On November 19-22, the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding and Critical Connections, in partnership with the Peace and Education Foundation, convened a multi-day workshop, ‘Collaborating Against Violent Sectarianism’ in Islamabad, Pakistan.
The workshop brought together an ideologically diverse group of 24 participants representing four sectors: human rights, education, religious clergy and the media. These included print and electronic journalists, theatre actors, human rights activists, religious leaders from four major sects, and educators from elite private schools as well as from some of the most conservative seminaries in the country. One participant noted:
“The idea of putting people from such diverse social and religious backgrounds together in one room for three days was brilliant. The person to person connections established challenged all prejudices and stereotypes, and this breaking of preconceived attitudes was the most valuable aspect of this workshop”
The goals of the workshop were to examine principles of conflict transformation and peacebuilding, conduct a joint analysis of the multidimensional causes of sectarian intolerance in Pakistan, build trust between the various sectors and sects represented, and develop sector-specific seed projects that begin to chip away at some of the societal, institutional and attitudinal factors that allow violent sectarianism to exist in the country.
Using the pillars model of conflict analysis, participants identified a range of causes that contributed to sectarian intolerance in the country. These included proxy wars being fought by regional and sectarian rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, the political patronage of sectarian organizations by successive Pakistani governments, the governance gap that allowed sectarian organizations to entrench themselves, a weak criminal justice infrastructure, and a history of institutionalized discrimination against various minority groups.
After discussing some of the structural causes of sectarian violence, participants chose to focus their attention on socialization processes within society that encouraged prejudices and biased behavior and which provided fertile ground for violence. After discussing some of the structural causes of sectarian violence, participants chose to focus their attention on socialization processes within society that encouraged prejudices and biased behavior and which provided fertile ground for violence. While participants from other sectors had reservations about the sectarian nature of the curriculum taught in seminaries, it soon became apparent that the problem lay not just with the curriculum but the way in which sectarian attitudes were passed to students from educators across public, private and religious schools.
Some religious leaders who simultaneously ran seminaries emphasized that a lack of engagement with other sects and their madrassas contributed to the reinforcement of mutual stereotypes. Educators bemoaned the lack of critical thinking encouraged in educational institutions that allowed stereotypes of different minority groups to flourish. One Deobandi scholar also pointed to the damaging impact of sectarian literature that has proliferated in Pakistan over the past few decades and the role it has played in hardening of attitudes against the ‘other’.
The role of the media in sensationalizing violence, inadvertently amplifying the narrative of perpetrators, ignoring the victims of terrorism, and highlighting sectarian cleavages as opposed to examples of sectarian harmony, was discussed in great detail. Participants felt there was a dire need for media literacy across various communities.
Following the joint analysis, participants examined the sources of their own biases and prejudices. One activity encouraged members of each sectarian group and also those who identified as secular to form small groups and outline stereotypes other groups had of them. One prominent Shia participant mentioned that never before had he been given the opportunity to tell Sunnis how he felt about the stereotypes people harbored about his community and used this opportunity to dispel some of the more offensive perceptions.
The third and final day of the workshop was devoted entirely to sector-specific group activities that were designed to help participants identify their strategic points of entry in mitigating sectarian intolerance in the country. All four groups developed pilot projects and their respective budgets, identified project coordinators within each sector, and devised a timeline for the implementation of their projects over the next five months.
The consensus was that while the larger political and structural forces were important to take into account while diagnosing the causes of sectarian intolerance, it is important to work on attitudinal change at the grassroots level in order to build resilient communities that can resist external provocations.