Thursday, June 06, 2013

Bilateral Relations: Religion, the problem or solution in US-Pakistan relations

by Robert Chase

New York City – Last month I travelled with a multi-faith delegation of US religious leaders, the US-Pakistan Interreligious Consortium (UPIC), to meet with Pakistani counterparts in Islamabad and Lahore. While in Pakistan, I found that a shift to human security — beyond military security and improving quality of life in terms of education, healthcare and good governance — might prove more effective in achieving better US-Pakistani relations.

During meetings, one challenge was raised time and again: what difference can religious leaders actually make in a country that is beset with deep and abiding problems like poverty, unemployment, a dysfunctional educational system, extremist violence – where religion is so often considered the cause – and profound distrust of the government’s ability to right the ship?

These are Pakistani issues and, as our Pakistani counterparts told us, are often best left for Pakistanis to address. But by focusing on human security, long the purview of religious communities, we found common ground and gained traction with our Pakistani hosts. We were told human security was a refreshing topic to discuss with Americans.

We discussed how many social issues facing Pakistan also reverberate across the United States. Disparity of income, unemployment, human rights concerns, dysfunctional government and lack of constructive outlets for young people are issues common to both nations.

While there are clearly differences in culture, governance and economic stability, are there things we can learn from each other to help salve social wounds in our respective countries? Is working for social justice a space where we might find common ground? The answer in our conversations was a resounding yes on both counts. Sitting at the table together marked a clear beginning of meaningful exchange and progress.

For example, we learned from our Pakistani counterparts that dysfunctional elements in society and marginalisation make citizens susceptible to extremist forces able to provide badly needed social services. By caring for all members of our respective societies, we might get away from these radical positions.

Dr Masoom Yasinzai, Rector of International Islamic University (IIU), reminded us, “Whether we are Muslims, Christians or Jews, whether we are Pakistanis or Americans, we all want to make this world a better place – more peaceful, more equitable, more responsive to the demands of justice and fairness, more tolerant and compassionate and above all, based on morally-informed and not on politically expedient policies.”

He went on to say that, “Religious leaders speak from the pulpit of conscience and not from the soap box of politicians. Hence, they potentially have more credibility [in building US-Pakistani relations] than their counterparts in other sectors of society when they speak on issues of public interest, whether domestic or foreign.”

We Americans experienced extraordinary Pakistani hospitality; we discovered a remarkable openness—a hunger even—for conversation when meeting with religious and community leaders, professors, students and grassroots activists. We spent a lot of time listening and heard a perspective which, though sharply critical of US foreign policy (as well as their own), was equally committed to finding mutuality in combatting social problems in our respective societies.

We left Pakistan with an actionable agenda that included a commitment to continue meeting, using the educational institutions we represented—four Pakistani and four American—as starting points for face-to-face exchanges between our two countries. We also agreed to undertake a joint effort to rebuild the lives and communities of those affected by drone strikes, an issue that is of utmost concern in the minds of Pakistanis when it comes to US-Pakistan relations. The consortium is currently working to determine the methodology and scope of this important joint effort.

Will these efforts prove fruitful? Time will tell. But the eagerness we discovered among Pakistanis to engage Americans to repair a fractured relationship is a hopeful sign.

We received an email upon our return from Dr Mumtaz Ahmad, Director of the Iqbal International Institute for Research and Dialogue at IIU. Dr Ahmad wrote, “Almost everyone told me that they saw a new face of America: deeply religious, caring, compassionate, humble and willing to listen with respect and patience. You simply can't imagine, my friends, how important your trip to Pakistan was! It was the first time that many of us came to know that ‘winning hearts and minds’ meant something real.”

Clearly some positive stirrings are afoot. It might be wise to stay tuned.


* Rev Robert Chase is the Executive Director of Intersections International, a New York based non-government organisation, and works globally in the field of cross-cultural dialogue. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 4 June 2013,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.