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Tourism of faith

Here we are sharing an article written by Hajrah Mumtaz published in ‘Dawn’ on 15th Aug, 2016.

ANOTHER Independence Day celebrated, another round of frenzy that the citizenry has fallen into the habit of indulging in at this time of the year. From young motorcyclists menacing the public with wheelies to women complaining of being harassed to the sheer volume of jubilant yells and sporadic gunfire that echoed yesterday from the streets of cities across the country, it is evident that Aug 14 has become a day for the latent unruly energies of the populace to be unleashed.

The country seems to largely have forgotten, though, that just three days before Independence Day had passed another occasion — the anniversary of Jinnah’s speech to the first Constituent Assembly — that, with the wisdom of hindsight, ought to have been kept inextricably tied to Independence Day in the collective memory.

The portion of that speech most quoted in history books has deservedly been the lines about religion having nothing to do with the business of the state. But, it is also worth reminding ourselves of the starting point that this eloquent lawyer used to get into his argument: “[…] free to go to your temples, […] free to go to your mosques or any other places of worship in this state of Pakistan […]”.

It is saddening to have to remind ourselves that this land that constitutes Pakistan has a history of thousands of years characterised by a multiplicity of religions, the myriad followers of which — it’s such a cliché to say it now — coexisted perfectly peacefully.

Pakistan has glorious reminders of its multifaith history.

Today, this is no country for minorities. It is one where Christian populations have emptied out of entire localities and villages for fear of their lives, where Hindus must raise with the police their complaint of members of their community being forced to convert into the religion of the majority, where Sikhs and Parsis are in increasing numbers trying to find an exit, to say nothing of the violence that has come to be directed against sectarian groups within the Muslim population. It would be a brave voice indeed that might talk today of the religious diversity that once flourished in this country.

Yet, this remains the case and across the length and breadth of this land are a multiplicity of sites that are graceful, glorious reminders of it. Temples, shrines, churches, fire temples, stupas representing the various associated religions … there are dozens upon dozens of edifices and locations — many still in use, some under threat due to age and neglect, a few actively targeted due to their ‘otherness’ — that are testament to a history of diversity and tolerance. This past shared by varied communities could, if kept in active focus, well prove one day to be the glue that holds Pakistan together. The question is, how does the country go about keeping this fact alive and vibrant in the citizenry’s mind?

One very obvious method would be for the state to put higher up on its priority list the preservation, celebration and promotion of sites that speak to religions other than the dominant faith, and that are an integral part of this land’s past and present.

Currently, in the overwhelming majority of cases, where these locations are cared for, it is either by the community that holds them dear, or by a few dedicated individuals. Only nominally if ever do they get any active interest or adequate funds from the state. But a push by the governance-administrative structures towards promoting religious tourism actively would raise their profile, and in the process bring to attention the fact that there is a reason for the white component in the national flag.

It is not that the seeds are not there. Gurdwara Panja Sahib near Islamabad, for example, is one of the holiest sites in Sikhism, and is visited each year by hundreds of Sikhs and Hindus from foreign climes. But the case I am making here is for places such as this to also figure prominently in the consciousness of local Muslims.

Again, a few easily managed measures could achieve this. A tourism promotion drive, for example. Greater inclusion of their profiles in textbooks would help, as would an effort made by schools and colleges to arrange field trips to places of religio-historical significance, especially those aligning with faiths embraced by minority communities. The last is especially and easily doable given that in terms of numbers, public-sector schools outstrip by far private schools over whose decisions the state has little control.

A friend recounted the experience of having visited a museum recently, which is graced by statues of the Buddha. A couple from the group were reluctant to enter the premises of the exhibition hall, on the grounds that the presence of ‘idols’ there might compromise their faith. This mindset needs altering urgently if this country is to be saved.

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Vision 21 is Pakistan based non-profit, non- party Socio-Political organisation. We work through research and advocacy for developing and improving Human Capital, by focusing on Poverty and Misery Alleviation, Rights Awareness, Human Dignity, Women empowerment and Justice as a right and obligation. We act to promote and actively seek Human well-being and happiness by working side by side with the deprived and have-nots.

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