Pakistan

Challenges of Religious Harmony: A Pakistani Perspective

By Roshan Taj

In today’s globalized world, the concept of religious harmony is promoted to ensure the safety of people in the diverse societies and to meet the challenges of inter-faith relations. All religions seek peace, oppose violence, and preach goodness. It is imperative to promote the principle of “harmony without homogeneity” and to foster mutual understanding among all religions. Religious harmony holds the key to a peaceful and progressive multi-religious and multi-cultural world. It is the concept of practicing one’s religion while integrating closely with other intra- and inter-religions; more importantly opposing any attempt to misuse the religion. A closer look at the history of the world shows that the religious intolerance has been a recurrent problem.  Religions world over have been misused by many people and groups for their own vested interests; they divide the society in name of religion, caste and creed, for their own. For instance millions of people worldwide have been killed in riots and discriminated every day because of their religious leanings. Many nations have been divided on the religious lines which resulted in discord in the world.

Unfortunately, after the 9/11 attacks in the USA, the very word religion, in particular Islam, has become a symbol of terror and fear as intolerance towards Muslims rose sharply. The American society claims of being secular and their narratives often celebrate the US as a nation that boasts and allows religious freedom, but after 9/11 attacks many Muslims found it unsafe to practice Islam. During the 2016 presidential elections, issues such as potential immigration reform to forbid Muslims from entering the US were at the forefront of political campaign of Donald Trump. Likewise,  after winning the elections and assuming office President Trump issued an  executive order to temporarily ban travel to the US by refugees and immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries, which is nothing but  invidious discrimination against Muslims by using nationality as a proxy.

Muslims residing in the US faced discrimination and feared attacks; to escape discrimination women retired their headgears (Hijabs) and men considered shaving their beards. Nevertheless, there have been many events targeting Muslims, to quote just a few:  the surrounding of Ground Zero Mosque; Florida pastor, Terry Jones, burning copies of the Holy Quran; Muslim woman verbally assaulted and pepper-sprayed at Islamic center in Columbus, Ohio are well publicized incidents perpetuated by ordinary US citizens. The American Civil Liberties Union reports anti-mosque activities in 31 states between December, 2005 and September, 2012, ranging in severity from simple graffiti and other minor vandalism to arson and bombings.[1] The latest Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) statistics also show hate crimes against Muslims based on violation of religious freedom growing by more than sixty per cent. This rise of religious intolerance and extremism in the US also poses a threat to people’s lives and security in other parts of the world.

Recently, Pakistan has been on the receiving end for criticism over religious intolerance by the US. On January 04 2018, the US put Pakistan on watch list for religious freedom violations and listed it as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) on the grounds that Pakistan has failed to reform its discriminatory laws to bring under the ambit of the law the individuals involved in egregious religious abuse. This step of including Pakistan in CPC list comes in the wake of stiff criticism from President Donald Trump in a tweet on January 01, through which he accused Pakistan of harboring terrorists they hunt in Afghanistan.[2] In another significant development, the US administration on January 06, 2018 suspended all military aid of $ 2 billion over alleged terror inaction, which included 255 million US dollars in Foreign Military Funding (FMF) for the fiscal year 2016 as mandated by the Congress to Pakistan.[3]All these efforts to mount more pressure on Pakistan will not only harm bilateral relations but will even further widen the trust deficit. As a consequence, the present government has also accused the US to shift the blame on Pakistan as an escapegoat for its failures in Afghanistan. In the past two year, Pakistan started military operations known as “Zarb-e-Azab” and Radd-ul-Fasaad to grapple with a challenging security environment and initiated efforts to fight terrorism. Despite these efforts, Pakistan continued to experience heinous religiously-motivated atrocities targeting Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Christians, Ahmadis and Hindus.

The US actions against Muslim countries in South Asia and elsewhere are contrary to the religious violence discourse that revolves around India, which is ranked fourth worst in the world for religious related terror. Despite this, India is not included on the CPC list. In India, religious intolerance is increasing at a very fast pace. The practices and policies of the present Indian government have undermined the country’s historical commitment to a multi-religious pluralist and secular society. Some Hindu nationalist groups following the Hindutva ideology such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Sangh Parivar, and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and their sympathizers perpetrated numerous incidents of intimidation, harassment and violence particularly against Muslims, and also other minority groups including Christians. The 1992 Gujarat carnage over the demolition of the Babri Mosque left thousands of Muslims dead, brutally killed at the hands of Hindu extremists and thousands more were made destitute and rendered homeless. These inhuman acts and atrocities were carried out with full impunity under the ambit of law enforcement agencies. Muslims have been also recently attacked on the suspicion that they had killed, stolen or sold cows for beef, since in Hindu religion “Cow” is considered as one of their Gods. Another South Asian state which has also not been included in the CPC list is Bangladesh, which again has long been engaged in ongoing violations of religious freedom since 2014. During the country’s 2014 elections, the frequent spate of attacks by religious extremist groups looted and burned properties and residences of Hindu, Christian and Buddhist communities in different parts of the country. Resultantly, at least 431,000 people continue to live in displacement as a result of past conflicts and ongoing violence in the country.[4] All these practices infringe upon individuals ability to practice a particular religion or belief.

Pakistan is not the only country facing the menace of religious intolerance. It is in transitional state to come out of extremism as evident by above stated military operations against the Taliban and other militants. Yet, it still faces many problems. The internal and external forces that target religious minorities to create sectarian violence pose great human rights and security challenges to Pakistan. However, extremism has many facets and religious terrorism is just one of them. In this dismal state of affairs, there is a greater need to cultivate a narrative of tolerance and peace towards minorities. There are still issues as the infamous Blasphemy Laws being misused against minorities as well as the question of political will to undo these. In fact, the general religious bigotry emanating from the extremist mindset and the overall cultural set up of Pakistan needs to be transformed.

The trend towards a multi-polar world and globalization has resulted in inter-dependence and interconnected interests. The harmony in religion can create prosperity for people around the world and more importantly in the South Asian region. Religious diversity is not to be feared. Religious conflicts are not unavoidable but can be tackled with the right attitude and active manner. Countries that have embroiled themselves in making religion a central facet of state policy have ended up creating more divisions within the society. Promoting favorable interfaith relations and embracing the concept of religious harmony is thus a crucial step towards the building of a harmonious world where there can be lasting peace and common prosperity.

Notes:

[1] “Nationwide Anti-Mosque Activity”, (2018) https://www.aclu.org/issues/national-security/discriminatory-profiling/nationwide-anti-mosque-activity.%20retrived%20on%2011,%20J(retrieved on January 11, 2018). 

[2] U.S. places Pakistan on watch list for religious freedom violations, (2018), Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-religion/u-s-places-pakistan-on-watch-list-for-religious-freedom-violations-idUSKBN1ET1OA(retrieved on 11 January, 2018).

[3]  “US suspends $2 billion military aid to Pakistan over terror inaction”, Economic Times, (2018) https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/us-suspends-2-billion-military-aid-to-pakistan-over-terror-inaction/articleshow/62386728.cms( retrieved on 11 January, 2018)

[4] Rachel Avraham, “Standing with Hindus in Bangladesh”, The Washington Times, (2017), https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/jul/5/bangladesh-hindus-deserve-us-protection/( retrieved on 11 January, 2018)

 

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