- By Michael KugelmanMichael Kugelman is Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He can be reached on Twitter @michaelkugelman and at email@example.com
Hope. It’s certainly not the first word that comes to mind when contemplating present-day Pakistan. This is, after all, a nation convulsed by terrorism, corruption, poverty, natural resource shortages, economic distress, public health crises, and educational failures.
In recent years, when faced with these immense challenges, Islamabad has dithered. Ultimately, it’s offered more shrugs than solutions. Take, for instance, Pakistan’s new president, Mamnoon Hussain. In a speech on October 20, he admitted that the country "is in such a bad state that it cannot get any worse." Not really inspiring, is it?
It’s especially hard to muster any hope that Pakistan’s spiraling sectarian strife — which killed more than twice as many people last year as it did in 2011 — will end anytime soon. Pakistani public opinion demonstrates considerable support for the underlying views of sectarian militants (in recent polls, 41 percent and 60 percent, respectively, said Shi’as and Ahmadis aren’t Muslims), even if not for the violent means used to express them. Additionally, sectarianism is institutionalized in Pakistan; its second constitutional amendment explicitly brands Ahmadis as non-Muslims (Ahmadis are members of a minority Muslim sect that many Pakistanis regard as heretics for believing there was a prophet after Muhammad). Pakistan has few laws that protect religious minorities, and it rarely arrests, much less prosecutes, perpetrators of sectarian violence.
In effect, deep fractures are steadily gnawing away at Pakistan’s social fabric — and could one day pose an existential threat to the state. If left unaddressed, these violently demarcated cleavages could trigger a Balkanization of sorts.
Yet here is where the narrative changes. The heroic feats of three Pakistanis — virtual unknowns outside their country — give reason to believe that such a descent isn’t necessarily inevitable. These are Pakistanis who not only deplore sectarianism, but have also taken dramatic steps to combat it (one of them lost his life for his efforts). Most critically, their countrymen have supported them.
On the outskirts of Islamabad stands an extraordinary structure: Pakistan’s first sect-free mosque. Zahid Iqbal is the businessman behind it. "We don’t belong with any sect of Islam," he told the Associated Press this summer. "We only belong to Islam."
The mosque’s main prayer hall can accommodate 350 people. It also holds an inter-sect religious library, and will soon open a women’s section. A welcoming sign proclaims a message of tolerance: "This mosque does not discriminate between any sects and welcomes all Muslims."
Iqbal has dispatched mosque officials to other mosques, where they preach messages of tolerance and unity. He told me that he eventually plans to establish branches of the mosque elsewhere in Pakistan. "To me, Islam means Mercy, that is to do good to others," he said in an email. "So, through this mosque I am trying to live up to this message of Islam."
In early October, soon after more than 100 Christians were killed in an attack on their church in Peshawar, Christians and Muslims formed human chains around churches in several major Pakistani cities. Participants included muftis, Christian clergy, women, and children, and they displayed banners that proclaimed: "One Nation, One Blood."
This campaign was led by Jibran Nasir, a Pakistani lawyer and activist who works for an organization called Pakistan for All. "The terrorists showed us what they do on Sundays," he declared at an event in Lahore. "Here we are showing them what we do on Sundays. We unite." The intention, he told me, is "to send out a message that every house of God whether a church, temple or synagogue is as sacred as a mosque and hence protection of these places of worship is the responsibility of every Muslim." He says he was inspired by the human chains formed by Muslims to protect Coptic Christians praying in Egypt, another nation where religious minorities are often persecuted and attacked.
Nasir, who has also organized assistance for Shi’a victims of sectarian attacks, recently ran as an independent for a National Assembly seat representing Karachi. In official campaign videos and media interviews, he constantly condemned sectarianism. He also campaigned for Ahmadi rights — a nearly unfathomable cause for Pakistani politicians to take up. Ultimately, he wasn’t elected, but he vows to run again.
Last August, extremists boarded a bus in Balochistan and killed more than a dozen Shi’as. They also gunned down Ghulam Mustafa, a Sunni passenger who dared to confront them. "Why are you doing this?" the 19-year-old student reportedly said to the gunmen. "Why do you want to kill these people? Islam doesn’t allow the killing of innocent people." Shortly thereafter, Mustafa was led to the side of the road and executed alongside the Shi’a bus riders.
While these three young men have fought sectarianism directly, they have also had supporting casts — the staff that run Iqbal’s mosque and guide its worshipers; the participants in Nasir’s human chain campaign; and several other Sunni bus riders who, like Mustafa, refused to identify Shi’a passengers (according to one media account, two other Sunnis died along with Mustafa).
Such support extends across Pakistan more broadly as well. Iqbal told me that his mosque has not received a single threat, and that the overall response has been "encouraging and supportive." Meanwhile, Nasir told me that his advocacy has generated ample support from numerous religious scholars. He has also revealed that three major political parties invited him to join their ranks — and continued to offer advice and support even after he declined.
Clearly, sectarian tolerance has a constituency in Pakistan. To be sure, it’s a relatively small constituency, but it is one worth highlighting. Pakistan is burdened by such acute privation that many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. The most desperate have set themselves on fire and hurled themselves in front of oncoming trains. Others redress grievances by resorting to violence. The efforts of Iqbal, Nasir, and Mustafa represent a very different type of response to the country’s hardships — yet it is one that shouldn’t come as a surprise to even the most casual observer of Pakistani society.
This is because Pakistanis are famously resilient. Communities devastated by catastrophic natural disasters immediately stage fundraising drives for the displaced; doctors threatened with bodily harm by their own patients steadfastly return to work at overcrowded hospitals; and households weather electricity shortages by fashioning crude energy-generating devices from discarded appliances.
In recent months, commentators have suggested that Pakistanis are becoming even more resourceful and entrepreneurial — just as they point to how civil society is growing more vibrant, private media more pugnacious, and courts more assertive. Additionally, decentralization reforms are devolving power long hogged by the political center and military — hastening the country’s democratization.
In effect, the heroic efforts of Iqbal, Nasir, and the late Mustafa reflect a broader phenomenon sweeping Pakistan — one of incremental change for the better across society and politics.
Despite such progress, Pakistan’s global image remains ugly — even as it has been somewhat softened in recent months by the likes of education advocate Malala Yousafzai and Oscar-winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. That’s a pity, and it obscures a powerful message: There’s still hope for Pakistan, angry warts and all.
Michael Kugelman is the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @michaelkugelman.