In Pakistan, Seeking Healing, One Relationship at a Time

Responding to: Faith Leaders Helping to Heal the US-Pakistan Relationship

By: Melody Fox Ahmed

June 27, 2013

While driving to work the other day, a snippet of dialogue jumped out from the otherwise soothing background noise of the radio that I usually zone out to in traffic. “Pakistan has more terrorists per square mile than any other country,” read NPR correspondent Mary Louise Kelly, quoting a line from her new novel Anonymous Sources.
To most Americans, this statement would be unremarkable, an unfortunate reality, but likely part of the very background noise the news usually becomes during the morning commute. A fact taken for granted, confirmed every time the newspaper is opened, strengthened by the latest horrific report of international hikers killed by a group of Taliban in the beautiful mountain wilderness of Gilgit.

We have become desensitized to the terrible reality of violence in Pakistan, and the reasons for this violence. The victims of terrorism and drone strikes are faceless body counts; their names, their stories, completely unknown.

I thought of an email that a young Pakistani woman recently sent me after I met her at her university in Islamabad. She asked, “What things terrorize citizens of the US? Doesn’t everyone have their own fears they try to avoid, so isn’t it true that the concept of terror varies from person to person, country to country?”

On behalf of this student, I wanted to ask Mary Louise Kelly through the radio, “Who are these terrorists you write about? Have you been to Pakistan and met the young people who fill the universities there with their passion for the possibilities before them: a new democratically elected government, a future free from corruption and violence, where they can be proud to remain and work for justice and peace? These young people represent nearly half of the population of the sixth most populous nation in the world.

I had a chance to hear their stories firsthand while in Pakistan as part of the US-Pakistan Interreligious Consortium (UPIC)—a first of its kind gathering of faith leaders from both the United States and Pakistan organized by Intersections International.

A shared respect for the role of religion as a peacebuilding and bridgebuilding force, and a commitment to faith-inspired action, were among the many commonalities the group discovered. We discussed our shared constitutional and humanitarian values—democracy and respect for human rights, religious freedom, women’s and minority rights. The United States and Pakistan share a long history of friendship. President Ayub Khan was honored with a ticker tape parade in New York City and a state dinner at Mt. Vernon in 1961. Jackie Kennedy toured Lahore in an open top car while being showered with rose petals in 1962. We share a population of hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis who have been educated and lived in the United States. And we share a vibrant, diverse population of milllennials, the young generation using technology and social media to bridge the gaps between us and form connections. Surveys show this group to be the most tolerant and open to other cultures and faiths.

It was powerful to highlight our shared commonalities and history, which are little known or overlooked in the light of the tension and danger that now characterizes the US-Pakistan relationship. (Who can imagine Michelle Obama riding in an open convertible through any Pakistani city today?) But we also spoke frankly of the many challenges. Anti-Americanism is very real. Dangerously wrong perceptions of America and Pakistan from both sides fuel misunderstanding and violence. Ugly conspiracy theories are rampant, involving hostile US takeovers and anti-Semitism. The misperceptions must be addressed from both sides.

And there are glaring truths that cannot be ignored: 40,000-49,000 Pakistanis have died as a result of US interventions. The issue of drones is an inflammatory and divisive topic. The national literacy rate is officially 57 percent; for women it drops to 37 percent. Educational quality is poor. There is a dividing line between those who are seen as religious, and those who are seen as educated—the two rarely coexist and the space for talking about religion in public life is limited, dangerously marginalizing the religious as extremists and allowing the exploitation of religion for political reasons and vice versa.

UPIC took on these issues with recognition and respect over a week together. We recognized that starting to talk about them was opening a door, through which we hope and plan to continue the journey together towards finding solutions over the next few years.

The reasons for action are more urgent than ever. Pakistan has a population of over 180 million people. This population is part of a global Muslim population of around 1.5 billion people, or one-fourth of humanity. What happens in Pakistan matters to this population. Pakistan has served as an inspiration in many fields—politics, science, sport, poetry, nuclear power, and many more, and emotional ties run deep. A more informed understanding of Pakistan and the complexity and reality of its society, religions, cultures, and interaction with the world is imperative.

The challenge is intensified amid the continuing mistrust and misunderstanding about Islam and its place in western societies. Polls continue to show that the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims since 9/11 has grown wider. In 2011, for example, nearly half of Americans surveyed believed that Islamic and American values were incompatible.

How can we act now? Our group returned again and again to the storytelling theme, supported by the refrain that there is a lack of people-to-people contact between ordinary Americans and Pakistanis. Real contact between real people, not just between official delegations that exclude people who don’t speak English, the poor, the rural, the young, the marginalized. We need to have a commitment to building a community based upon real relationships. So we pledged to continue meeting over the next few years, both in the United States and in Pakistan, to build our relationships and widen our circle of influence. We will work to connect young people and foster exchanges of students and educators between our countries. We will utilize social media to forge connections, offer a counterpoint to the negative media narrative, and promote storytelling by and about young people.

The work and commitment required will be intense to lead to real change. But as a first step, UPIC’s session in Pakistan was transformative for both sides. A student wrote me, “I am a student from International Islamic University and I am very thankful for your arrival in our country. You just melted the growing hatred in our heart against your country.” This is quite a bit more hopeful than a journalist reducing Pakistanis to a population “terrorists per square mile.” If a simple relationship-building visit can go so far, the future is hopeful. We should not be afraid of reaching out to forge connections with ordinary Pakistanis; the real terror would be what will happen if we do not.

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In Pakistan, Seeking Healing, One Relationship at a Time