Teaching Dialogue of Civilization in Pakistan

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Rights activists form a peace sign during an anti-terrorism protest in Lahore on Jan. 12, 2014. Xinhua
Rights activists form a peace sign during an anti-terrorism protest in Lahore on Jan. 12, 2014. Xinhua

For too long, the pages of history have been stained by bloodshed in the name of God. Allied to weapons of mass destruction, extremist religious attitudes threaten the very security of life on earth. A teacher shares her experience of teaching tolerance in a troubled region

DR AMINEH A HOTI

[dropcap]P[/dropcap]eople across the globe are joining the cause of dialogue and interfaith harmony at an increasing pace and watching Pakistan dithering in the background is a dismal prospect, to say the least.

Recent years have witnessed soaring death counts with minority communities being ravaged, churches being blown up, Hindus forcibly converted, and a general threat to life and security for being different.

Yet, we as a people have proven not only resilient but also open to recognizing when a chance is needed. The beginning of the New Year saw the rise of “a new dawn” in the vistas of education as The Centre for Dialogue and Action (CD&A) geared itself for embarking upon a momentous journey.

In January 2014, a pioneering course entitled Ilm, Adab Aur Insaaniat (Knowledge, Civics, and Humanity) was introduced to a mix of students hailing from all over Pakistan with different religious and ethnic affiliations at Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan. In a post-9/11 world, an initiative of this nature would have been viewed as “a normal” act of progress in most countries – even deemed mandatory for current education on diversity. However, in the light of recent events, the launch of this course has proven to be both challenging and exciting at the same time.

Challenging because it carried a great risk of the course being closed down (as it had been earlier in the same city); as well as possibly placing the lives of those involved in great peril. Exciting because it had the potential to change the mindsets of future leaders by teaching them to engage in constructive dialogue, strive towards deeper understanding, and work towards peace – both nationally and internationally.

When we set out to teach about the ‘dignity of difference’, we hoped that this peace-education course would cultivate a sense of self-reflection and deeper understanding, thereby transforming our present and informing our future. It was hoped that this educational endeavor would influence the daily lives of our participants – helping to shape, inform, and consequently uplift their future decisions and of others around them, their country, and the shared global world.

Prior to the start of regular classes, a code of conduct was laid down for interaction between the participants, which I believe is relevant to all of us living side by side in our shared world. The points of emphasis were that as people open to learning we need:

    • to be positive – no teasing, verbal abuse, or physical threats;
    • let others finish speaking before you begin;
    • avoid personal attacks on the comments and views of others;
    • let five other people speak before you do a second time;
    • encourage yourselves and others around you to work towards a safer environment for everybody;
    • develop a team spirit – be flexible, compassionate, empathetic, willing to compromise, and respect others;
    • develop patience with self and others;
    • cultivate creativity, originality, and work hard to make the best use of our short time on earth.

Learning is an activity that should be esteemed and a certain level of mutual respect expected. On the journey towards learning, one gains wisdom and perspective – it is important to see from different points of view and not just one’s own.

In the largely Muslim context within which the course was organized, there were initially some misunderstandings pertaining to the concept of “interfaith dialogue”, which required immediate clarification. Some lay-Muslims, not thinkers and scholars, had a blurred perception of diversity studies (hence the haste to avoid it altogether) that learning and engaging with the perceived ‘Other’ is un-Islamic.

As the matter stands, God who is Rehmanand Rahim (the Compassionate, the Merciful), speaks of the diversity He created, and encourages the best way of communication with the People of the Book in the Qur’an – this is interfaith dialogue.

The Prophet of Islam, who is Rehmat ul Aalamin (Mercy to all of mankind), in the Charter of Madina and his missive to the Christians of Najran, accorded deep respect and compassion to people of other faiths – engaged in inclusive dialogue with them, dined with them and married into their communities.

Thus the practice of interfaith dialogue – making peace and attaining a deeper understanding is, in fact, both ebadat (worship) and sunnat (following the way of the Prophet, which many ordinary Muslims are obsessed with without truly distilling the more important ways of the Messenger’s habits of making peace and not war). In no way does interfaith dialogue make any one of us any less of a believer; it only serves to elevate us. Islam, along with all the other Abrahamic religions, can become the purveyors of peace because they all emphasize humanity, regardless of religion, ethnic group and gender, which is an important message in the 21 st century.

Furthermore, from the point of view of the current academia of the 21 st century the key, as many social scientists have argued, is to be aware of the “Age of Empathy” that has superseded the “Age of Reason”.

This means that we must cease to view human relations with a cold, scientific, objective eye and allow for a mix of compassion, empathy, and kindness as we strive for a fruitful engagement that could lead to deeper understanding, mutual respect, and perhaps even world peace. In the light of this new development, our post-9/11 world is at a crossroads of confrontation versus dialogue between countries and civilizations. This course becomes both significant and at the forefront of developing new ways to focus on interfaith and intercultural harmony within the area of education – making this course both dynamic and cutting-edge in education.

The course is a pilot project and we are privileged to be a part of this experiment. As such, it is our responsibility to make it succeed and give it our complete effort and hard work. I decided, therefore to travel to the US, UK and South Asia to collect the latest books and material on relevant topics and consulted internationally renowned experts on topics of dialogue, diversity and empathy – which are at the forefront of learning in the 21 st century.

In designing the course, I sought to introduce new methods of teaching and assessment. 30% of the total aggregate was set aside for reading and critically analyzing the books incorporated within the curriculum. A student (who happened to be Punjabi Christian) came up to me and inquired, “Ma’am, students generally do not like reading here; how will you get them to read?” I responded, “We would encourage those who didn’t and gently oblige them to read by marking them for reading.” Marks were also allotted for good behavior and impact on the wider community, country, and the world.

This course is essentially about teaching and learning new ways of looking at the world. It is about the Dialogue of Civilizations. After 9/11, there was much talk and discourse about ‘The Clash of Civilizations’. This phrase was coined by Bernard Lewis of Princeton University in an article that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly titled The Roots of Muslim Rage (1990).

The phrase was popularized by Samuel Huntington of Harvard University and spread quickly. Huntington argued that the clash in our time would be defined by the conflict between cultural and religious civilizations. He identified Islam as a major global civilizational opponent to the West. His thesis first appeared in a Foreign Affairs article and then in a book entitled The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). In his article, Huntington (1993) wrote:

It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.

Huntington further postulated that civilizational conflicts are “particularly prevalent between Muslims and non-Muslims”, identifying the “bloody borders” between Islamic and non-Islamic civilizations. This conflict has been documented as far back as the initial thrust of Islam into Europe and possibly goes back even further. He cited recent factors like the Islamic resurgence and demographic explosion in Islam to have further exacerbated the Western-Islamic clash.

This coupled with the values of Western universalism — that all civilizations should adopt Western values — greatly infuriates Islamic fundamentalists. The amalgamation of these historical and modern factors could result in a bloody clash between the Islamic and Western civilizations, unhinging the rest of the world with it. Interestingly, the Muslim fundamentalist political party Hizb ut-Tahrir also reiterated Huntington’s views in their published book, The Inevitability of Clash of Civilization.

To preempt a clash of civilizations at any cost, President Khatami of Iran proposed the dialogue of civilizations (at the UN, 1998). He pointed out the Islamic principles and their great tradition of understanding, scholarship, and peaceful dialogue. Examples of tolerance and compassion can be found in abundance in the Qur’an as well as from the Prophet’s sayings and life events. Similarly, in The Dignity of Difference (2003), another religious leader and scholar, who advocates dialogue and understanding, Dr Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the UK argued that the root of the clash lies much deeper; even within the Abrahamic values – compassion, knowledge, humility and piety, etc. which define Judaic, Christian and Islamic cultures – against contemporary values which have little emphasis on humility, piety, modesty, compassion and scholarship. With eloquent passion he opens his book with the following excerpt:

The Dignity of Difference is a plea – the most forceful I could make – for tolerance in an age of extremism. I see in the rising crescendo of ethnic tensions, civilizational clashes and the use of religious justifications for acts of terror, a clear and present danger to humanity.

For too long, the pages of history have been stained by bloodshed in the name of God. Allied to weapons of mass destruction, extremist religious attitudes threaten the very security of life on earth. In our interconnected world, we must learn to feel enlarged, not threatened, by difference.

The misconception that there is no democracy, dialogue, and encouragement of knowledge within the Muslim sphere is readily challenged by the example of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who was the embodiment of justice and democracy. Jinnah believed in and fought for the rights of minorities, women, fundamental human rights and above all, a constitution. Jinnah gained inspiration from the life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and stood steadfast in his conviction that he was sent as a figure of mercy for all humanity (not just a small group of “Muslims”).

God, Himself, is Rehman and Rahim (Compassionate and Merciful) and all Holy Scriptures, including the Qur’an, indicate His blessings for those who acquire knowledge and show mercy unto their fellow human beings, regardless of race and religion.

At the end of the course, I divided my students into two groups, one would argue for the Dialogue of Civilizations and the other would debate the Clash of Civilizations. It was interesting to note that the boys in the class immediately sat in the clash side on the left and the girls on the dialogue team.

After shuffling this divide in gender, it turned out to be an interesting exercise – it seemed that the students had fully understood the key points put forward in the class and that they, as future leaders of Pakistan, had had a good exposure to the benefits of the Dialogue of Civilizations in the 21 st Century.

Acquiring knowledge and being compassionate and tolerant towards Others are interweaved concepts and regarded by many Muslim scholars as forms of worship (ebadat). Together with my students, we went over a passage from Professor Akbar Ahmed’s The Dialogue of Civilizations page 11. “The idea of common humanity is central to the Muslim perception of self…Surah 30: V 22).” Ahmed writes:

The quest for a just, compassionate, and peaceful order will be the challenge human civilization faces in the 21 st century. To meet this challenge is to fulfill God’s vision; to embrace all humanity in doing so is to know God’s compassion…Without dialogue, knowledge, and friendship, human society – all of us, everywhere and at any time – in the 21 st century and beyond, will face a more dangerous, violent, and uncertain future. We must do everything to encourage understanding between cultures and societies. We must build bridges between people and nations. (Dialogue of Civilizations, Ahmed: 12).

Here is some food for thought: Why is it that a community whose God begins his communication with his Prophet by using the word Iqra (read) and repeatedly encourages “the believer” to think, ponder and acquire knowledge, we find the lowest literacy rates in Muslim countries?

Most countries have crossed the threshold of attaining a 90% literacy rate, but those struggling at the bottom are mostly Muslim countries. Estimates for some of the lowest rates are: Afghanistan: 28%; Bangladesh: 53%; Pakistan: 49%; Burkina Faso: 28%; Niger 28%; Mali: 26%. All this from the people of a Prophet who declared, “Valueless is the Muslim who is not a teacher or a student” (hadith) and Acquiring Knowledge is obligatory for every Muslim, male and female (Tabari). 

The atrocious destruction of more than 2000 schools in the name of Islam in Pakistan last year only served the purpose of further demeaning the sanctity of God and His Messenger at our own hands. God loves us all and expects us to do the same. Yet, many ostensibly “God-fearing” people are dispassionate, intolerant, and dismissive of the people created by Him and regard them as “the Other”. Why is it, that we cannot (or will not) appreciate the diversity which is celebrated in the Qur’an:

O men! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is All-Knowing, All-Aware” (49:13 )

Why is uniformity desired, in lieu of understanding and celebrating the nuances of race and gender? God has ordained us to speak with the People of the Book in “… ways that are best and most gracious” (Qur’an 16:125) and the Prophet (PBUH) and the Caliphs left behind a legacy of safeguarding the rights of minorities and orphans, who are the most vulnerable in society – why, then, is there such rampant intolerance towards non-Muslims in our minds? Why are there instances of human rights violations in Muslim countries today? Why are Muslims ignoring Qur’anic verses like, “forgive and be indulgent towards the People of the Book (2:109).”

The voices of reason in the world need to join forces and herald constructive actions to avert the catastrophes that are imminent due to this fissure between world communities. We must ask ourselves, as students and as concerned denizens, how we can reignite the beacon of Islam with its tenets of compassion, tolerance, social upliftment, inclusiveness, and the love of and respect for ilm (knowledge and reading). Viewing the world from the other’s point of view and attempting to understand the situation as it presents itself to those around us, is true empathy.

We should invite other people to express their views, ensure conversations are balanced and reciprocal and everybody gets a fair turn. These empathetic skills are based on a strong awareness of the links between mind and behavior, belief and action, feeling and response. We need to displace sympathy, which is me-oriented, with empathy, which is you-oriented.

Empathy allows for human kindness and propagates, love, generosity and cooperation at, home, at work and the world beyond. Violence, abuse, discrimination and selfishness become all too common when empathy goes amiss. Empathy helps define and enrich our humanity, and its absence diminishes us.

Social scientists have deliberated upon empathy and its outcomes at great length. Covey (1990) in his bestselling book on empathy rates “Empathy as one of the key attributes of ‘highly effective people’, those who first seek to understand, then be understood. Empathy oils the wheels of social life.”

David Howe (2013:18) further expostulates: ‘The fact that so many disciplines are waxing lyrical about empathy and recognizing its importance in the conduct of human affairs is in itself revealing”. The common thread that links all these disciplinary interests is the idea that empathic minds foster cooperation, collaboration and civility; being empathic is a defining quality of what it is to be human. David Howe (2013: 40) further expostulates “Once you develop the skills of empathy in social life, it can lead to economic benefits, resource distribution and resolution of conflict”.

A woman’s worth is not cut down by acknowledging the wisdom of another’s words or actions. When we engage in dialogue with the perceived Others, we do not compromise our beliefs in any way, but, in fact, put them into greater effect. To have disparate state of minds and yet have a strong sense of the other’s feelings, points towards mature cognitive skills. At the same time, even while not knowing what the other person is feeling, and yet continuing to extend compassion and support is also worthy of commendation.-Pakistan Link

All opinions and views expressed in columns and blogs are those of individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Caravan

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