A week ago, I awoke before dawn to the local Imam’s call to the Fajr, or morning prayer common throughout the Muslim majority world. I was in Pakistan, reflecting on how our UPIC (US-Pakistan Interreligious Consortium) effort has grown over the four years since our first trip to Oman. I felt both gratitude and humility for the opportunity to be engaged in this work among individuals from cultures as disparate as the US and Pakistan. We have much in common, but there are also huge gulfs between us. Later that day, as we passed between two locations on our journey, we followed a lead car, shotguns at the ready from each rear window, a symbolic statement to ongoing security concerns in Pakistan.
During this trip, we sought to better understand the dynamics between our two countries; the role that interreligious dialogue can play in our combined peacebuilding efforts; the questions our Pakistani friends have about our American way of life; and the ways that we can work together in enhancing our mutual respect and understanding. To accomplish these objectives, we were briefed by government officials, academic experts and community organizers who shared about the current situation in Pakistan and the relationship between our two countries.
We entered into dialogue with young people, including many female students from the Iqbal Institute for Research and Dialogue at the International Islamic University in Islamabad. These young women were assertive and inquisitive about American views of their country and why our media reports — including our current Presidential campaign — were so dominated by negative images of Pakistanis, especially Pakistani youth. Our conversations included an especially life-transforming experience for these women in a dialogue with UPIC delegates, Rabbi Reuven Firestone and Rabbi Simkha Weintraub.
We visited a poor Christian neighborhood marginalized by economic and political forces, rendering its members particularly vulnerable. Yet, in that humble place, we were regally showered with hospitality expressed in smiles and roses, and a deep appreciation for our presence, grateful that we acknowledged their plight and pledged our solidarity in seeking justice for marginalized communities. At the other end of the religious, social and economic spectrum, we visited the Badshahi Mosque — one of the largest in Pakistan, the first international interreligious delegation to do so. We were welcomed by the Imam, Abdul Khabir Azad, and were again greeted with smiles and roses.
Among the most gratifying experiences were presentations of two projects that had been initiated by UPIC in previous years and that continue to flourish: The Support Humanity Organization, based in Dera Ismail Khan, a community in the violent Northwest provinces, and founded by Sobia Khan, a young, single woman. Sobia uses sustainable agriculture as a vehicle to empower women whose husbands and sons have been killed by extremist violence. To date, 150 women have been trained through her program, and future growth is projected.
We were moved by a spirited presentation given by youth from the Lahore Editorial Board of KidSpirit, an internationally recognized in-print and online magazine created by and for Middle School aged young people, and designed around contemporary themes of concern to today’s youth. Both projects were given life by UPIC and financially supported, in part, by funds from Intersections and The Collegiate Church.
On the final day of our journey, our UPIC delegation was feted at the University of Management and Technology (UMT), a school of 10,000 students. The school’s Rector, Dr. Hasan Murad, offered the University as a setting for a much larger and more inclusive interreligious gathering in the spring of 2017 at their recently formed Center for Global Dialogue, a direct result of Dr. Murad’s involvement with UPIC. Another result: through the work of UPIC delegate Kelly McGrath Dalton, UMT recently joined with George Mason University in Virginia in an exchange of faculty. With funding from the US government, 40 faculty positions have been opened up for exchange between the schools over the next five years.
One thing that became apparent on this trip was the value of building relationships over time and in “staying the course” despite shifting headlines about the relationship between the US and Pakistan. Our first UPIC trip was to Oman — a neutral country — where about a dozen American and Pakistani delegates gathered with little more than an idea: By bringing together religious leaders, community organizers, scholars and students, we could shift the negative narrative that so often clouded the discourse between our two countries. Four years — and five trips to Pakistan — later, we have grown into a recognized force for good on two continents as we “deepen the discovery” of one another and work together on the things that make for peace.