South Asia in general and Pakistan in particular has tremendous riches that range from the geographical to the cultural. However, one of it’s most vibrant resource lies in the diverse cultural and religious populations comprised of—from all cultural backgrounds—Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and others. A rich mosaic like this may excite anyone who appreciates the value of diversity in this garden of color that is the world that God created (and I speak as a Muslim anthropologist with the context of Pakistan in mind and with this paper’s brilliant readers). Diversity brings rich foods, colourful dresses, multiple languages, different dimensions and a wealth of perspectives. Indeed, diversity, even difference, is part of God’s plan. He made us “male and female” and made us into “nations and tribes” so that we may “know” and, not despise, one another (Quran 49:13). When we are secure in our own faith (which is knowledge-based) and identity we do not feel threatened, rather our differences in this inter-connected world serve only to enlarge our own perspectives.
“Knowing each other”, in anthropological terms, means opening our doors to discovering the perceived “Other” (anyone from outside the circle that we see as “us”). In the dictionary the verb to “know” means 1) appreciate, 2) to have knowledge of, 3) understand, 4) be on good terms with, socialize with, have dealings with, understand and empathize with. Empathy is a very important concept as current Social Scientists have argued that the “Age of Reason” is behind us and this is “The Age of Empathy”. Empathy is a vital skill, which helps us understand and share the feelings of another – it helps us walk in someone else’s shoes (empathy is different to sympathy—sympathy is “me”-oriented while empathy is “you”-oriented).
This verse in the Holy Quran affirms that the most honoured in God’s sight is the most righteous. Thus righteousness demands the care of others, be these neighbours, orphans, the poor, and most certainly fellow human beings from all religio-cultural backgrounds. The Quran, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), and the messages of the Caliphs repeatedly urge Muslims to take care of the people of other faiths amongst them. Our religious literature, read in depth, makes it clear that this is our duty as “righteous” human beings. The pursuit of peace is in itself a high form of ibadat (worship). Thus, efforts to engage and understand “the Other” (without compromising one’s own faith) is necessary in this fractured world. Peace is what all the great religions teach; but humankind, with all our flaws and ambitions, have yet to achieve in our shared world.
I recall when we first began designing Peace Building courses at the University of Cambridge (the first of its kind in the 800 years history of Cambridge). The program allowed me to design the courses and teach them as Director and, of course, to learn with people who came to study there, most of who were very learned imams, rabbis, and priests. Later, I also had the opportunity to teach students who were training to become priests at the University’s Ridley Hall. This course was for many of them a first encounter with Islam, Muslims and Quranic verses. First, we discussed all the challenging and negative perceptions the students held, then, through rigorous analysis and research, we explored ways to overcame misconceptions. Although at times this was an uncomfortable exercise, it helped open the door for a positive understanding of “the Other”.
Building on these experiences and learning from these new educational tools of dialogue and diversity, the courses at CD&A on ilm, adab aur insaaniat (knowledge, propriety and humanity) have been very positively received by the students (who come from Waziristan, Quetta, Sheikhupura, etc) and who have engaged in this new subject and important ways of learning and seeing the world.
The Age of Reason is behind us; this is The Age of Empathy
Discovering diversity and celebrating it is important for us. We need to revive within ourselves the tolerance that is part of our tradition, beginning from Mehergarh (7000 BC) to Taxilla (10th Century BC – the oldest university where students came from all around the world) to many periods of coexistence during Mughal times. As Muslims, we need to learn lessons from the Charter of Medina (see, also, Surah 23: Verse 52) and from the biographies of all the Caliphs who stressed the protection and importance of the rights of minorities, especially the Ahl-al-Kitaab (People of the Book). Politics and perception of the other needs to be untangled.
Indeed God is Rehman and Rahim, the Compassionate and the Merciful and He loves these qualities embodied in the best of His creation—human beings, the possessors of aql and reason (the very faculty that makes us different in nature to the animal kingdom). At an inter-faith gathering in Pakistan a Sikh participant from KPK said, “we want to be treated as humans!” Hazrat Isa (AS) and Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in their outstanding characters, were mercies to all of humankind and embodied the beautiful qualities of compassion, humility, and mercy. What would the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) who is Rehmat al Alameen (mercy to ALL of mankind) and who forgave the woman who daily threw dirt on him by visiting her when she was sick, say to the case of Aasiya (mother of five children) whose fate was sealed by our “justice” system. And what would Hazrat Isa (AS) say to this, who himself stopped a large crowd from stoning a woman who had allegedly committed zina by saying, let the first person throw a stone at her who has never committed a sin?
Faith is inextricably interlinked with respect for the other. We need to be empathetic and compassionate towards fellow human beings, whether from another family, culture, faith, sect or country. The shift in perception of people of other religions (especially the Abrahamic) from the Ahl-al-Kitaab (who, as “believers”, held high status in, for example, the Prophet’s time, and Muslim Spain) to being labeled, more recently, as “kaafirs” (unbelievers) is one of the root causes of conflict. On an ethnographic level, I observed that workers (from KPK, for instance, where I did fieldwork) refused to share the same plate of food with Christian workers as it was seen as “paleeth” (unclean to eat). How does this caste-like hierarchical practice still exist when Islam, by definition, is egalitarian?
On an individual level, not everyone, however, lacks compassion, a sense of inclusiveness and the will to help fellow human beings from another faith: A dynamic Commissioner of Peshawar noted that one day when he entered his office he found the commissioner’s official sweeper reading the English newspaper with great intent instead of doing his job. When asked by the Commissioner if he could read, the sweeper apologized profusely and admitted that he had a BA but he thought that due to his Christian name he could not find a befitting job. Subsequently, the Commissioner immediately promoted him to the status of a computer officer at the Commissioner’s office.
Within an academic context, FCC’s the Centre for Dialogue and Action (CD&A), LUMS’ Aahang and NUST’s Centre for International Peace and Stability (CIPS) are some examples, of key Pakistani institutions recognizing the great need of discovering diversity, albeit with different focuses, through peace building awareness and education in South Asia.
On a higher education level, I am impressed by the campus of FC College in Lahore. The institution was created some 150 years ago and has educated thousands of young Pakistanis, including its policy makers, thinkers, historians and leaders. It is a vibrant educational place with much to offer in Pakistan. The students are future leaders; the teachers – a good mix of indigenous and international Professors. The Rector, Dr Tebbe – educated at Princeton University – and CD&A Academic Director, Charles Ramsey—both speak brilliant Urdu and are as local as you and me in respecting the context they work in—their hard work, dedication and humility evoke, in my mind, ideal Abrahamic ethics.
There are some bright rays of hope but more of us—each one of us—need to work harder to accept and acknowledge the diversity that builds our country and region. Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and many others have lived in Pakistan for generations. They have contributed to it and worked hard in the making of it.
Quality education with good citizenship, reviving a positive attitude and pride in our own culture of adab (respect for the other) and inclusive understanding of faith is key. The struggle of the Quaid-e-Azam was for the rights of all human beings—symbolized in the white of the Pakistani flag. So don’t you think that the identity of Pakistan is constructed on the basis of being inclusive, not exclusive, of the diverse cultural and faith groups who live here in what they see as their own home country? From the highest of rungs to the poorest—from the Rector of FCC, Dr Tebbe to the Christian Pukhtun domestic worker (locally called jamadaar) in Mardan, my friend Salina, there are many people of faith who act as the quiet heroes of everyday life in Pakistan. The measure of our success will be achieved when we can accept, respect, and protect the most vulnerable amongst us, especially women, the orphans, the disabled and our fellow human beings from various religio-cultural groups.