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How Emotional Neglect Is Turning Too Many Of Pakistan’s Boys Into Criminals

While conflict and terror rise alarmingly around the world, it’s time to ask ourselves: could lives be saved if we got better at raising boys?

Rebecca Hendin / BuzzFeed

Editor’s note: Some names have been changed to protect the identity of people interviewed for this story.

When Zafar was young, he wanted to become a professional footballer. Now, at 38, he recruits young men for his brother, who is one of several warlords in Lyari, a densely populated neighbourhood in Karachi, Pakistan. Lyari is as famous for its talented football players and rich culture as it is infamous for gang warfare and targeted killings.

“I am a victim of this system,” Zafar says, referring to his inability to isolate himself from a life crime. “Time in jail can transform innocent people into criminals.”

Zafar describes himself as non-violent. He spends some of his time managing a confectionery shop as a side-business. “I’m not involved in anything wrong,” he insists. His friends, sitting around him, laugh as a rejection of this claim.

We’re sitting inside journalist Saeed Baloch’s house inside the town. As an active member of the community in Lyari, Baloch has seen many young men stray down violent paths, going on to lead lives of crime and imprisonment. “Neglect leads to boys becoming militant,” he explains.

According to Baloch, as many as 3,000 young Lyari men — many of whom had committed crimes — have been killed in encounters by law enforcement agencies between 2013 and 2015.

March, 2014: Lyari residents protest after gang violence killed 16 people. ASIF HASSAN / Getty Images

Between 2003 and 2015, Pakistan has lost more than 20,000 civilians to acts of terrorism alone, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP). The average age of men involved in crime and militancy remains dangerously low. According to Saeed, they often start being recruited when they turn 13.

“Young boys see the good life of gang leaders – their money and power leaves even community elders awestruck,” Baloch says. “When boys have no productive activity, they loiter around. Once they get inducted into a gang, they can never leave.”

Baloch’s 17-year-old daughter Muqaddas is a student of Pre-Medical Intermediate. “Boys are generally non-serious about education and seek other outlets,” she chimes in. “For us girls, education itself is the outlet.”

And gangs are only one of several violent paths that attract Pakistan’s boys. Baloch, and several others I spoke to for this story, said that while resources are spent on fixing the problems that come from neglecting these boys – crime, violence against women, terrorism, gang wars — not enough emphasis is placed on finding solutions to the neglect that leads them down those paths to begin with.

While opportunities for acquiring literacy and education may be available to young men, very few initiatives focus on counseling and mentoring them through adolescence.

“We have already lost too many boys due to negligence, too many chances at a good life missed out on,” says Mossarat Qadeem, a peace activist who works to bring back young men from militancy in Pakistan’s north-western province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P).

According to Mossarat, 35% of the population in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are between the ages of 15 to 30 — and they don’t have access to a single university.

“We have no institutions that would help channel the energy of youth,” Mossarat adds. “This has left a huge gap and that gap is being filled by the wrong people.”

April, 2012: Plain-clothed police commandos take positions during an operation against gangs in Lyari. ASIF HASSAN / Getty Images

Mossarat’s organization, PAIMAN, reaches out to conflict-prone districts of K-P and FATA, hoping to counter the impacts of radicalisation and extremism. Mossarat and her team have helped rehabilitate some 1,230 boys since the organization first started in 2004. That’s a drop in the ocean.

There’s a correlation between high proportions of 15 to 29-year-olds in a population and a greater incidence of civil conflict, according to a UNFPA study, which means as the proportion of young people in a society increases, so does their likelihood to get in trouble, unless they’re provided with enough access to educations and honest livelihoods.

And nowhere is this need more dire than in South Asia. India has 356 million, the world’s highest number, of people aged between 10 to 24. Pakistan has 59 million and Bangladesh has 48 million.

“This dividend has turned into a demographic disaster,” says Dr. Farid Midhet, a demographer and director of Jhpiego, which focuses on maternal and reproductive health issues and adolescents, for Pakistan. “In coming decades, this problem will become very serious and possibly uncontrollable in the absence of a good education system for the poor urban and rural boys, an extensive system for vocational training including counseling and social training, social support and social security.”

Rebecca Hendin / BuzzFeed

Who’ll talk to the boys?

According to Baloch, most boys in Pakistan do not receive counseling, even from their own parents. “They simply don’t talk to each other,” he says. “Poverty is so all-consuming and keeps the parents so busy that they cannot focus on keeping their interest for education alive.”

Aman Tech, an initiative of Aman Foundation in Pakistan, is addressing this need. In addition to the hard skills and vocational training it gives to young men, it has made “soft skills” a part of its curriculum. This includes not just grooming and image-building exercises but also communication and social skills.

“When they come to us, it is amazing how out-of-touch with themselves these young men are,” says Mahida Baig, the departmental head of Soft Skills at Aman Tech. She says many young men who come there lack self-awareness and do not know how to encash themselves.

“The biggest reason is that they have not emotionally engaged with their parents, especially their fathers,” Baig says. “It’s just something that is not done in our culture.”

Baig says that when Aman Tech identifies a boy as aggressive, they provide one-on-one counseling. Instructors, who are approachable, act as mentors and guide students who confide in them about relationships and life decisions.

But according to Baig, a central challenge in the counseling process is combating the stereotypes of masculinity that South Asian boys grow up around.

In 2002, Promundo, an NGO focusing on promoting gender justice, launched a program called Program H, which primarily targets men between the ages of 15 to 24, and encourages critical reflection about rigid norms related to manhood. Promundo reports that after participating in their Program H activities, positive changes were seen in these young men. With sensitization that made them rethink gender roles, these boys had better attitudes towards relationships and family planning, participation in domestic work, not indulging in sexually harassment, and not perpetrating domestic violence.

Rebecca Hendin / BuzzFeed

A lop-sided focus on girls?

According to the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (PDHS) 2012-2013, only 16% of men have completed more than secondary level of education.

Unlike many of the young men, the girls in Lyari are focused and are better students, says Nadeem Ghazi, a peace activist from the area who works on peace-building through education from the forum of his organization Peace Education Welfare Organization(PEWO). “Girls are more motivated to get an education,” he says. “Boys come under a lot of unhealthy outside influence.”

If boys are a problem, they must be engaged as part of the solution, says Rujuta Teredesai, co-founder and executive director of a social enterprise called Equal Community Foundation (ECF) dedicated to engaging men to end violence and discrimination against women.

According to Teredesai, development projects are focusing on girls because girls are not able to access enough opportunities for education and training. “However, if we exclude boys, we are not addressing some of the root causes; we might be creating a bigger problem.”

Experts say that a lack of focus on young men will actually set back the programs that focus on empowering women.

“All of the gains we have made for women and children can be reversed if we don’t pay attention to what is happening, or not happening, to young men,” says Leith Greenslade, vice chair, MDG Health Alliance and Office of the UN Special Envoy for Financing the Health MDGs. Greenslade says rising numbers of young, uneducated men without job prospects can be distracted by violent, anti-woman ideologies. “These ideologies can lead to civil unrest that can destabilize entire societies. Once the level of violence rises to these levels, we see the gains for women and girls unravel quickly.”

Rebecca Hendin / BuzzFeed

Talking solutions

Teredesai says that work with boys should be done in three major areas: Engaging them as allies, providing them with opportunity to learn about these issues, and catering to their needs.

“None of these approaches can work in isolation,” she says.

And according to Mossarat, the answer to how young men can be mitigated from being recruited into violence and radicalization lies in preventive measures taken before the damage is done.

“We need vigilant communities in society. We need the media to play its role to spread awareness. And we need parents to allow their sons to talk to them about everything,” Mossarat says.

“Because once they get inducted into violence, get radicalized and are caught in that web, it is a tumultuous task to bring them back.”

Women and the peace process


The writer is a senior sub-editor at The Express Tribune and tweets @FarahnazZahidi

They lose their fathers, husbands, sons and brothers in acts of terrorism and violence. They themselves are injured and killed. Yet, the women of Pakistan do not have a voice in the peace processes in the country. They are stakeholders and direct effectees of terrorism but have no say in how it should be handled. If there is one thing that glared out at the (in)famous All-Parties Conference (APC) post the Army Public School attack, it was this: there were no women present. With the exception of perhaps, Sherry Rehman, women have hardly ever been included in the most important discussions in the country. As we gear to celebrate the International Women’s Day tomorrow, it remains a bitter truth that Pakistan’s women are considered good enough for things that we call ‘fluff’. They have a voice in health, education and other developmental issues. But there is a deafening and forced silence when it comes to their perspective on peace-building and conflict resolution strategies at all tiers, whether it is the aman jirgas or the National Action Plan (NAP).

In the year 2000, the UN Security Council resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on women, peace and security was adopted. This resolution recognises the need to increase women’s role in peace-building in conflict-ridden countries. However, the scope of 1325 is much wider. It not only calls for women to be included in peace talks, it also presses for a more gender-sensitive perspective to consider the special needs of women and girls during conflict, repatriation, rehabilitation, reintegration and post-conflict reconstruction. The UNSCR 1325 focuses on issues of gender-based violence and refugee camps covered in Articles 10 and 12. Thus, the impact gets wider. Post the October 2005 earthquake and the 2010 floods, to name two natural disasters in Pakistan that caused massive damage and human displacement, women trafficking increased.

Since 2000, 48 countries have adopted NAPs on Resolution 1325 to make policies to fulfill the resolution’s objectives. Developing and conflict-affected countries use NAPs to support women’s participation in politics and peace processes, as well as commitments on protection from sexual and gender-based violence. Yet a less than one-fourth of UN member states have implemented these NAPs.

Pakistan has not implemented 1325. Neither has India. It is rather curious that a resolution is unanimously hailed as a step in the right direction, yet is not implemented by the government. While many activists and proponents of women’s rights in Pakistan agree in spirit with 1325, it is not without reservations. The human rights’ camp remains discretely divided over the issue. And the reason is simple. Accepting a UN Security Council resolution comes with its share of possible consequences — consequences in the form of the proverbial ‘boots’ and sanctions. Many feel that such resolutions have other ‘agenda’, which is why Pakistan, among many other countries, remains sceptical of it. Other peace and gender activists strongly assert that Pakistan has no national action plan on 1325 not just because it is afraid of sanctions but because the much-needed political will is missing. These activists regularly urge the government to implement 1325.

The reasons can be debated. But the fact remains that across the globe, from 1992 to 2011, only four per cent of signatories to peace agreements and nine per cent of negotiators at peace tables were women. In Pakistan, the numbers would be even lower. The pandemic of violence against women and girls affects one in three women worldwide, and conflict zones are the worst hit. This correlation is often missed out.

Perhaps, a less controversial and more effective way would be to go via the CEDAW Committee’s landmark General Recommendation (GR 30) on Women in Conflict Prevention, Conflict and Post-Conflict Situations. This was adopted on October 18, 2013. Pacifist and more realistic voices from the civil society feel that implementing GR 30 could also have the desired results. But even if these resolutions and recommendations are implemented, will the Pakistani woman at the grassroots level have a say, alongside the men, regarding how peace should be achieved? It is time this conversation starts, and a narrative around this is built.

Published in The Express Tribune, March  7th,  2015.

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Music for peace: Of dolls, dreams and a girl-child in Sindh

By Farahnaz Zahidi
Published: April 16, 2014

meena 1

Meena, the latest offering of the Jamshoro-based Sindhi band The Sketches, brings forth the issue of education for the girl-child as well as peace and harmony in a soft package.
Soft music, vocals, pretty cinematography and the moving image of a little girl-child from rural Sindh clutching her doll on her journey to school. Whether or not you understand the Sindhi language, this song’s video will strike a chord. Meena, the latest offering of the Jamshoro-based Sindhi band The Sketches, brings forth the issue of education for the girl-child as well as peace and harmony in a soft package that will tug at the heart strings of viewers.

meena 2

As Saif Samejo, the lead vocalist for The Sketches, croons in the backdrop of the scene of a child’s journey between dreams and reality, the seriousness of the problem hits home. And for once in a post-Malala world, the girl-child from a part of Pakistan other than Swat is the focal character.

This is the band behind the Lahooti Music Aashram, the first ever formal music school in Jamshoro and Hyderabad. The band became famous via Coke Studio 4 with the song Mand Waai.

It is encouraging that a song sung in a regional language is inspiring interest and making viewers think about the plight of the child who both wants, and deserves an education, but finds an empty ghost school staring back at her when she and her doll reach school. However, this sadness is coupled with hope at the end. This child grows up to be a teacher in the same school, teaching other little girls like her. One would hope that Sindhi language channels, as well as mainstream prime channels, will give this song its due acknowledgement.

meena 3

While being simplistic in its approach and trying to squeeze in more than one social message in a single song makes it a bit heavyheaded, the effort is one that needs to be lauded. Both the messages tackled in the song are important ones. With some 5.5 million Pakistani children out of school, according to the latest UNESCO report, Pakistan has the second highest number in the world for out of school children. Equally important is the sensitisation of people towards pluralism. “There is a dire need to provide a counter narrative,” is what Saif Samejo had said in an earlier interview with The Express Tribune, talking about the powerful impact of narratives that lead to extremism and sectarianism. He had added that “Sindh is a place where Ramdas and Allahdita are buried together, and nothing should threaten such pluralistic values.”

The stereotypical image of the people of Sindh as complacent and not into full-throttle social activism may be changed through the work of Sindhi musicians of today. They are out there with their messages, proactively talking about what they believe in, whether through satire like Ali Gul Pir, or through message-laden music like Saif Samejo. These musicians deserve a pat on the back for throwing a pebble in still waters. A ripple effect may well have begun.

Sindhi language and music stemming from the culture of Mehran already have an advantage when it comes to mysticism and spirituality. The message of peace thus comes naturally to them. It is also interesting to note that the message is coming from a province, the inherent history and culture of which boasts of harmony and peaceful co-existence. Thus, The Sketches have drawn upon the province’s inherent reservoir that brims with the message of peace.

Watch Video:

Published in The Express Tribune, April 17th, 2014.
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Collaboration, not Sufism, answer to Pakistan’s violence


by Farahnaz Zahidi

01 October 2013

Karachi – The notion that one faith, philosophy or idea alone is the answer to stopping violent episodes like the tragic suicide attack at the All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan last week is hard to swallow. Still, recent decades have seen an interesting surge in the view that Sufism is a solution to violent extremism in Pakistan.

Sufism is most simply described as Islamic mysticism or spirituality, but like most things it is too vast and deep a concept to be described by simplistic definitions. Without a doubt though, messages of love, peace and acceptance are at its core.

But is Sufism actually a feasible solution to violent extremism in Pakistan? Can it be the missing link in the internal peace process we need? In these troubling times, many Pakistanis find sanity in the ideology of our Sufi saints who believed that serving humanity is the surest way of getting close to God. Belief in the core messages of our saints reeks of much-needed hope. However, thinking that Sufism is the antidote to extremism in Pakistan may be too simplistic, especially when juxtaposed in opposition to stricter interpretations of Islam, as many who are inspired by it do today.

In Pakistan, which is complicated and far from monolithic, we have those who practice faith through the hard-line dos and don’ts of religion, and those who are more inclined toward spirituality than jurisprudence. With growing polarisation, centrists who respect both schools of thought are becoming a minority and feel pushed to the margins.

The problem lies in the fact that those who tilt more towards Sufism and those who focus more on the do’s and dont’s in Islam are considered adversaries by Pakistani society today.

There is an irony in all of this – while Sufism is about acceptance at its core, some of its unseasoned proponents seem to be increasing the already wide gulf between those who follow strict or hard-line interpretations of Islam and those who feel Sufism is the answer.

It feels contradictory to Sufism’s core messages.

Thus, we risk losing out on the central point in Sufism— to bring everything in its fold and accept all kinds of people, irrespective of ethnicity, language, caste and even creed.

Part of the solution could be for liberal proponents inspired by Sufism to recognise the efforts of some middle-ground Islamic scholars and give credit where it’s due. The recent show of flexibility by the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), the constitutional body responsible for giving Islamic legal opinions to the Government of Pakistan, is a case in point. Scholars on CCI, such as Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, are clearly trying to build bridges between segments of society when it comes to blasphemy laws, by strongly opposing false accusations.

Imam Ghazali, the 11th century Persian jurist, theologian and mystic, seems to have gotten it right. He became the bridge between more orthodox Islam and adherents of Sufism. Followers of both schools of thought, via Ghazali, developed a mutual understanding by utilising established Islamic theology to reconcile Sufism with orthodoxy, and Sufism to enrich theology.

Rather than one philosophy being the solution to violence, which has the propensity to make others wrong and put them on the defensive, perhaps reconciliation and collaboration is a better method. If not the solution, this may at least be a step in the direction toward peace.


* Farahnaz Zahidi is a Pakistani writer and editor. Her areas of focus include human rights, gender, peace-building and Islam. She currently works as Features Editor for The Express Tribune. She blogs at Chaaidaani and her photo-journalism can be seen here. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 1 October 2013,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

Saving Sons: A woman in Pakistan dares to convince & bring young radical boys back home, with their mothers’ help

Published in Chime for Change:

For complete video and story

The landscape appears strangely rugged, despite its lush green meadows and mountain ranges topped with snow. Perhaps this is because the soil of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), Pakistan’s once pristine Northwestern province, has absorbed too much blood. For its inhabitants, the silence here is merely a lull. Fear lurks behind the striking green eyes of the almost European-looking children here, even as they run to school or play cricket in the streets. They seem much too aware for their young years – aware of words like terrorism, drones, and death. They overhear their mothers talking over cups of sticky sweet tea cooked over wood fires, their conversations fueled by loss and despair.

Nearly every home here has lost one or more male family members to the scourge of violence – the lost are victims, or perpetrators, or sometimes simply suspects who have vanished: either into the abyss of a grave or into nothingness. For those of us who know this part of the world through news snippets, these men are mere statistics. The tragedy of conflict in Pakistan is seldom given a human face by the international media. And the women who mourn these lost men are even more veiled to the world.

Her name is Mossarat Qadeem. She is a daughter of this soil. As the loudspeaker of the mosque near her office summons the faithful to Friday prayers, she respectfully covers her head. In her office, a prayer mat and the Holy Quran sit handy. It is this deep connection with Islamic teachings of peace and the value of human life that has given her the strength to pursue a perilous quest. In her soft, measured voice, she begins her story.
Mossarat has taken on one of the most difficult challenges a peace-builder can ever confront: to convince young radicals in the making to come back home and to embrace life. Her bridge to each of these boys is usually a woman – his mother or his wife or his sister; women reach out to Mossarat because they trust she can help them.

She never envisaged this life. Born of an educated but non-political family from the KPK region, Mossarat majored in Conflict-transformation and Peace building at university. She studied and graduated in the United Kingdom, but realized during her student days that “we were studying conflict-transformation as practiced by other nations, but not tailored to our own cultures.” With her degree, Mossarat should have become an academic in the safe bubble of a university back home. Instead, she was practically thrust into the danger zone. “When conflict began in my own area,” she says, “I realized it was time.”

While working with Internally Displaced Persons in refugee camps, she heard of a woman no one wanted to meet because her son was a terrorist. “Everybody said I shouldn’t, but I felt I must meet her. A colleague agreed to lead me to her house. But he showed me the house from a distance and promptly disappeared.” She entered and found only women. “About ten of them,” she recalls.

Initially, it was Mossarat who was interrogated. But, in the end, the mother of the boy, overwhelmed by pent-up fear and emotion, shared her story: “My son has been taken. People say that he is responsible for killing people with the help of a remote-controlled bomb. But my son is not like that. I know him! He is just 17. Please help me. Save my son.” Once this woman had opened up, the others did too. “My husband’s been taken.” “My father.” “My brother.” The stories were many, each unique, yet all similar.

“If your son is how you say he is, and is not inherently violent, I promise to help you,” Mossarat told the first woman. “At that moment I did not know what I was getting into. I asked to meet her son when he came to visit,” she says.

Months later, on a cold November night at around 11:30 pm, the desperate mother called Mossarat. The son had come. Mossarat wrapped herself tightly in a shawl and set out, traveling through the night, reaching her destination just in time to sit on the floor of that village home and have breakfast with the family.

“This could not have been possible without one-on-one trust building. I had remained in close contact with the mother for months, supporting her all along. This work is about human connection. Only through genuine trust can one convince a mother to introduce me to her son who is wanted,” says Mossarat, a fierce determination underlying the softness of her voice.

Convincing the mother to let her son surrender to security personnel was the first hurdle. “’They will kill him,’ she wailed in fear. I said to her, ‘I give you my word! They will have to kill me before they kill him.’” Once the mother agreed, Mossarat started the process of convincing the boy by having repeated discussions with him about the concept of jihad in Islam. “The base of the problem is the wrong interpretation of religion. You have to counter that with religious reasoning. If you do not have solid knowledge of religion, you can’t do this,” says Mossarat, who has studied Islamic injunctions pertaining to jihad in depth. “Not many people have the courage to have dialogue around this issue. Why are we so afraid to talk about this?”
She then gave the boy time to wholeheartedly understand what she had said. Finally, he called her himself. “I am ready to surrender,” he said.

Mossarat’s next hurdle was to reach an understanding with Pakistani security personnel. She told them she would turn the boy over only under certain conditions. “Do not torture him. Instead, give him time in a rehabilitation facility,” she demanded. He spent months there, being counseled and simultaneously learning skills like masonry and fan repair. “Tell me, the boys I save from the clutches of terrorists, if we do not work on their rehabilitation and sensitization for peace and tolerance, what use is it? Give them opportunities and another chance! The brainwashing has to be countered. We work on prevention and de-radicalization, but their reintegration into society is the toughest part of our work.” She stresses that she can only achieve this with young men not yet hardened beyond redemption.

In Mossarat’s opinion, no militant can be won back to the fold unless he is first acknowledged as a human being. Understanding where the boys are coming from is a critical part of her job. “They are hungry for recognition and respect,” she says.

This empathetic and humane approach comes easily to Mossarat because she herself is a woman and her way to these men is through the women in their lives. “You have to make the women understand the impact of terrorism on their personal life and the life of their family and community. It’s tough to develop critical thinking in these women who have been brought up in a patriarchal environment,” she says.

Life is difficult for the women of KPK. A lack of security has made things worse. Schools are often closed due to unrest. Those that are open, the girls’ schools in particular, live in perpetual fear of attack. Countless stories like that of Malala Yousufzai, perhaps the most famous daughter of KPK, wait to be told. So many homes no longer have male members older than 13, and have thus lost their breadwinners in a culture where women are often unable to go out to earn a living. Their men have either been lured into a ‘holy war’, or have been killed. Some have died because they chose to fight, others simply because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – a market or a wedding or a school, rocked by a bomb blast.

Poverty, cultural conditioning and social inequity leave young men and boys little choice but to take up arms. And while men are braving it out, women are braving it in, trying to keep radicalization from consuming their most precious possessions: their men.

“Part of my aim is to develop these women’s critical thinking so that they start noticing the changes in their son or husband,” Mossarat says. “If they’re aware, they will notice the sudden presence of a cell phone when the family cannot afford to spend 500 rupees ($5) a day on food. She will notice that her husband now has 25 new friends frequenting their home. She’ll notice the changes in attitude and conversation and priorities. But if she is in her usual slumber-like state she won’t know. She is not conditioned to.”

In rare cases – like that of a 21-year old boy who, thanks to Mossarat’s efforts, has completed his Bachelor’s degree and is working in a private firm – it is the mother who must be convinced. “This boy attended one of our training sessions with a hidden agenda to relay inside information to his mentors in the extremists’ network. However, he was so moved by the message of peace and the rationale behind the message that he came around,” says Mossarat. But it took months to overcome the resistance of the mother, who initially blamed Mossarat for converting her son into an “infidel”.

Mossarat has saved almost 80 boys thus far. She has also trained many mothers who are now working as peace practitioners at the grassroots level. But the journey has not been easy. There are nights she lies awake, traumatized by memories. “Particularly difficult is the part when the boys finally are ready to speak, to share, after a few months in rehabilitation. They burst out! They cry, they yell, they scream! They are uncontrollable. In many cases, they have withdrawal symptoms because they have been drugged,” she says.

Mossarat also has to walk a fine line between gaining support for her work and maintaining the privacy it requires. But her priorities remain clear: “I don’t want to romanticize my work by giving interviews and becoming a celebrity. I just need to do this. This mess of 30 years cannot be cleaned up in a day,” she says. “Conflict is about humans. It’s never about weapons. It has nothing to do with ideology or religion.”

Mossarat believes what is happening in Pakistan is too abnormal to even be termed a conflict in its strictest sense. “Innocent people are being hijacked. Those are the ones I am saving. Enough is enough. How long are we going to be killed by bullets and suicide attacks? Apathy is not an option. And believe me, the solutions are there. We just need to look deep enough.”

** For safety reasons and due to recent events in the region images of Mossarat Qadeem, the mothers and boys do not appear in this story.

Salam Namaste

Salam Namaste

Published: January 31, 2013

The writer is a senior sub-editor at The Express Tribune and tweets @FarahnazZahidi

It is said that there’s enough religion in the world to make men hate one another, but not enough to make them love. But what if religion were to become a common ground where shared religious and ethical values are celebrated? Perhaps, too far-fetched a dream for the world that we live in. Especially for Pakistan. For we do not unite in the name of God. We dissent, for God’s sake. Quite literally so.

But this might be a good time to take a closer look at the possibilities of an inter-faith understanding, if nothing else. Tomorrow, we embark on the World Interfaith Harmony Week, celebrated in the first week of February each year. What does this even mean? And what does it mean for Pakistan in particular, a county ravaged by polarisations. We are divided in the name of faith — we are Muslims and Christians and Hindus; we are majorities and minorities; we are the green and the white; we are the crescent and the star. Tier two of being poles apart: division in the name of denominations within the framework of the same faith — need I even say Shia and Sunni? It stares us in the face, way too close for comfort.

Hence, there is a need for not just interfaith dialogue, which ensures empathy, tolerance and understanding between followers of different faiths, but also inter-religious (bainal masaalik) dialogue.

Yet, this seems an under-celebrated and under-emphasised concept today in the post 9/11 world, and in present-day Pakistan in particular. Often, in interfaith fora, experts sit proselytising others to their own, in desperate attempts to convert and convince the others to ‘our’ way of thinking. And if not that, at least establish the supremacy of our faith over the others. An attempt at hegemony.

One reason we see resistance against sincere interfaith dialogue is that it is seen as a conniving, insidious attempt at syncretism — something that will take away my religious identity from me and make society a melting pot where all ideologies are conflated into one, basically leaving us with none at the end. Something like what John Lennon was trying to say in his song ‘Imagine’.

In reality, however, the interfaith dialogue process actually helps us understand and strengthen our own faith better, and also learn to respect other ideologies. If it involves all stakeholders, it helps get rid of stereotypes. It helps a nation get over the ‘us vs them’ phenomenon.

If these efforts were made with the genuine intention of understanding one another, the benefits for Pakistan, a religio-centred nation, would be immense. Consensus-building does not do away with agreeing to disagree. What if followers of different faiths and different religious denominations come together on things all religions believe in — peace, justice and sustainability. Practical implications can include things that give a huge push to Pakistan’s developmental issues. To cite one example, we are 180 million strong, and the world’s fifth most populous nation has no hope of population control unless this is discussed by faith-based representatives and a consensus is built. Indonesia has achieved it by bringing all Muslim denominations, as well as Catholics and major religious leaders on board.

Interfaith dialogue is linked closely to human rights. Which brings us to the third tier at which this discourse needs to be fostered — dialogue between the seculars and the religious. In a society which cannot realistically do away with either element, it would be a good idea to create spaces where commonalities can be celebrated for civic and national stability.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 31st, 2013.