On a beautiful sunny morning in the heart of South Asia, rabbis, priests and imams gathered together in a little church in the slum area of a rich city, Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. Here, in the so-called “most dangerous place on earth” because of “violent extremism” was a little miracle in practice — and also a reflection of perfect normalcy that is the life of so many here — the coming together of people from different religions, cultures, genders, backgrounds and regions of the world in prayer and humility. All approaching faith from different perspectives and entrances but all uniting in their love of the Creator, the Giver, and the Cherisher.
For a little person like me, creating spaces of harmony and bringing different people together has been a dream — an act of ebadat (worship) in obedience to God — that I have been struggling towards for decades. So when Reverend Robert Chase said he was coming to Pakistan, I offered to take his group to the slums for a “real encounter” across class, culture and religion, instead of the usual fancy places South Asians liked to expose their visitors to in a generous act of hospitality. This time it was not going to be the grand and stunningly beautiful Serena Hotel, but a visit to my Christian friend’s two bedroom mud hut in a makeshift abadi (community). We will call her Sheila. She has had a miserable life with her debauch husband who beat her, and her in laws (also from the same community) who devalued and dehumanized her, but her strong faith and her basic goodness bound her and myself in a comfortable trusting friendship across layers of differences – faith, culture, ethnicity, class.
My friend Sheila is a Punjabi female, a Pakistani Christian, and resident of this slum. Echoing the perspective of inclusiveness for minorities that was held by Quaid e Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, I had visited her home and church once before for Christmas with my father, Professor Akbar Ahmed, and together we wrote an article on this. I mentioned to our visitors that by going to this basti we were not only reaching out in an interfaith gesture to those who were less privileged and marginalized, but we were also walking in the footsteps of the visionary leaders of South Asia in general and Pakistan in particular.
Revered Chase’s group of friends from the US — two very wise and knowledgable Rabbis, Christian clergy (male and female), an Imam and other eminent friends from New York — walked through the narrow mud pathway strewn with garbage, exposed water pipes, children half dressed, teenage boys on bikes, curious and glaring. More frighteningly, last year, Sheila had told me how some young boys in the kachi abaadi in Pindi had stabbed each other for no major reason, just because one had stared at the others. With no basic facilities and living on the periphery, tempers and frustrations are understandably high amongst young people of minority communities. As I led the foreign guests through the mud alleys, I looked back to make sure my guests were with me and safe. I also wondered if I had been perhaps a bit too bold; if anything were to happen it would be an awful disaster for interfaith relations. There was always an element of risk, as there is in New York, or in any part of the world today. Yet with the spirit of compassion, we, as students/leaders/global citizens, needed to reach out with courage and boldness in our actions, and here was a good example of personal encounter.
A visit to Sheila’s two-bedroom home was warm and welcoming with her community girls throwing rose petals over our heads. Sheila read the Urdu bible. She took us to her church where the group of rabbis, imams and pastors talked of the absolute necessity of God’s vision of uniting people across boundaries in goodwill. Local sweets (gurh), which I had brought along with gifts and money from UPIC, were distributed to the poor (like Santa). Rose garlands were put onto each visitor. Local children were excited to see a female pastor, and one little girl quietly gifted a hand-made rosary to the priest in our group. The priest was quiet throughout the journey, but with this act of an innocent little child from the slums he was deeply touched, and I could glimpse a glint of tears in his eyes.
My own vision was to sow seeds of peace in the community. I felt it was important to reach out to the perceived “Other” who were not really “Others” for me – Sheila, for example, was a friend who I could listen to and laugh with. She told me many times that very few people listened and even fewer attempted to help. She urged me to stand for elections so that I could help people like her. I said I was focusing on peace building education at present, but I re-assured her that many good people across nations and faiths stood with her and wanted to reach out. I promised to connect her with other supportive people. When Rev. Robert Chase and his group arrived at her home, it was an effort to connect people from the extreme two ends of the pendulum and achieve interfaith cooperation at a deep level, proving that ordinary people like me can make a difference in sowing seeds of peace in our shared world.
About Dr. Amineh Hoti and the Centre for Dialogue and Action
Dr. Amineh Hoti is the Executive Director of Markaz-e-Ilm, the Centre for Dialogue & Action (CD&A) founded at Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge. CD&A has worked for peace education in the US, Europe, the Middle East and in South Asia (in Pakistan). The following paragraphs describe the impetus behind the founding of CD&A.
The Centre for Dialogue and Action (CD&A), Markaz-e-Ilm is a research institute which promotes peace building through education. With my own background from Swat – where girls like Malala Yousafzai feel threatened to attain their basic desire to be educated and speak up for their rights – there is an acute need for women to know about their basic rights: human rights, rights to education, rights in religion, rights in culture, etc. Universal human rights give human beings (male and female) rights as individuals; constitutional rights give them the right to be educated up to at least 16 years of age; religious rights give them dignity and the compulsion to seek knowledge and education; cultural rights give them a framework of adab (politeness and respect for self and others). Only through education could this be understood.
My great grandfather, the dynamic Wali of Swat, had set up the first college and schools that educated Malala’s father, which inculcated a love for seeking knowledge in him and his Nobel-peace prize winning daughter. In light of extremist violence against this inalienable right that is so important for self-empowerment and community development, our Centre — founded by myself at the intellectually vibrant University of Cambridge — for peace education had developed a counter narrative.
The Centre for Dialogue and Action augmented an innovative Peace Education curriculum featuring textbooks, teacher training manuals, innovative tools of teaching diversity, and a peace video. CD&A’s cutting edge books, Accepting Difference (2015) and Teaching Acceptance (2015) are published in Pakistan so that students may learn to respect and celebrate religious and cultural differences and diversity. Through its unique peace building courses, taught at FCCU (Forman Christian College University) in Lahore and NUST in Islamabad, CD&A aims to inspire students to become more respectful, tolerant and inclusive of people from other ethnicities, cultures, religions and genders.
In Pakistan, as elsewhere in the world where the war on terrorism is being fought, CD&A is working with key institutions (Government and leading universities) to reverse and counteract the escalating trends of radicalization and extremism through such projects. In the process, the Centre has garnered tremendous support from the Ministry of Education and Professional Training, and the Centre’s curriculum has been recommended to the Higher Education Commission (HEC)* by the Minister of Education to be considered as part of teaching material. Some of this work is a continuation of my teaching efforts at the University of Cambridge where I designed courses in which imams, priests and rabbis took part as students. If we could respect the other with empathy and understand them as they wished to be understood, then we were breaking ground. Policy makers and media need to take note.
* The Higher Education Commission of Pakistan, HEC, is an independent, autonomous, and constitutionally established institution of primary funding, overseeing, regulating, and accrediting the higher education efforts in Pakistan.