There have been worrying signs of breakdown in ethnic relations in Pakistan – including accounts of ethnic Hazaras (a Farsi-speaking, predominantly Shiite group) taking up arms and forming their own militia after bombings in Quetta, and Christian protesters clashing with police in Lahore in response to anti-Christian mob violence earlier this year.
Too little was done to address this growing danger by a Pakistani leadership already stretched in its fight to contain militancy in the country’s north. Recent anti-discrimination laws designed to better protect minorities do little to address or change ethno-religious tensions. And accusations of ambivalence by Pakistan’s police and military toward extremist Sunni groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba have only increased minority distrust of authority in Pakistan.
What is needed is a stronger civil society that slows and reverses any slide into religious and sectarian strife. And a proven but underused way of fostering a stronger civil society is through community organization at the grassroots level.
While groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi who claimed responsibly for January’s bombing of Shiites in Quetta pose a potentially grave danger to minorities, a longer-term danger lies in violent extremist or sectarian ideology seeping into community consciousness and strengthening the formation of isolated in-groups along ethnic, religious and sectarian lines.
Communities, when faced with an overwhelming challenge or threat, unite and in part define themselves by such experiences. And bigger challenges can bind people together not only within communities, but across them. The collective action such collaboration fosters is a vital antidote to the increasingly dangerous ghettoization of communities.
This approach has already shown success in helping better integrate a religious minority that has experienced one of the greatest challenges to integration in Pakistan – the Hindu minority.
Against the backdrop of Pakistan’s traumatic partition and ongoing hostilities with India ever since, Pakistan’s Hindu minority has experienced ongoing discrimination, as documented by openSecurity and Human Rights Watch. But Sindh’s Thardeep district in Southeast Pakistan, one of the places in Pakistan with the worst socio-economic indexes, has seen things improve, despite the fact that the Hindu population, who make up a third of the total, has historically had strained relations with Muslims. This improvement is thanks largely to the grassroots work of Thardeep Rural Support Programs, a local non-governmental organization and part of Pakistan’s largest development network.
Based on a self-help philosophy of grassroots community organization and social mobilization, Trap’s work cuts through religious, sectarian and ethnic divides, uniting local village communities around common development challenges that affect them all, such as access to education, better sanitation, medical care, economic empowerment and emergency relief.
When the floods of 2010 devastated rural Pakistan, Hardees’s community organizations were catapulted into action. The ensuing relief work was delivered with the support of all of Thardeep’s religious communities; it was work delivered by everyone, for everyone. TRDP’s work has reportedly reached 70,365 people and they have rebuilt over 100 schools to date.
TRDP has enhanced the accepted role of not just Hindus, but of Hindu Dalits – those who rank lowest in the caste system – in public life within Thardeep. TRDP’s previous CEO was himself a Hindu Dalit, as well as the first Pakistani Hindu ever to be awarded the Medal of Excellence, the highest civilian honor in Pakistan. This is no small achievement in the Indian Subcontinent, where Dalits have traditionally experienced relentless discrimination.
Hindu and Sikh Pakistanis play a prominent role in TRDP, as board directors, leaders of community organizations and local activists. As such, the organization stands as a model of cooperation that dismantles stereotypes, empowers minorities and brings disparate communities closer together, even against the backdrop of powerful divisive narratives.
More of this kind of civil society action is needed if Pakistan is to bridge its widening sectarian and religious divides. Substantive grassroots action can act as a buffer against extremist and sectarian ideology.
Shiraz Ahmad is director of Unitas Communications, an international cross-cultural communications agency that works to build stronger relations between the Muslim and Western worlds. He has managed projects on behalf of the Federal Government of Somalia and the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org).