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.