

Hence, there is a need for not just interfaith dialogue, which ensures empathy, tolerance and understanding between followers of different faiths, but also inter-religious (bainal masaalik) dialogue.

Yet, this seems an under-celebrated and under-emphasised concept today in the post 9/11 world, and in present-day Pakistan in particular. Often, in interfaith fora, experts sit proselytising others to their own, in desperate attempts to convert and convince the others to ‘our’ way of thinking. And if not that, at least establish the supremacy of our faith over the others. An attempt at hegemony.

One reason we see resistance against sincere interfaith dialogue is that it is seen as a conniving, insidious attempt at syncretism — something that will take away my religious identity from me and make society a melting pot where all ideologies are conflated into one, basically leaving us with none at the end. Something like what John Lennon was trying to say in his song ‘Imagine’.

In reality, however, the interfaith dialogue process actually helps us understand and strengthen our own faith better, and also learn to respect other ideologies. If it involves all stakeholders, it helps get rid of stereotypes. It helps a nation get over the ‘us vs them’ phenomenon.

If these efforts were made with the genuine intention of understanding one another, the benefits for Pakistan, a religio-centred nation, would be immense. Consensus-building does not do away with agreeing to disagree. What if followers of different faiths and different religious denominations come together on things all religions believe in — peace, justice and sustainability. Practical implications can include things that give a huge push to Pakistan’s developmental issues. To cite one example, we are 180 million strong, and the world’s fifth most populous nation has no hope of population control unless this is discussed by faith-based representatives and a consensus is built. Indonesia has achieved it by bringing all Muslim denominations, as well as Catholics and major religious leaders on board.

Interfaith dialogue is linked closely to human rights. Which brings us to the third tier at which this discourse needs to be fostered — dialogue between the seculars and the religious. In a society which cannot realistically do away with either element, it would be a good idea to create spaces where commonalities can be celebrated for civic and national stability.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 31st, 2013.

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Reader Comments (12)

  • Parvez
    Jan 31, 2013 - 11:26PM

    This is a sound good, feel good, nice wish list of an article………….but devoid of reality.


  • Feb 1, 2013 - 5:56AM

    Excellent article – indeed religion was supposed to free us for Allah yet instead we developed egos


  • Mirza
    Feb 1, 2013 - 9:40AM

    The Op Ed presents good ideas that are practiced in the educated western world. However, Pakistan was built on the slogan that we are different and we cannot live with others. As long as our rightwing men are around there cannot be any Interfaith harmony. When we cannot show any mercy and tolerance toward our Muslim sects how can we be fair to the others? If there is peace and tolerance instead of hate what would our huge army and mullahs do? We need true education and learn the meaning of live and let live.


  • Manju
    Feb 1, 2013 - 11:31AM

    But what if religion were to become a common ground where shared religious and ethical values are celebrated? Perhaps, too far-fetched a dream for the world that we live in.

    Yeah it can be true and this is what the rest of the world is working towards. Its called being Secular. Pakistan on the other hand is trying to do everything it can towards the opposite direction of this.


  • Parvez
    Feb 1, 2013 - 1:43PM

    Sounds good……………..but is devoid of reality.


  • Feb 1, 2013 - 3:05PM

    I just hope and pray these words dont fall on deaf ears! Time to move on united. We have seen the divides and where they have landed us. We have to stop letting a few play with our beliefs and creating monsters. Farahnaz, very well written. Though I wish that together, we actually do more and contribute to the most noble cause of unity, tolerance, love and coexistence.


  • K T Shamim
    Feb 1, 2013 - 8:05PM

    Excellent article! Assalamualaikum.


  • Feb 1, 2013 - 9:39PM

    I agree with the article and the spirit and the much need of inter-faith dialogue, but do want to clarify one fact and hope ET at least allows this second edited comment to be posted, instead of denying it, because its relevant.

    Indonesia has achieved it by bringing all Muslim denominations, as well as Catholics and major religious leaders on board

    No they have not. Perhaps years ago they were considered as the moderate Islamic model due to their recent progress, but it has changed and that previous narrative has become outdated. Religious (or non-religious in regards to atheists) minorities, including Christians, Ahmedi and/or Shia Muslims are facing both state and societal persecution, despite the freer democratic and economic reforms. Its offset by the rising Wahhabi/Salafi/Sunni Islamist beliefs among some of the majority local Indonesian population, where also some moderates and liberals are being threatened.


  • John B
    Feb 1, 2013 - 10:22PM

    Why edit my comment and is it not against the concept of interfaith dialogue?

    Interfaith dialogue on what subject and with whom and why? I believe Islam clearly spelt out the duties and responsibilities of Muslims toward other faith. So, why this confusion now.


  • Farahnaz Zahidi
    Feb 1, 2013 - 11:39PM

    @bigsaf: I appreciate your feedback. But what I wrote was in the perticular context of Family Planning & how the BkkBN national agency (please read up on it) has succeeded in consensus-building on this issue and made population control a success story in that country. Thank you


  • Feb 2, 2013 - 4:28AM

    @Farahnaz Zahidi:

    Thank you for taking time and clarifying that it was in regards to population control context to Pakistan in the previous sentence, which I unfortunately and carelessly missed. I had confused your specific positive example of Indonesia in that regards and thought you were suggesting Indonesia as an example of overall interfaith harmony instead, which seemed so wrong given the recent years but now realize it wasn’t the case. I apologize.

    To move the dialogue forward, I do know that some of that is employed in a sense for the polio drive. Pashtun IDP’s in Karachi received informational help in regards to the drops from the local masjids, and helped change and shape opinion. However, how does one bring to the table or have an inter-faith dialogue with extremist militants up in the North, such as those in Kurram, who just claimed 2 more polio workers’ lives with a landmine, generally used to maliciously maim the local villagers who happen to be of the minority sect?


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