Inter-Religious Relations in Pakistan: Interview with Rehman Faiz. by Yoginder Sikand. Monthly Qalan


Rehman Faiz is president of the Lahore unit of Amnesty International. He is active in promoting inter-faith dialogue in Pakistan, and is the editor of the recently launched inter-faith journal 'Insight'. In this online interview with Yoginder Sikand he discusses the work he is engaged in.

Q: Could you tell us something about yourself and your work?
A: By profession, I am a marketing manager in a healthcare organization. Besides, I am also associated with some groups working for peace and human rights, including the Religious Peace Research Organization (RPRO) and the Insight Forum.

Q: What sort of work does the PPRO do?
A: The RPRO is working towards combatting and eliminating religious intolerance and extremism in society. It draws its inspiration from what it sees as the core theme of the world religions--unconditional love for humanity, commitment to peace and willingness to sacrifice for the rights of others. It arranges inter-religious dialogue activities to foster understanding and better relations between diverse religious and spiritual communities in Pakistan. Through these activities, people of different communities visit each other's places of worship and learn about their beliefs and observances. In this way they are able to explore their own religious and spiritual teachings that relate to respect for people of other faiths. The RPRO also organizes get-togethers on the occasion of religious festivals, such as Eid, Christmas and Diwali, where people from different walks of life and different communities come together and learn about each other's religions, thereby helping promote a sense of harmony.

In order to spread this message, the RPRO has recently launched a quarterly English periodical called 'Insight'. It contains research-based articles and essays on inter-communal and inter-religious peace and critiques of extremism. We have also published similar literature, in the form of books, in Urdu.

Q: How did you get interested in the issue of inter-faith relations?

A: I guess this has much to do with my own childhood. I spent my early years in Multan, a city of Sufis and saints. The teachings of Sufis prohibit taking the life of any innocent human being. As the Sufis see it, the body is the residence of the soul, and so the body, too, is holy. Hence, every person must respect and protect the dignity and sanctity of his or her own body and mind as well as that of others. As a child, I grew up in what was then a fairly tolerant society. For instance, at that time in Multan most of the Tazias taken out on the 10th of Muharram or Ashura, commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, were led by Sunnis. However, as I grew older Pakistan began witnessing the rise of religious extremism and even terrorism. This, in turn, led me to develop an interest in studying about religion, to seek to understand how it was possible for religion to be interpreted in such diverse, and mutually contradictory, ways.

I then began reading about the various world religions, as well as
philosophy and psychology. I visited mosques, churches, Hindu, Buddhist and Jain temples and Sikh gurduwaras. The outcome of this exercise, as I saw it, was that I discovered what I believe to be the many amazingly similar teachings of all the religions, along with both positive as well as destructive approaches and interpretations of these religions by those who claim to be their followers. It struck me that the various religions appear to be different from the outside, in terms of their form, but that they all share a common inner essence or core. The outer shell consists of rites, rituals, ceremonies, beliefs, myths and doctrines. These vary from one religion to another. However, there is an inner core common to all religions: the universal teachings of morality and charity, the importance of a disciplined and pure mind full of love, compassion, good will and tolerance.

Q: How do you account for the growing Shia-Sunni conflict in Pakistan today?

A: This appears to be a simple question, but its answer is quite complex. As I said earlier, we have a long history of tolerance, compassion and sacrifice. In the years soon after the formation of Pakistan in 1947, religious and sectarian strife was hardly heard of. However, things began to change in the late 1970s, when general Zia ul- Haq come to power and used a particular sect for promoting his own goals. He was supported in this by the USA and Saudi Arabia, which shared common interests and objectives with the then Pakistani army establishment.

At exactly the same time, the Shia Islamic revolution took place in neighbouring Iran, which had a major influence on the Shia population of Pakistan as well. Meanwhile, the establishment's support for the Deobandi sect as a sort of official Islam led, as a reaction, to the formation of the Tehrik-e Nifaz-e Fiqh-e Jaffria(TNFJ)in April 1979, by the Shias of Pakistan under the joint initiative of Mufti Jafar Hussain and Allama Syed Mohammad Rizvi. In order to display its strength, the TNFJ organised a massive demonstration of Shias in Islamabad in July 1980. It was the first demonstration of its type by the Shias in the history of the country. Following this, the Anjuman Sipah-e Sahaba (later called the Sipah-e Sahaba Pakistan or SSP) was set up in 1984, with the support of the then Pakistani establishment, in order to counter the rising force of certain Shia groups, who were said to have been backed by the Iranian intelligence. The sympathy of many Shias towards the Bhutto family helped set off alarm bells in the higher circles of the Pakistani government. Equally worried were forces like the USA and Saudi Arabia.

Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, a semi-educated khateeb who had received his religious education at the Darul Uloom, Kabirwala and the Khair-ul Madaris, Multan, was the founder of the SSP. To begin with, the SSP was not a violent organization, but within a few years it merged as a brutal outfit, leading to a major escalation of Shia-Sunni violence. Outside forces also supported and funded Shia-Sunni discord to achieve their goals. This has been recognized by several Pakistani scholars themselves. The daily "Nation", in a report published on 20 January, 1995,quoting a confidential report of the Home Department of Punjab, stating:
"[Under Zia], the Saudi Government started backing the Deobandi school of thought and, in the wake of the Afghan war, supplied funds and arms to the Deobandis. Indirectly, the USA and a few other Western countries also supported the SSP to counter the growing Shia and Iranian influence in this region".

In other words, sectarian violence in Pakistan is actually not a matter of some supposed innate intolerance among the Sunnis and Shiites. Rather, it is rooted in a complex web of social, political and economic factors, internal as well as external.

Q: What do you feel about do you feel about the way the government has handled the issue of Shia-Sunni strife?

A: Many governments have come and gone in Pakistan since the early 1980s, and one can discern somewhat different responses by different governments as far as this issue is concerned. On the whole, one could say that the governments have had little interest in seriously solving this question of burning concern. Rather, they seem to have been more interested in promoting their own interests in their handling of sectarian strife or similar sorts of problems. For instance, the Mohajir Qaumi Movement [later renamed as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM)] was set up in the 1980s by Altaf Hussain in order to counter the activities of the Sindu Desh movement under the late G.M. Syed, as well as to undermine the popularity of Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan People's Party (PPP). When the MQM went out of the control of the establishment during the first term of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (1988-90), the establishment tried to weaken Altaf Hussain's popularity amongst the Mohajirs by trying to divide the Sunni and Shia migrants from UP and Bihar. But after failing to do this, a splinter group of the MQM was set up, the MQM Haqiqi(Real)in order to counter the MQM.

Q: What made the SSP and similar groups take to the path of violence?

A: The SSP was armed, and its activists were trained and then inducted into Afghanistan in order to fight against the Russians. Among other Deobandi jihadi organizations involved in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan were the Harkat ul-Jihad al-Islami(HUJI) and the Harkat-ul Mujahideen (HUM), which are considered to be the offspring of the SSP. Likewise, the Jaish-e Mohammad (JEM), which was formed in 2000 through an apparent division in the HUM.

In 1988, the Iranian intelligence, it is said, encouraged the Shias of Gilgit in the Northern Areas to rise in revolt and demand the creation of a separate 'Karakoram' province for the Shias. General Zia inducted jihadi tribal hordes into Gilgit, where they carried out a large-scale massacre of the Shias. Moreover, the SSP of Punjab was allowed to open an office in Gilgit, to rally round the Sunnis in the area against the Shias. This resulted in the spread of sectarian terrorism to the Northern Areas, before which it had limited mainly to Punjab and the NWFP. Then, in 1994, Alaf Hussain's MQM re-organized itself in interior Sindh. To counter this, the SSP, which had been largely restricted to Punjab, was inducted into Sindh in order to reinforce the position of MQM (H). This resulted in the spread of sectarian terrorism to Sindh as well.

Q: What do you have to say about the role of the present Pakistani government in countering sectarian strife?

A: As far as the current government is concerned, it appears to have taken some solid steps in a positive direction, including proscription of violent sectarian groups and imprisonment of many of their activists. This is one of the outcomes of the decision of General Pervez Musharraf to take part in the US led 'war against terrorism'. The decision has totally changed Pakistan's foreign policy, which has also impacted on the way in which Pakistan relates to Afghanistan and Iran, besides also having a positive influence on India-Pakistan relations.

The current upsurge of sectarian violence, especially in Balochistan, does not seem related to any 'internal agenda' of the government. Such violence does not provide any strategic benefit to the government. On the contrary, it badly harms its own policy. To me it seems perhaps a result of the dejection that violent groups in Afghanistan and along the Pakistan-Afghan border are today facing. This may also be a reaction to what they see as Shia support to the USA, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq. Whatever the reason might be, it is the duty of the government of Pakistan to provide protection and security to all its citizens. Repeated violence of the same sort and at the same places clearly points to major loopholes in the governmental system and gross negligence, which need to be urgently addressed.

Q: How do you feel Shia-Sunni relations in Pakistan will unfold in the near future?

A: We are going through a very crucial period, when the world is undergoing major changes. The complex roots of Shia-Sunni sectarian violence, the influence of external Islamist groups, the new international agenda and a whole host of other internal and external factors do not suggest the possibility of an immediate peace being established in this regard. However, if we look at the other side of things, we do have a lot to be optimistic about, such as the positive intentions of the current government and the emerging support for peace among many young Pakistanis. People all over the world are now in closer contact with others. I hope this will provide people of different communities the chance to know the ideas, beliefs and approaches of others in a better way. We must have to struggle hard for this, however, for a world of religious peace, free from inter-sectarian and inter-religious extremism and hatred.

Q: What do you feel about the role of madrasas and the ulema in promoting Shia-Sunni conflict in Pakistan?

A: Madrasas have played a major role in the rise of Shia-Sunni sectarian intolerance in Pakistan. In 1947, there were around 245 madrasas in Pakistan. In April 2002, Dr. Mahmood Ahmed Ghazi, the Minister of Religious Affairs, put the number of madrasas in the country at 10,000, with some 1.7 million students. In an analysis paper for the Brookings Institution in 2001, P.W. Singer estimated the number of madrasas in the country at 45,000, although he did not cite any source for this.

Both Shias and Sunnis have their own separate madrasas. Since the Sunnis form the majority of the population of Pakistan, Sunni madrasas are far more numerous. Among the Sunnis, the three major maslaks (schools of thought), the Deobandis, the Barelvis and the Ahl-e Hadith (Salafis), as well as the Jama'at-e Islami, have their own separate madrasas. The number of madrasas in the country increased rapidly during General Zia ul-Haq's rule (1977-1988). In the course of the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets, the United States sent in money, arms and ammunition to Afghan fighters, and much of this found its way to several madrasas. The Saudi organization, Harmain Islamic Foundation, is said to have generously helped the Ahl-e Hadith, because of which it emerged as a powerful force. The Lashkar-e Tayyaba, an organization that had been active in fighting in Afghanistan and Kashmir, is associated with the Ahl-e Hadith. In recent years, the influence of the Deobandis has also increased, as the Taliban were trained in their seminaries. It should be remembered that the number of Deobandi madrasas is the highest, and they are thought to be the basic source of manpower and resources for anti-Shia vehemence in Pakistan.

Q: How do ordinary Pakistanis, both Shias and Sunnis, see each other? Is the Shia-Sunni conflict more at the level of the ulema or is it deeply rooted among the general populace?

A: As I have described earlier, Shias and Sunnis have been living together in considerable harmony for centuries, and this has also led to a considerable blurring of boundaries in terms of several shared religious practices. In many parts of Pakistan it is still a common practice for Sunnis to participate in the observances of Muharram, including tazia processions and majalis (lectures devoted to the theme of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain). Often, Sunnis set up sabils (water-stalls)for Shia mourners (azadaran) who participate in the mourning processions. Furthermore, many Sufi saints, whose shrines are found all over Pakistan, have worked in the area for centuries to preach the message of universal love and compassion. Because of this, they have always enjoyed the love and respect of people of all religions and sects.

Except for a very small minority, there are no social differences between common Shias and Sunnis. Hence, one can confidently claim that Shia-Sunni conflict is limited to a fraction of the ulema and some of their followers, and that it is not widespread and deep-rooted among the common people.

Q: In which parts of Pakistan is the conflict more acute and why?

A: In the early 1980s incidents of sectarian violence occurred primarily in the interior of Punjab, especially in the areas of Jhang, Multan, Bahawalpur, and Muzaffar Garh, etc.. However, with the passage of time it spread to other major cities such as Lahore, Rawalpindi, Faisalabad, Quetta and Sargodha. There have also been incidents of Shia-Sunni violence in Peshawar, Gilgit and Karachi. Today, the areas of acute sensitivity are Quetta, Jhang, Lahore, Faisalabad, Multan and Bahawalpur.

Q: How do you feel Shia-Sunni dialogue can be promoted?

A: There is an urgent need to promote the idea of Shia-Sunni dialogue and partnership at the level of the ulema. This should be based on the acceptance by both groups of each other, which, in turn, must be rooted in the recognition that there are no basic differences between among them on fundamental issues, including the basic principles of Islam. Shias and Sunnis share the same basic tenets, and most of the differences relate, in fact, to differences that naturally occur among mujtahids regarding some rules that they derive from the Quran or the Sunnah.

Being a major source of religious extremism and tolerance, it is vital that the ulema be won over to the idea of peaceful dialogue. For this, a forum must be formed to bring religious leaders from different sects and communities to promote bridges of understanding and mutual acceptance. It should work at both the inter-sectarian as well as the inter-religious levels. We at the RPRO are trying to do this in our own small way, with the recent launching of the 'Insight Forum' as a sister concern of the RPRO. The initiative has been appreciated and welcomed by representatives of different religions and schools of thought. Further, we plan to help form peace societies among students and youth that would arrange camps to promote peace and harmony on religious occasions like Eid, Christmas, Diwali, Muharram and the 'urs festivals of various Sufi saints. However, I think all of these initiatives are just a small drop in the ocean in the face of the intensity of the crisis that we are faced with at the global, regional and national levels.

Q: What plans do you have for your organization in the future?

A: As I have just described, despite our initiatives and all our plans, we are still a very weak and small organization. The most positive thing that we have achieved so far, however, is appreciation and recognition from many people. This gives us great hope and strength, for, after all, every great thing that has happened in the world started from just a single step. All our expenses have been met by contributions from our members themselves. This is, again, I believe, a very positive thing since we haven't established the RPRO as a routine project-based organization. However, with the increasing appreciation and acceptance of our work, we need to extend the canvass of our activities. We cordially invite groups and organizations to get in touch with us, to join hands for the promotion of inter-religious peace.

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