KARACHI: Though the familiar themes of multiculturalism as well as sectarian and communal discord within the Muslim world dominated discussions on Wednesday, the first day of a two-day international conference on religious harmony in Europe, South Asia and the Middle East, nearly all speakers touched upon the threat the self-styled Islamic State (IS) terrorist group poses to the world community.

The event was organised by the University of Karachi’s Area Study Centre for Europe (ASCE) and the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

In his keynote speech, Prof Dr Mumtaz Ahmad of the International Islamic University, Islamabad, dwelt on the issues of Muslim immigrants adjusting to life in post-colonial Europe as well as the problems the radicalisation of European Muslims were throwing up.

Dr Ahmad said Europe was ambivalent, the Middle East was in turmoil while South Asia was complacent. “Religious conflicts have risen to the level where we have to refer to periods from history we’d much rather forget. Religious discord should have been a thing of the past, consigned to the dustbin of history. Europe, after two centuries of religious wars, seems to have [resolved] its Catholic-Protestant conflict, though until very recently Northern Ireland remained a problem. Islam is the new problem confronting Europe.”

The scholar said Europe’s responses to Islamophobia were “simplistic”, which included thoughts that Islam was incompatible with secular modernity or that Muslims had failed to integrate into Europe. “The limits of Western liberalism are being tested” where religious freedom is concerned, he said. “We believe in multiculturalism but you cannot build minarets.”

Dr Mumtaz Ahmad said the roots of current problems lay largely in the history of colonialism. “Europe’s problem is primarily with working-class immigrants from former colonies. The uneasy relations between the colonisers and colonised” have translated into problems with integration of Muslims in Europe. “Muslims will have to navigate their own place in Europe.”

He asked what young European Muslim men and women — who had decamped to the Middle East to fight with IS and other extremists — would do “when the game in Damascus and Baghdad is up”, adding that on their return they would probably end up in Guantanamo or jails in Europe.

Earlier, in her opening remarks Dr Uzma Shujaat, ASCE director, said that to secure the future we must draw lessons from the past. “It is essential to resist the forces of division. A multicultural education is the best way to counter extremism. Unless we recognise pluralism no peace is possible.”

Kristof Duwaerts representing the Hanns Seidel Foundation also spoke.

In the first session, Abbas Husain of the Teachers’ Development Centre spoke on ‘Islam in dialogue with the Other’. He said the Other “was not a faith system but an attitude”. He observed that dialogue was about the “willingness to see reality with the eyes of the other. Without respect there is no possibility of dialogue.”

Growth of Takfiri thought

Discussing the ‘Role of Takfiri thoughts in the development of intolerance in Muslim society’, Dr Zahid Ali Zahidi of the University of Karachi said the Takfiri ideology revolved around one group excommunicating opponents from the body of Islam. As opposed to this, he said “Islam accepts a difference of views. In the Quran Jews and Christians are referred to as Ahlul Kitab (People of the Book).”

Dr Zahidi said intolerant trends had begun to develop within the first century of Islam. He cited examples such as the “cold-blooded murders of the second, third and fourth Caliphs” as well as the rise of the “ultra-conservative” Kharjite faction during Hazrat Ali’s caliphate. He added that 13th/14th century theologian Ibn Taymiyyah issued fatwas of apostasy against opponents.

“The jihadists of the last two centuries widely developed the culture of declaring others disbelievers.” He said today if any Muslim scholar issued an opinion contrary to the mainstream, he risked being labelled a non-believer. Dr Zahidi said the recent murder of Prof Dr Shakeel Auj, dean of the KU’s Faculty of Islamic Studies, was also due to rising intolerance in society.

French Scholar Prof Dr Michel Boivin spoke on interfaith harmony as reflected through the Sufi orders of colonial and post-colonial Sindh.

Dr Nazir Hussain from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, said that while a violent minority in the Muslim world was proactive, the majority remained silent. “Unless this changes, religious harmony will be difficult to establish.” He said problems arose when states used religion for political purposes, a practice that dated back to at least the Roman Empire.

Dr Arshi Saleem Hashmi of the National Defence University, Islamabad, said that sectarianism in the Muslim World, including the Middle East, was at once a religious, political and social issue. “The political structure in the Middle East is collapsing and non-state actors are stepping in to fill the gap.”

Dr Hashmi said that unless a political approach was applied to the problem, the current US-led military offensive against IS would bear little success. She remarked that for several decades, Iran and Saudi Arabia had been fighting a “cold war” against each other; if these two Middle Eastern states improved ties, it would have a positive impact on the whole region.

Dr Syed Hussain Shaheed Soherwordi of the University of Peshawar said he saw no new civil war in Afghanistan in the future as though the former Hamid Karzai-led government was deeply unpopular, the past few years had brought improved governance and economic stability to Afghanistan. He said Afghanistan’s internal problems were sectarian as well as ethnic. Around 20 per cent of the Afghan population was Shia, but this group was predominantly non-Pakhtun. While other non-Pakhtuns were Barelvis, most of the Pakhtun population followed the Deobandi school.

Dr Soherwordi said before 1979’s Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, “over 80pc of Afghans were Barelvis”. He added that while IS had “a disposition towards sectarianism, Al Qaeda was silent” on that topic.

He said the recent pledges of allegiance of some leading TTP fighters to IS signalled trouble for Pakistan, and that the leadership and influence of both Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar and Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri were threatened.

Published in Dawn, October 16th, 2014

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