Our workshop, from November 19-22 in Islamabad, was the first step of a longer-term project that is already breaking new ground. Working closely with the Pakistan-based Peace and Education Foundation, Mehlaqa Samdani of Critical Connections facilitated an ideologically diverse group of 24 participants representing four sectors in Pakistan: human rights, education, religious clergy, and the media. Within a highly charged religious and political climate, our program is unique because it brings “secular” leadership together with religious leaders, who themselves represent four different major sects—including from some of the most conservative seminaries in the country.
“For me, it was for the first time that religious scholars and secular people had face-to-face dialogue
and many misconceptions were cleared, many stereotypes broken.”
- Workshop participant
A prominent Shia participant mentioned that never before had he been given the opportunity to tell Sunnis how he felt about the stereotypes people harbored about his community, and he used this opportunity to dispel some of the more offensive stereotypes.
The goals of the workshop were to examine principles of conflict transformation and peacebuilding, conduct a joint analysis of the multidimensional causes of sectarian intolerance in Pakistan, build trust between various sectors and sects represented, and develop sector-specific seed projects that begin to chip away at some of the societal, institutional and attitudinal factors that allow violent sectarianism to exist in the country.
Participants identified a range of causes that contributed to sectarian intolerance in the country. These included proxy wars being fought by regional and sectarian rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, the political patronage of sectarian organizations by successive Pakistani governments, lack of governance that allowed sectarian organizations to entrench themselves, weak criminal justice infrastructure, economic disparity between Shia landlords and their Sunni tenants in rural Punjab, and a history of institutionalized discrimination against various minority groups.
After analyzing these causes, participants focused their attention on the socialization processes within society that encourage prejudices and biased behavior. It soon became apparent that the problem lay not just with the curriculum taught within Islamic seminaries, but the way in which sectarian attitudes were passed to students from educators across public, private and religious schools.
Another concern participants raised was about the glorification of violence and the absence of non-violent heroes in the curriculum. One educator noted that textbooks outlining the life of the Prophet Mohammad mostly mentioned his conquests, rather than other aspects of his life where he was the embodiment of mercy and compassion. The role of the media in sensationalizing violence—inadvertently amplifying the narrative of perpetrators, ignoring the victims of terrorism, and highlighting sectarian cleavages as opposed to examples of sectarian harmony—was similarly discussed in great detail.
The third and final day of the workshop was devoted entirely to group activities that were designed to help participants within each sector—human rights, education, religious clergy, and the media—identify their strategic points of entry for mitigating sectarian intolerance in the country. Divided into these sector-specific working groups, participants developed pilot projects and budgets, identified project coordinators within each sector, and devised a timeline for the implementation of their projects over the next five months.
The overall consensus of the group was that while the larger political and structural forces were important to take into account, it is important to work on attitudinal change at the grassroots level. By promoting tolerance and critical thinking, we can build resilient communities that are more capable of withstanding the manipulations of powerful people who incite violence.
The implementation of the four pilot projects will take place over the next five months, followed by an evaluation and conference before the start of Ramadan in spring.