The Debate

Teaching Tolerance in Pakistan

Unless significant change is introduced, Pakistan may have to resign itself to unending attacks.

Teaching Tolerance in Pakistan
Credit: Pakistan anti-terrorism protest image via Asianet-Pakistan /

Another one shot dead. This time it is a Qawwali singer named Amjad Sabri, who was brutally killed on June 22 in Karachi, Pakistan. Many condemned it in outbursts on timelines, hues and cries dominating social media. Many swore to defeat terrorists and eliminate their sanctuaries. After a few days, everyone will get back to their work; no one will remember. The tragedies keep repeating.

Who will be next?

How many more must fall victim to some form of intolerance and extremism in Pakistan this year? Sadly, brutal attacks that make media headlines no longer seem to take us greatly by surprise. Some are even explained away as part of an old-world culture that equates female obedience with “family honor,” and places it above love of family. People are incensed for a time and some may even take to the streets. But what changes? Nothing, really.

Isn’t it time we try to put an end to this in some meaningful way? Unless significant change is introduced at a level where it can have a lasting impact, the country may have to resign itself to unending attacks – against minorities and those who speak out for them, against those accused of “dishonoring” the family, against those whose actions or beliefs are deemed unacceptable in the minds of some. Innocent school children and university students purposely sacrificed in retaliation for military actions against the Islamic fundamentalists who continue to wage a so-called “religious war” within the country; a Sikh politician working for the rights of minorities murdered; Christians who come to celebrate their holy day in a public park targeted by a suicide bomber; religions and religious sects subjected to discrimination and far worse; politicians killed for questioning the fairness of particular laws – the list goes on and on.

“This attack is strongly condemned.” Words of sadness, anger, and condemnation flood social media over the most recent loss. Tears are shed. Memorial services are held. Apparently this is all that can be done in a country whose people live in fear of speaking out. As so many will tell you, it is almost certain they have received threats against their lives if they have ever publicly spoken out. How can we continue on this way?

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Why not use the latest killing – and all of the hate-filled, fear-inducing acts that came before – to move the country to action? Only this time, let the action take a different form.

Let us tackle the problem head on by first acknowledging that religion should not be used to judge or alienate anyone. The intolerance toward religious minorities and the persecution of those who try to re-introduce a tolerance that was originally intended when Pakistan was conceived must be stopped. Pakistan’s first Governor-General, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, declared in his August 11, 1947 speech to the Constituent Assembly of the newly formed nation:

“You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the State … We are starting in the days where there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State … Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.”

Jinnah was also empowered by the first interim Constitution, approved by this same Constituent Assembly, to appoint members of the first-ever Federal Cabinet. He chose to include several Shias, a Hindu, and an Ahmadi among the eight members. He even insisted that Zafarullah Khan (the Ahmadi appointed to the Cabinet) become the country’s first foreign minister.

It is helpful to look back to the beginnings of the Pakistani nation in search of solutions. One step in the right direction was the decision last year by the provincial Sindh government to include Jinnah’s 1947 speech in the curriculum of grades 8 to 10 as a reminder of the path the country was to take. Now why not make this a requirement in all public schools throughout the country?

And let us go a step further: Instead of the mandatory teaching of a single religion in public schools, let there be mandatory teaching of religious tolerance and respect. (The word “respect” needs to be stressed here because the word “tolerance” seems to set the bar pretty low when it comes to acceptance.) Consider this statement found in a fifth-grade Pakistani social studies textbook: “Hindus can never become the true friends of Muslims.”* This kind of judgmental language should never again be permitted in government-sanctioned textbooks.

It is important to remember that knowing history – factual history, without the bias placed on it by those who wish to justify one particular viewpoint – is important. But using past injustices to perpetuate hatred in future generations is what will ensure that there will never be peace. Children are not responsible for the sins of their parents. And they are also not born to hate; they are taught to hate. Pre-judgments must be chipped away so that they can learn to relate to one another on a personal level.

All Pakistani citizens deserve respect and the guarantee of basic human rights. Let us make this a country we can all be proud of. A petition is now being circulated that requests that future generations be taught in public schools to understand that human rights are meant for all, and knowledge is the first step toward accepting that differences in cultures and beliefs never justify ridicule or aggression. Hopefully it will gain momentum, and the government will soon realize that the people need to see an initiative begun which seeks to seriously address the intolerance that provokes attacks against its citizens.

The petition starts out “We, the people of Pakistan…” and respectfully asks that the government add compulsory classes in tolerance and comparative religion to the public school curriculum. It advocates for teaching children not to pre-judge and instead allow them to understand differences and accept the diversity that is inherent in all societies. We have the opportunity to make Pakistan a better home for our children and future generations. It may be the only way we can stop fueling the fear and distrust that permeates the country.

Give our children a fighting chance to be spared from discrimination and threats. For those interested in joining this effort to bring about change – and hopefully there will be a great many – the petition can be found here.

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*This quotation is borrowed from a Facebook post by The History Project, an initiative which seeks to teach critical thinking by comparing the narratives found in history textbooks currently in use in Pakistan and India.

Shah Meer is a fellow of the Swedish and the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations. He graduated from NUML in International Relations and researches South Asian politics, Balochistan Issues and Human Rights. He is originally from Pasni, District Gwadar, Balochistan, but is currently based in Islamabad.

Chris Meyer received her BA in International Relations from the University of Wisconsin. She lives in New York City and is an advocate on issues involving cross-cultural understanding and inclusion.