As religion in Pakistan continues to be co-opted into extremist political agendas, influential moral and religious leaders have a vital role to play in their communities. However, many are part and parcel of the problem. Educational curricula in madrassas (Islamic religious school), schools and colleges deal with complex issues around religious identity formation. This sometimes replicates [explosive] political narratives, which can lead to violence.
To counter this trend, the Peace and Education Foundation (PEF), established in 2009 in Islamabad, works across Pakistan to engage and enhance the capacity of religious leaders to develop a grassroots culture of dialogue between religious representatives.
PEF organises interfaith dialogues with religious leaders across Pakistan, including imams, madrassa teachers, Hindu pandits, priests (Catholic and Protestant) and Sikh Gyanis (congregation leaders). The dialogues create a safe space for religious leaders, where their roles and authority can be discussed openly through organised interactive sessions. They discuss the issues that they are most concerned about and work together to generate appropriate solutions. For example, they will select an ongoing conflict in a participant’s community and brainstorm together to identify its causes and potential solutions. This is an effective team building tool which empowers religious leaders to foster interfaith dialogue and mediation, and it provides an opportunity to learn about conflict resolution.
From these sessions, peace champions are selected and trained in leadership and conflict resolution skills. Once they return to their communities, they conduct seminars, reflection sessions and workshops on tolerance, peace and conflict resolution. As part of this process, champions visit different places of worship to encourage social cohesion and understanding between religions. They also assist third-party evaluators in collecting feedback from the community about their interventions.
This work has been impactful in the Pakistani context. For example, a peace champion from the programme successfully prevented a suicide bomber from joining a militant organisation in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Likewise, some champions intervened to prevent an outbreak of violence between Christian and Muslims and others acted as mediators in a dispute between two religious communities in South Punjab.
PEF’s meaningful interventions have encouraged inclusive interfaith dialogue, empowering local religious representatives to use their community influence and act as agents of positive change.