MINISTRY OF PLANNING, DEVELOPMENT & REFORMS ISLAMABAD.
Report on the Round Table Conference on Inter- Faith Harmony held at the Ministry of Planning Development and Reforms on the 22nd of April, 2014. The Ministry of Planning, Development and Reforms conducted a roundtable on Inter-faith harmony on the 22nd of April, 2014 organized by the Ministry’s Young Development Fellows (YDF’s). The event was the first in a series of roundtables that will be organized within the Ministry over the next few months. The event was an attempt by the Ministry to stimulate Inter-faith dialogue and to ensure the peaceful co-existence of many faiths and to promote a culture of peace and non-violence which will eventually allow Pakistan to move towards an era of development.
The roundtable was highly successful in that it was able to bring together a diverse group of individuals. There were religious scholars representing Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Christianity, along with representatives from academia, members of National Assembly, social activists and government officials at the conference. Participants included Prof. Ahsan Iqbal, Dr. Anis Ahmed, Dr. Asad Zaman(Vice Chancellor PIDE), Dr (Rev). Irfan Jamil (the Bishop of Lahore), MPA Ramesh Singh Arora,MNA Isphanyar Bhandara, Dr. Syed Akbar Abbas, Chairman (NPCIH), Jibran Nasir (Pakistan for All), Dr. Amineh Hoti (The Center for Dialogue and Action, FC College Lahore), Neelofar Siddiqui, Sahibzada Asim Maharvi Chishti , Pundit Channa Lal, Harun Khalid (Author of A White Trail), Maulana Misbah Ur Rehman Yousafi (Mufti, Faisal Mosque Islamabad), Young Development Fellows and other members of the Planning Commission.
The inclusion of such a diverse group of individuals ensured better representation of the issues faced by the religious minorities and in some cases even the majority. Sadly, Pakistan has seen a rise in religious extremism and violence and these pose a great threat to peace and stability in our society. The participants discussed the current issues that religious minorities face in Pakistan and discussed some of the potential solutions that could be used to tackle the issue of intolerance in our country.
Issues Hindering Interfaith Harmony in Pakistan.
There were some key issues that were raised during the conference and some themes that were repeated by all who were present. It is important to identify the key issues that people felt were needed to be addressed and discussed not only on this forum but on a national level, as well. There were concerns raised about the lack of respect for other religions and cultures within society.
The Minister for Planning, Development and Reform, Ahsan Iqbal pointed out that there is a prevalence of prejudice and lack of respect for other religions and cultures. It is this idea and the thought that one is better than the other which has created a sense of apathy and friction within society. There was also a realization that it is mainly the responsibility of the majority population – the Muslims, to look after and safeguard the interests of the minority that is living in Pakistan. There was a realization amongst all who attended that without ensuring the rights of every Pakistani irrespective of religious differences we cannot eliminate this behemoth of an issue. This was a point that was agreed upon by all who were present.
Chairman of the National Peace Committee for Interfaith Harmony (NPCIH), Dr. Syed Akbar Abbas pointed out that there is already a body that is working for the promotion of interfaith harmony. However, at the present moment it is not effective since there is a lack of interest to promote this organization and to implement the proposals that they have recommended. It was pointed out that after the 18th amendment it was the interest of the provinces to implement and pursue ideas that can reduce intolerance and promote interfaith harmony within the society.
The next issue which was widely discussed and highlighted by Jibran Nasir, Ramesh Singh, the Bishop of Lahore, Pundit ChannaLal and Sahibzada Asim Maharvi Chisti was the school curriculum that is being taught to children across Pakistan. There is a strong element of discrimination which an average student in Pakistan is exposed to from a very early age. Prevalent curriculum and text books highlight the superiority of one religion over the other and openly malign the minority religions. This reinforces the already promoted notions of religious discrimination that have become prevalent in society. Jibran Nasir also highlighted the plight of the Ahmedi community within Pakistan and called attention to the forced conversions of Hindus in Sindh.
A major issue that was also raised was the quality of the madrassahs and the clerics who teach in those institutions. It was highlighted and agreed upon by everyone present that the emotional and intellectual level of an average cleric is sub-par and highly damaging for the future development of our young. These individuals have no formal training and are not certified by any committee or institution to have the necessary skills to teach.
Suggested Solutions for achieving Interfaith Harmony:
Prof. Ahsan Iqbal stated that prejudices in our society will help our enemies in their conspiracy to destabilize Pakistan. The Minister recommended having a round table organized quarterly to promote social solidarity in Pakistan. Examples of Middle Age Spain and present day Indonesia were quoted as examples of societies that we should try to emulate. The importance of keeping channels between all kinds of people and faiths open so that all religions, all ethnic groups, all castes and creeds of people are recognized as full citizens of this country with something
important to contribute to the beauty and diversity of the society to which we all belong was stressed upon.
Panellists suggested reforming the current primary school curriculum in Pakistan by including various activities and projects to connect students with international community – this will also help students develop an attitude of accepting and respecting other faiths. A suggestion was also made to incorporate topics on character building and intercultural coexistence in our school curriculum. In order to improve the knowledge of various religions and the study of commonalities between different religions, study of comparative religions also suggested. This was refuted by some participants who felt that the role of state needs to be re-examined as its responsibility should be to only teach morality and not religion.
A very popular recommendation put forward by many of the participants was the need to establish a system which provides licenses and certifications to clerics who teach in Madrassahs across Pakistan. It was pointed out that these licenses should not only certify a cleric’s knowledge of his subject but should also ensure that these individuals understand the rights of all citizens of Pakistan be they Muslim or non-Muslim. These clerics must be tolerant individuals, must accept other minorities and at no cost should they be allowed to promote hate speech in their local areas. Asim Maharvi Chisti suggested that call centers should be established to report ‘hate’ crimes at the district level where people can anonymously call to report any kind of hate speech but these call centers must be subject to intense scrutiny and checks to ensure that they do not misuse their powers.
Also geographic locations which are prone to more interfaith issues should be identified through surveys and census. Many participants felt that the media exacerbated the marginalization of minorities by depicting a misleading image of the problems faced by them in Pakistan. The role of PEMRA was discussed and the need for it to reform its policy for monitoring and regulating TV content of sensitive, misleading and derogatory content relating to our minorities was also discussed.
There was consensus among the speakers that a National Committee on Interfaith Harmony should be attached to the Planning Commission as it had taken the proactive step of bringing together various stakeholders for promoting tolerance and harmony. It was also proposed that district level interfaith committees be formed in rural areas, because there is a strong link between poverty and interfaith conflicts in under-privileged areas. The religious right must also be engaged and invited to take part in these committees, in order to clear misconceptions and to promote peace and harmony amongst our diverse population. It was felt that the real problem is not about empowerment and equality of minorities but rather lies in the mindset of those who are in a majority in Pakistan and in their failure to accept minorities at an equal level.
Many members representing the minorities of Pakistan expressed how above all they were Pakistani first and were committed to this country just as much as anyone else. It was highlighted that the presence of Christianity in Pakistan dates to the 1st century (St. Thomas in Taxila) so the
association of the Christians of this part of the world with the ‘West’ or of the Hindus with India, hurt the sentiments of many people who are just as Pakistani as anyone else.
A global Interfaith Harmony week is now celebrated in the world and a suggestion was made that Pakistan must join the celebration of this week and declare an Interfaith harmony day in October. Dr. Amineh Hoti suggested publication of a monthly/quarterly Interfaith Journal to promote the cause of interfaith harmony and to increase awareness.
Dr Asad Zaman concluded the conference by highlighting three main points which will go a long way in strengthening the very foundation of interfaith harmony at the grass root levels in Pakistan. He said that our foremost priority should be our school curriculum and how we must ensure that it promotes peace and brotherhood among st our children. An inclusive approach must be adopted to reform the education system along with training of teachers because without good teachers good syllabus cannot be taught. Lastly, he highlighted how it is the responsibility of the parents to teach their children how to be tolerant citizens and the crucial role family upbringing plays in shaping the behavior and attitudes of individuals. He argued that if we are able to address the issues and implement the recommendations presented by the panelists then we will definitely pave the way for stability and development in Pakistan, as a harmonious and tolerant social fabric will act as a catalyst for development.
Organizing Committee, Interfaith Harmony,
Ministry of Planning Development and Reforms,
Government of Pakistan.