Creating a Space for Interreligious Dialogue in Pakistan
July 12, 2016
On July 8, 2016, the Berkley Center co-sponsored an event with the NGO Intersections International, which just completed its fifth annual trip to Pakistan, in which it brought Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders from the United States to Pakistan to engage with the local community and foster dialogue and respect.
The event featured a panel of leaders in interreligious efforts, who shared their work and discussed the realities in Pakistan. Imtashal Tariq works at Intersections and was the Intersections representative for the event. Amineh Hoti has been working to build courses that incorporate peace and religious understanding at Forman Christian College in Lahore and with the Center for Dialogue and Action. She is working to to create a combined university and think tank that can bring in scholars to change the narrative in Pakistan. Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub, who is active in interfaith and Muslim-Jewish engagement efforts, shared about his recent experience at the Islamic International University in Pakistan and the connections he found between Pakistani people and Jewish people, such as the challenges they each face in addressing intrafaith diversity and the role of women.
Finally, two recent graduates of the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) joined the event: Fatima Khalid Khan and Minahil Mehdi, who both work for the LUMS student-based organization HumAahang, which promotes interfaith tolerance and inclusion through a variety of activities. Fatima and Minahil’s work resonated most with me because they are just a couple of years older than I am, and I was able to connect with them as we bonded over stories of a South Asian cultural upbringing a few days prior to the event.
I was struck by the diversity of the initiatives of HumAahang. Upon first look, I found it hard to imagine how one student-based organization could execute such a variety of efforts well. But it quickly became clear that HumAahang’s passion for peacebuilding touches the lives of many with its pure motives and genuine compassion. HumAahang’s members celebrate the religious festivals of different traditions, such as Christmas or Diwali. They spend time with family members of people killed as a result of terrorism and hear their stories, recognizing individual lives are more than just a number. They mentor underprivileged students in Pakistan and encourage them to attend college. They hold vigils, photo exhibitions, and debates. They take road trips around Pakistan to understand the great religious and cultural diversity that Pakistan is home to; on a recent trip, they were able to visit the Kalash people, an ethnic minority with Grecian roots who are rapidly losing their 30,000 remaining members to pressured conversions. They make powerful statements by forming human chains around the sites of attacks or targeted communities.
The efforts that these leaders have undertaken are particularly laudable in that the sociopolitical climate of Pakistan is not yet conducive to engaging difficult topics such as interfaith dialogue. In the United States, we come from a place of privilege where it isn’t as taboo to discuss the topic publicly or in academia. Some may disagree, but it is less likely that U.S.-based interfaith activists will endanger themselves as a result of their work. As Hoti shared, if the word “interfaith” is even used in Pakistan, it is seen as an attempt at conversion. So the efforts of these leaders must sensitively navigate the cultural and political realities in Pakistan to avoid offending or off putting the very audiences for whom interfaith dialogue is so crucial, and also find spaces to advance interreligious dialogue; and so, their efforts are doubly commendable.