It was not very long ago when places of worship were open to all in Pakistan: There were no armed guards, security gates, volunteers with metal detectors in their hands, gigantic concrete blocks and surveillance cameras. It now seems like a distant memory when security agencies were least concerned about the security and well-being of mosques, churches, shrines, Gurdwaras and temples (I never saw a synagogue in Karachi, except for what now is a ruin and is believed to once have been a synagogue, before Jews of the subcontinent migrated to Israel). Donation boxes were the only things you would have found locked. Doors would stay open all day and all night. People would perform their spiritual and religious rituals unchecked and mostly unnoticed.
During that time, I visited many of these historic and contemporary houses of worship in appreciation of their architectural brilliance, and I was never denied entrance to any. I was always welcomed, especially to other faiths’ houses of worship. I was also oblivious to the notion that being a Shia or Sunni was anything different. In my mind, those were the golden days of Pakistan, before these once beautiful historical places of worship vanished behind bombs, security threats and police barricades. The demise of security at these places of peace holds a lesson for America. Unchecked suspicion of other faiths has led to a country of terrified worshippers, and the demise of security at these places of peace holds a lesson for America in its current state of heightened fear of the “Other.” Still, Pakistan’s example offers a glimmer of light and hope as some citizens stand against unbridled hate.
Attacks on Sanctuaries
Rural festivities have long revolved around the music, food, festivals and mysticism of Sufi shrines. Sufis once bridged the religious divide in the subcontinent with their message of universality and peace, and have devotees from different creeds and backgrounds. Hindus and Muslims, hailing from different sectarian and social denominations, still visit the shrines of their mystic teachers. Sikhs still sing poems in Gurdwaras promoting the divine message of universal brotherhood. However, in 2005, two shrines — in Quetta and in Islamabad — were attacked, killing a total of 75 devotees and injuring many others. The motives were perceived to be sectarian, but the actual aim was more nefarious: to sow division among different religious and sectarian groups. However, the attacks didn’t succeed in closing the doors of these shrines. The Bari Imam Shrine in Islamabad remained open for Shias and Sunnis alike, and people in Quetta continued to welcome everyone seeking inner peace and tranquility.
Peshawar was once known for its chic and well-crafted sandals and deliciously cooked Chappal kebabs, the city was the crown jewel of ancient Bactria. Today, it is often in the news for shootings and bomb attacks. On September 22, 2013, two bombs were detonated among worshippers at All Saints Church in the historic part of the city. The church was not just a place of worship, it was also a community center where kids would come for music lessons, sing in choir and celebrate festivities. The Christian community of Peshawar hails generally from one of the lowest-income groups, but at the church, members would get a few moments of relief. Built in 1883 by European missionaries, the church has unique mosque-like architecture. Who could have known that after more than a century, it would be targeted for providing refuge to those seeking mercy and compassion? After the bombings, the people of Peshawar took to the streets denouncing the agenda of religious intolerance and stood shoulder to shoulder with churchgoers. All Saints Church has since been repaired, and is filled with worshippers and supported by those seeking to restore love and harmony.
Going through public records, it’s hard not to mourn the number of mosques being attacked in a country that proudly identifies itself as an Islamic Republic and boasts the vision of religious inclusiveness and liberty as championed by founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Deadly attacks leave behind heartrending scenes of men dying under heavy rubble of concrete, screaming women searching for family members and an atmosphere filled with the intolerable stench of blood. Once sanctuaries, houses of worship are now a dangerous place for anyone to go; terror has made it difficult for people to seek peace.
A Mission to Protect
Seeing this insensitive destruction and heightened intolerance, a Christian friend and I in 2013 began the Council on the Protection of Worship Places, Pakistan, an effort toward making worship places across Pakistan safe again. Since we were still in college at the time, we had very little funding. Using what few resources we did have, we started publishing and distributing pamphlets — which cost us no more than $20 — emphasizing religious tolerance and sanctity of worship places as promoted by Islam, Christianity and Hinduism.
Slowly, we were able to invest more and started donating metal detectors to worship places so people could feel safe and secure. Our friends volunteered taking charge of security at various houses of worship while people performed their rituals inside. Our organization is not glamorous, nor do we seek any press, but we would love to see people replicating our $20 model and be part of replacing acts of hatred with love and tolerance. Students, politicians, scholars, labor unions, city councils and anyone with a desire to promote peace can help vulnerable communities at their places of worship. Hate sells easily, but striving for peace is essential in preserving our constitutional ethos.
A Lesson for America
In the U.S., a land of diverse religious and ethnic communities, I now see the same hatemongering in political discourse that had given birth to religious bigotry in Pakistan. The same xenophobic cancer is penetrating the body of our society and will soon paralyze the conscience of our idealism and compassion of our culture. It has already started to make our fellow countrymen appear as enemies, and we’ve begun hating our neighbors. Do we realize when did we start denouncing the very diversity that we once loved, and became unknowingly cruel and contrary to our ideals and values? For years, Pakistan has faced religious bigotry in its political rows and societal polarization and despite all the devastation it has caused, still, this attitude has not become as mainstream and as loud as we see in America.
The vandalism of mosques and Gurdwaras in America is a very loud indication of our ailment. If this venomous behavior is not immediately addressed, it will soon swallow every iota of serenity and unity in this land. Just like Donald Trump and other GOP candidates, we all want to see America becoming great again. But history has a clear lesson that it is not bigotry or apartheid that makes a nation great & prosperous but inclusiveness & cooperation make lands impregnable. We don’t have a Muslim problem, a Black problem or a Latino problem, our problem is just an American problem and its solution is only possible through a typical American way which is cherishing diversity and working together as a nation. The time we start becoming American again, sooner America will be great again!
So the next time someone tries to vandalize a mosque, Gurdwara, Church or a Synagogue, we should all come out in solidarity not just to condemn hate or to express support to vulnerable community but to showcase the fact that majority of Americans are not a hate army and our politicians need to stop banking on negativity and start bridging between communities. As RFK had predicted,
“Ultimately, America’s answer to the intolerant man is diversity.”