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Islam and Pluralism ( 5 Apr 2015, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Transcending The Us Versus Them Paradigm




By Maryam Sakeenah

April 04, 2015

My parents chose to send me to a Christian missionary school, a decision I have always been grateful to them for. The convent’s character building Programme instilled in me values that owing to the essential kinship of the Abrahamic faiths facilitated my appreciation and practice of my own faith as a Muslim later in life. Incidentally, all serving staff in my household happens to be Christian. In Ramzan they prepare the Iftar (fast breaking meal) and at Christmas and Easter we give them an extra something to partake of the family festivity. Through all my extensive and longstanding interaction with Christian friends, colleagues and subordinates, there is no unpleasant or uncomfortable memory I have. And I know I am no exception.

In fact, when I condoled with my Christian domestic help about the unfortunate recent events targeting churches in Lahore, I sensed in their comments the same sentiment I have gleaned from my experience as a Pakistani Muslim. “We have been brothers and sisters living together for decades. There was never a problem. And now some unknown enemies wanting this country’s destruction want to create hate. We have nothing against each other. Muslims too are under attack from the same people. We need to be together,” said my illiterate Christian kitchen helper.

There was an understanding even within these unlettered members of a less privileged minority community that something had gone wrong in recent years, that violent religious hate was not the ethos of this land and that there was a common enemy out there whose triumph was in sowing discord and hate between the two communities.

And yet, ironically, I find a complete absence of this simple understanding in the opinions of vociferous social media commentators both from the secular-liberal and conservative perspectives. In fact, the polarity in their views is striking whenever I browse through my newsfeed. While sadness over the attack on the churches was palpable among all shades of opinion, there was a callous lack of sympathy for the innocent Muslim victims of the post-bombing mob lynching by Christians and a brazen attempt to paint the ensuing violence by Christian mobsters as “but natural”. This selective sympathy shows our own deeply rooted prejudices. On the other extreme there are outrageous calls for indiscriminate reprisal against the Christian community of Youhanabad where the lynching happened.

The problem with the narrative that emerges from these polarised, clashing perspectives is that it sees the recent events through the blood-stained lens of us versus them, as a Christian versus Muslim issue that is both inaccurate as well as dangerous. In fact, the terrible mob violence that occurred in the wake of the church bombing was also a tragic result of dangerously viewing the attack on the church as Muslim violence against Christian victims. More accurately, it was violence by an extremist militant minority group for whom all who do not share their violent ideology are potential targets. This is why the anger was directed at Muslims who had been engaged in routine business in the Christian locality. The two innocents picked for the barbaric lynching were lighter skinned (a characteristic of the Pashtuns) and at least one of them bearded. The mob violence was hence fired by ethno-religious stereotyping and the blind hate born of such prejudices.

This is the triumph of the real enemy as it fulfills its malevolent agenda perfectly. The victory of the enemy is when its victim turns into a savage perpetrator like itself, continuing the cycle of violence. Violent incidents targeting the Christian community in Pakistan in the recent past certainly fuel anger by creating genuine and understandable grievances. However, it has to be understood that such targeting of the Christian community has always been resented and rejected by the overwhelming majority of the Muslim population of this country, and that the extremists involved in terror attacks on Christians are a fringe element rejected by mainstream public opinion. Terrorist outfits are all out to exact vengeance that spares none — mosque, Imambargah, church, Muslim, Christian, Shia — all are fellow sufferers in this great calamity that has gripped us as the terrible cost of owning the US’s great war on terror.

The Christian community of Pakistan has never been, is not and should never be an oppressed minority hated and targeted by Pakistan’s Muslim majority. Those trying to reinforce this idea, whether extreme right-wingers, conservatives or the secular liberals, present a false picture that will fuel more rage and blind hate. Fear of reprisal by local Muslim groups makes the Christian residents of Youhanabad insecure. It is heartening to see, however, that the fear and hate in restive Youhanabad has been pacified through the efforts of the local Muslim clerics and the Christian pastors (mosques and churches rub shoulders in that locality). This will not get much coverage in the media, which serves only to reinforce the image of religion as a force inspiring violence. However, the healing and peacemaking potential of religion is still greater. This is an edifying contemporary example, one among many.

The pulpit and the Minbar have vital roles in defeating the false us versus them narrative. Both religions contain voluminous and powerful content on tolerance and compassion that needs to resonate to drown this madness in the name of faith. Faith must be the healing, the mending and the force inspiring peacemaking.

The Prophet (PBUH) pledged the following to his Christian citizenry in 632 A.D: “This is a message from [Prophet] Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers and my followers defend them because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it... No one of Muslims is to disobey this covenant till the Last Day” — The Charter of Privileges, Treaty of Najran.

Maryam Sakeenah is a freelance columnist