Christian-Muslim Relations in Pakistan
Dr Herman Robourgh SJ
In the 16th century, Mughal Emperor Akbar invited Jesuits to the area that is now Pakistan to engage in religious debates. Over a period of many years, several Jesuits were sent on mission to the northern part of India in response to Akbars invitations.
In 1961, a Swiss Jesuit, Fr. Robert Butler, came to Pakistan and took up residence in an old bungalow in the central part of the city of Lahore. He began to collect important books on Islam written in the Islamic languages (Arabic, Persian and Urdu) as well as books on Islam and Christianity written in various European languages. International journals on Islam also became available in the library. This unique collection of material has been well preserved and can be consulted in Lahore even today.
The library in Lahore became a basis for scholarly contacts between Fr. Butler and various Muslim intellectuals throughout the 1960s, 1970s and the early 1980s. Various articles that Fr. Butler wrote during these years were subsequently collected in one volume called Trying to Understand by Ikram Chaghatai and published by the Society of Jesus in Lahore.
Sometime after Fr. Butlers return to his home country in the 1980s, the Jesuits in Lahore rebuilt the library and made it available to the public again. Without Fr. Butlers interest and guidance, however, few people were able to benefit from these scholarly books and journals. With his departure, a new approach had to be found to Christian-Muslim relations.
Dialogue is Relationship
Efforts to promote Christian-Muslim relations cannot afford to neglect the importance of personal relationships between Christians and Muslims. Even though Fr. Butlers interests were scholarly, the basis of his approach was to develop a personal relationship with a Muslim brother or sister. The fruit of his work can be felt even today through friends of the library who still visit from time to time.
In more recent years, the Jesuits have opened two schools for the Urdu and Punjabi-speaking people of Lahore. About 40% of the children who attend these schools are from Muslim families. Some of the teachers are also Muslims. By interacting on a daily basis, Christians and Muslims, whether they are teachers or students, are learning how to respect and care for one another. One would expect that the experience these Christian and Muslim children have of relating with one another during their school years would provide them with the sensitivity required to make contact and even to develop friendships across religious boundaries in subsequent years.
There are many Christian schools in Pakistan that welcome Muslim students. The memory that these children take with them is not of some discussions or exchanges of a specifically religious nature that may have occurred during their school years but of the everyday contact that they enjoyed as Christian and Muslim children studying and playing together. All through their school years, they would have observed the respectful interaction of their Christian and Muslim teachers. For these reasons, the Christian school continues to provide one of the most readily available opportunities for the dialogue of life between Christians and Muslims in Pakistan.
The Rise of the Taliban
The Muslims of Pakistan today are by nature moderate and respectful of varieties in religious interpretation and practice because they have adopted the form of Islam that the holy men and women (Sufis) had preached to them many centuries ago. These wandering Sufis had taught them the spiritual depth of the Islamic faith and had provided them with a living example of the beauty and simplicity of their faith. Consequently, the great majority of contemporary Muslims in Pakistan reject the interpretation of Islam that the Taliban are trying to impose upon them.
One can only understand the rise of the Taliban, however, if one remembers the history of their beginnings as a wave of opposition against foreign invaders from Russia several decades ago. Today, the Taliban are reacting to the lawlessness and corruption that has prevailed in Afghanistan ever since the defeat of the Russians. They are resorting to their own extreme interpretation of Islam in the hope of restoring the rule of law in Afghanistan as well as in the northern areas of Pakistan. The Taliban are receiving continued support from some sectors of society in Afghanistan and even from some individuals in Pakistan because these people are losing confidence in the ability of the civil government to create a safe and secure environment for them based on the implementation of the law. With nowhere to turn except to the Taliban for help, more and more people are turning their attention to Shariah law, in the hope that its harsh punishments will deter the lawbreakers and stem corruption in society.
The efforts of foreign powers to subdue or even to exterminate the Taliban by sending more troops into Afghanistan are only encouraging more young volunteers across the border in Pakistan to take up arms and to join the struggle of their besieged brothers in Afghanistan. In other words, foreign intervention in Afghanistan is providing the Taliban with the numbers and the motivation to defend themselves with renewed determination and perseverance. Military intervention from outside the country is serving to alienate the local people from the efforts of these foreign troops whom they perceive to be the perpetrators of violence, thanks to the effective slogans used by the Taliban to bring peace and security to their society.
Military action in Afghanistan and in the northern areas of Pakistan should be replaced by political dialogue between the various parties in the dispute. In the present context, there is no question of a religious dialogue with the Taliban about different interpretations of Islam. The extreme form of Islam that we are witnessing in Afghanistan and even in Pakistan is a response to political and social realities. A political dialogue will make a difference to the present situation of conflict provided it takes account of the social and political context in which the Taliban are gaining popularity and growing in strength.
Forms of Dialogue
In recent years, Christians reflecting on interreligious dialogue have come up with several distinct forms or kinds of Christian-Muslim dialogue. All forms of dialogue, however, including the dialogue of theological exchange, depend on the trust and friendship established by regular meetings and conversations between Christians and Muslims. More trust could develop between Christians and Muslims in Pakistan in these difficult times if they could find ways of moving out of the relative isolation of their schools and housing estates to build more relationships of trust and friendship.
Both Christians and Muslims in Pakistan need to move beyond the assumptions and stereotypes that continue to dominate the thinking of many people on both sides of the religious divide. If Christians, for instance, were more informed about the variety of ways that their Muslim brothers and sisters understood Islam, they would be less inclined to make sweeping statements about the Muslims living all around them. Similarly, if Muslims in Pakistan could appreciate that Western nations do not usually act out of Christian convictions but more frequently act out of national and political interests, they would be less inclined to condemn their Christian co-citizens, who have no knowledge of the political maneuvers of Western (so-called Christian) governments. There are not enough forums of communication in Pakistan that provide an opportunity to correct misunderstandings of this kind.
The basic need in Pakistan is for more communication between Christians and Muslims, who tend to live in separate enclaves and compounds. Christians and Muslims could both take the initiative by attending each others feasts and functions. Without a basis of trust and friendship, there will be little scope for deepening communication through exchanges of a more intellectual or spiritual kind. Society in Pakistan would benefit from courageous citizens who were willing to overcome apathy and fear without waiting for the initiative to come from the other side.