December 3, 2013

The Malaysian model: A possible solution to the sectarian menace?

An article by Zaib Liaqat.

Army personnel guard the Murree Road in Rawalpindi after sectarian clashes erupted
Recently, authorities imposed a curfew in parts of Rawalpindi after sectarian clashes erupted on Ashura day near Fawara Chowk, which left at least nine people dead and over 45 injured. The outbreak was just another example of religious intolerance in the country; the intolerance which has not been affecting a specific sect but everyone.

With this incident, Pakistan has experienced another renaissance in the sectarian violence. The violence mostly involves conflicts between members of two main sects of Islam i.e. the Sunnis and Shias - but not to forget the sub-sects of Sunnis - Barelvi and Deoband. Also, not to forget, Pakistan is the second-largest Shia population and it has good bilateral relations with Iran, the first-largest Shia population in the world. It’s regional power dynamic also vis-à-vis Saudi Arabian influences. 

These emerging sectarian tensions in Pakistan were exacerbated by geopolitical trends. The Iranian Revolution in 1979 empowered Shia Muslims in Iran, which also promoted the actualization of the sect in Pakistan. At the same time, Pakistan-based Sunni Muslim - especially Deoband organizations and madrassas - began to receive funding from Saudi Arabia and the U.S. in order to provide support and training to the Afghan fighters in the context of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.

One can always blame regional and international powers in fueling the fire of this menace, but the question is why our nation has been so vulnerable to such schemes? We never seriously felt the dire need of comprehensive national unity in the country. Our efforts ended by banning either hate speech or the group which ignites the sectarian propaganda.

We are in desperate need to drive a strategy and government policy to create, and to promote national unity. The motive of the strategy should be to sow the seeds of goodwill and understanding in every corner of this land, only by this, will we be able to harvest the fruits of progress and prosperity. Recently I attended an International Youth Leadership Conference (IYLC) in Malaysia and got to know about an insightful work of their department for this specific purpose. The made a department to overcome this issue. Below are the five basic objectives of this department.

  • Promoting a culture of peace and prosperity
  • Instilling goodwill and understanding
  • Building upon our shared realities
  • Engaging one another to address disputes
  • Resolving conflict in constructive ways

In order to achieve these objectives they promote interactions at each stage of individual life cycle by establishing a team for neighborhood watch, voluntary patrolling scheme, community mediator, creation of national unity clubs at schools and universities. It is mandatory for every Malaysian student to study subjects of ethnic relations and Asian civilizations. These steps help to promote cross cultural understanding in the country. The department also conducts community wellness programs which include youth at certain levels.

At the community level this department also encourages young and older citizens to arrange activities to empower women and to hold volunteer economic programs in order to improve the societal relationship. They are working on religious harmony programs, which involve religious leaders and community for intra and inter religious cooperation and the partnership of public religious bodies. Malaysia is culturally and ethnically a diverse country with a population of 28.6 million and this department of national unity and integration has strengthened her with each passing day, not just socially but also economically. Malaysians believe that prosperity comes with harmony and because of these efforts, Malaysia ranks 20th in the world according to the Global Peace Index whereas Pakistan ranks149th.

Agreed that challenges faced by Pakistan are not only grave but also numerous and are of a different nature than Malaysia. But, as you have heard, “united we stand divided we fall,” I believe most of our problems will be solved, when, we as nation, would act as single body. I find no harm in investing our energies and attention towards this very grave issue for the greater good.

In lieu of the above, the Islamic Ideology Council should also focus on legislating and formulating policies for cross cultural understanding. Instead of just being a nominal body, they should find common grounds, so that ethnic, sectarian, and cultural diversity should be viewed as a unique asset with significant competitive value, otherwise we are destined to fall into an abyss.

The current resurgence of sectarian violence can be traced to the rise of the Pakistani Taliban in the mid-2000s and this organization’s growing ties with militant sectarian organizations such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. As such, sectarian violence is arguably the most dangerous fallout for Pakistan in the US led war against terror in neighboring Afghanistan. Pakistan till date has experienced more than 1839 incidences of sectarian violence and has lost thousands of lives in these attacks.

Zaib is the minister for IT and Telecommunication at Youth Parliament Pakistan (PILDAT) who works with PAK-US Advance Youth Council and Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry.