Faith Leaders Helping to Heal the US-Pakistan Relationship

By: Robert Chase

May 21, 2013

As Pakistanis went to the polls last week seeking their first democratic transition after a full-term civilian-led government, Americans heard a narrative of Pakistan as a largely violent and lawless country, steeped in corruption, and plagued by extremism. But this is only part of the story in this diverse and strategically important country with a large diaspora in the United States.
Last month, a multi-faith delegation of US religious leaders, the US-Pakistan Interreligious Consortium (UPIC), met with Pakistani counterparts in Islamabad and Lahore. This unprecedented initiative is part of a larger effort called the US-Pakistan Leaders Forum that brings together individuals across a variety of civil sectors to build relationships, alter stereotypes, and develop action agendas that promote mutual respect and understanding between both countries. The 14-member UPIC delegation was organized by Intersections International, a New York City-based NGO, in partnership with two prestigious universities in Pakistan—Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and the International Islamic University in Islamabad (IIU).

The delegation was met with a remarkable openness for engagement. We spoke with religious and community leaders, professors, students, and grassroots activists. We spent a lot of time listening, and we heard a perspective which, though sharply critical of US foreign policy (as well as their own), was equally committed to finding points of agreement in combatting the dehumanizing trends in our respective societies.

There is much to learn as we seek to “change the story” on both sides.

We all know the American side of the equation: the cost in lives, limbs, and the huge financial investment in the Global War on Terror; the resentment we feel toward Pakistan for being a mercurial ally at best, for harboring Osama bin Laden, for blasphemy laws used to persecute Christians and other religious minorities, and for atrocities against women.

But what about the Pakistani side? Are we in the United States aware that the Global War on Terror has taken more than 40,000 Pakistani lives? Can we imagine the terror inflicted on a whole population caused by drone strikes, and then the humiliation we heap on top of the pain because we refuse to officially acknowledge that the strikes occur?

Mumtaz Ahmad, director of the Iqbal International Institute for Research and Dialogue at IIU said surveys indicate overwhelming majorities of Pakistanis believe the War on Terror is actually a War on Islam, that Jews and Christians are in a conspiracy against Muslims, and that Americans are behind the current social unrest in Pakistan in order to break apart the country, so that we can seize or dismantle the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. Sobering words. The fact that the evidence for this is slim or non-existent is immaterial to Pakistanis. Facts often have little to do with fears or perceptions. Of course, one in six Americans believe President Obama is a Muslim and, as UPIC delegate Alan Jones shared with us in Islamabad, 10 percent of Americans believe Joan of Arc is Noah’s wife.

We also spoke with female students from IIU’s Critical Thinking Forum. Their approach to problem-solving was assertive, inquisitive, and truly inventive and clearly does not fit the narrative we read about Pakistan in the States. I had the distinct impression that we were meeting with the next generation of Pakistani leaders. And that should give us all great hope! Remember, sixty-three percent of Pakistanis are under 25.

One singular challenge was raised time and again: what difference can religious leaders actually make in a country that is beset with deep and abiding problems like poverty, unemployment, a dysfunctional educational system, extremist violence (isn’t religion the problem here?), and profound distrust in the government’s ability to right the ship. These are largely Pakistani issues and, as we were told, best left for the Pakistanis to solve. But, these are social issues that also reverberate across the United States. The disparity of income, unemployment, human rights violations in the immigrant community, dysfunctional government, and constructive outlets for young people are issues common to both the United States and Pakistan. Are there things we can learn from each other to help salve these similar social wounds in our respective countries? Is working for justice a place for common ground? Can we bring a voice of moral authority to a debate that far too often focuses on politics? If so, how?

Masoom Yasinzai, rector of IIU, addressed our group:

“While the diplomats, politicians and policymakers have their own ways of sorting out the differences in perspectives and positions on certain issues of what they like to call geostrategic concerns, the role of religious and grassroots leaders, I believe, is to examine the deeper aspects of these relationships—the aspects that bind the people of our two countries in our shared values. Whether we are Muslims, Christians, or Jews, whether we are Pakistanis or Americans, we all want to make this world a better place—more peaceful, more equitable, more responsive to the demands of justice and fairness, more tolerant and compassionate, and above all, based on morally informed and not on politically expedient policies. (…) Religious leaders speak from the pulpit of conscience and not from the soapbox of politicians. Hence, they have much more credibility than their counterparts in other sectors of society when they speak on issues of public interest, whether domestic or foreign.”

When the time came for us to create our action agenda, we sought to have a deep impact, but we also wanted our objectives to be reachable. Three elements came into focus.

First, we agreed to continue meeting. Pakistani-American relations have been fraught with fits and starts. In Pakistan, governments come and go, official programs begin and are then abandoned, and the lack of staying power on the part of Americans is deeply resented. If the delegation is to have any long-term impact, our own internal commitment to one another is essential. And so, we agreed to meet again, in sha’Allah, in 2014—in the United States—and we agreed that we would add a youth contingent from both countries.

A second area of cooperation emerged around exchange programs. Our delegation was comprised of not only religious leaders but also representatives from: Hofstra, Georgetown, Seton Hall, and Christian Theological Seminary on the US side, and LUMS, IIU, Edwardes College and Forman Christian College in Pakistan. Opportunities for US students to study in Pakistan are almost non-existent (insurance companies don’t want to incur the liability); we are determined to find ways to overcome this obstacle so that more Americans can study in Pakistan.

The third area concerned the problematic issue of drones. Parts of two days had been devoted to a discussion about US drone strikes (with Pakistani government complicity). I always believed that the most terrifying aspect of drones is that they are silent killers, but I learned that what terrorizes whole communities about drone warfare is that they are not silent. In rural villages, the constant hum of drone engines is audible and serves as an ever-present reminder that instant death looms just overhead.

After much discussion, LUMS Law Professor, Uzair Kayani suggested we begin a joint US-Pakistani campaign to raise money to help rebuild the lives and communities where drone strikes occur. This is core to what religious communities have always done: help people in need as they reclaim their lives. At the same time, such an effort would raise the moral questions surrounding drone warfare; increase the profile of US policies and their failure to acknowledge the damage done—a deep affront to the national honor of Pakistanis; implicitly acknowledge the Pakistani government’s involvement; be a joint effort of Americans and Pakistanis thereby demonstrating their solidarity; and clearly spring from faith-based convictions across sectarian lines.

Did we plant seeds that might ultimately yield a fruitful harvest?

Mumtaz Ahmad, in an email after the conference ended, wrote:

“What really surprised—and pleasantly, at that—many of [my colleagues] here was the modesty and humility they saw in their American guests. It was surprising for them for two reasons: they often find their own religious leaders here mostly stiff-necked and self-righteous; and they thought that all Americans speak like the US officials who visit Pakistan: ‘We expect you to do more; we want you to become good boys.’ Almost everyone told me that they saw a new face of America: deeply religious, caring, compassionate, humble, and willing to listen with respect and patience. You simply can't imagine, my friends, how important was your trip to Pakistan! It was for the first time that many of us came to know that ‘winning hearts and minds’ meant something real.”

There is much yet to do, but perhaps in some small way, the healing has begun.

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Faith Leaders Helping to Heal the US-Pakistan Relationship