Religious tolerance in Pakistan

August 15, 2011


Muhammad Osman, originally from Mali, is seen praying in Manhattan on August 13, 2011. –Photo by author.

Imagine first the bustling streets of Anarkali in Lahore or Qissa Khawani Bazaar in Peshawar. Now imagine a Hindu or a Jewish person praying on the roadside. If religious tolerance had prevailed in Pakistan, this would be a non-issue as people would simply walk by the praying person.

While I can only speculate how Pakistanis would behave around a non-Muslim praying along the street, I need not wonder how Americans would react to a Muslim praying along the street side.

Just outside the store window in uptown Manhattan (New York), I see a Muslim hawker performing his Afternoon (Asr) prayer on the street side at the intersection of 7th-avenue and West 35th street. He sells DVDs and children’s books in the heart of Manhattan. As he prays, women in shorts and men wearing T-shirts walk by his kiosk.  No spectacle is created, or worse no insults or taunts are hurled.

This display of tolerance is a rather strange concept for Muslims to comprehend. How could the US while being involved in armed conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and being instrumental in covert operations in several other Muslim majority countries be so tolerant of Muslims, allowing them to have mosques and the ability to pray wherever they want.

Just a block away on 7th Avenue, members of a religious cult, comprising mostly of African Americans, were busy ridiculing the most revered figure in Christianity. They had caricatured Jesus’ image as a demon on a poster lying on the ground.  While wearing strange-looking garbs they were trying to provoke others in a shouting march about faith.

Almost all Americans and tourists chose not to entertain the blasphemous stupidity of these very misguided youth. There were no shouting matches or attacks on these men who have been performing their provocative act for years near the busiest intersections in New York.

On this trip to New York, I am staying at Condor Hotel, located in the most Jewish part of Brooklyn, which is a borough of New York. The hotel is owned by orthodox Jews and hence it adheres to the strict Jewish religious code of serving only Kosher meals.

Each room in the hotel is equipped with extra amenities to comply with the special needs of the hotel’s Jewish guests. For instance, there is a wig stand in each room for women to hang their wigs while they sleep. The orthodox Jewish women are forbidden from revealing their hair to strangers. Hence they wear wigs to hide their own hair; a practice similar to some Muslim women who wear hijaab to cover their hair.

The streets around the hotel are filled with orthodox Jewish men wearing their traditional black and white clothes and Jewish women pushing kids in strollers. On the Jewish Sabbath however, i.e. Friday afternoons, the entire neighbourhood is deserted as the Jewish households confine to their homes during the Sabbath that lasts until Saturday evening. Thus all shops are closed; all business is suspended in the Jewish part of Brooklyn.

But that is not the case everywhere in New York. A short train ride away is Manhattan, where streets were bustling with people on Friday night. Way past midnight I walked into a shoe store near the Time Square. Businesses were open, restaurants were serving food, and electronic billboards were flashing larger than life images of models showcasing apparel, while thousands were celebrating in the streets, theatres and restaurants.

Earlier in the afternoon on Friday I visited New York University’s Stern School of Business, which is located in downtown Manhattan. I walked by a Church located right next to NYU’s campus. The Church’s notice board commemorated American casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. The notice board listed the 4,466 American soldiers who died in Iraq and another 1,643 who died in Afghanistan. Also listed on the Church’s notice board were the 110,811 Iraqi civilians who had died since the US invasion of Iraq.

In no ambiguous terms the Church was highlighting the extent of misery and grief that beset the Iraqis. The notice board could have only listed the number of Americans dead and wounded in Iraq. Instead, the Church ensured that those who looked at these statistics also took note of the human toll exacted on the Iraqis resulting from the US invasion.

Could it be that Americans, or at least New Yorkers, don’t care about religion and hence, they choose to ignore the blaspheming black youth, very religiously observant Jews, or Muslim men praying on the street side. Of course, not everyone is that tolerant in the US, or in New York, for that matter. A few months earlier, some in New York opposed the construction of a new mosque near the former World Trade Center site. However, the local administration, headed by the Jewish mayor, Michael Bloomberg, strongly resisted the opposition to the mosque.

Perhaps most Americans understand the virtues of religious tolerance, which is evident when minorities are encouraged to practice their religious beliefs. The same tolerance helps maintain order in the society even when some try to act as irritants; remember the black youth trying to offend and incite Christians in Manhattan? Tolerance is also evident from the presence of thousands of mosques, temples, gurdawaras, and synagogues that punctuate the landscape in urban America.

Exactly 64 years since its independence, Pakistan on the other hand continues to struggle with shaping its identity. It is up to Pakistanis to decide how much or how little religious tolerance may prevail in the society.

Will Pakistan continue to be a country where Sikhs are prevented from praying, Ahmadis and Shias are slaughtered in and en-route to places of worship, where shrines of patron saints are destroyed by suicide bombers, or where foreign aid workers are abducted for ransom. Or will it be a country where religious pluralism, as was envisioned by Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father, would flourish?

Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto.  He can be reached by email at

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