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Unity and diversity

Publication Date : 09-04-2014


According to the Pew Research Centre, Pakistan is one of Asia’s least religiously diverse nations. The news came last week when the centre launched its new religious diversity index.

The parameters used to measure religious diversity looked at what percentage of the country’s population since 2010 belonged to one of the world’s eight major religious groups. The closer a country comes to having equal shares, the higher its ranking. Pakistan, unsurprisingly, emerged at the bottom, standing among 136 countries ranked ‘low’ in diversity.

The story was not the same across Asia. The Asia-Pacific region was defined as one of the most diverse in the world. Of the 232 countries that were ranked by the survey, Singapore — with its population of five million and long-burgeoning economy — emerged as the most religiously diverse country in the world, having robust representations of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians among its population. The other five Asian countries that came out in the top 12 were Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea, China and Hong Kong.

With 96.4 per cent Muslims, Pakistan has proportionally the 23rd largest Muslim population, smaller than its immediate neighbours Afghanistan and Iran. Egypt, Indonesia, and even Saudi Arabia (probably owing to its practice of taking in migrant workers from other countries) all had proportionately smaller religious populations in terms of diversity.

Numbers tell stories, and in Pakistan’s case, they provide certitude to the realities that are already widely known. Behind the country’s apparent religious homogeneity lies the assumption that such sameness will automatically produce a nationalist unity. When all Pakistanis are followers of the same faith, then no dissent is possible — such is the theory, and it is a cherished one.

These, in turn, have lowered and then lowered again the thresholds of permissible difference. Christians hide and flee; so do Ahmedis; and of late Shias too are seen as unfit to inhabit the chokehold of an ever-narrowing identity. Killers assume that with so many exterminations, unity is guaranteed. The silent watchers of the killings assume that with unity, prosperity too will come.

Erected on this foundation, the march towards similarity continues. A Shia doctor gunned down on the streets of Karachi, a Christian man killed in jail, a Hindu girl raped and murdered, all stories can be culled from the pages of newspapers past — all sacrifices at the altar of pursuing sameness and the elimination of conflict.

The interest of the present moment is in producing a mono-cultural, mono-religious, mono-sectarian world. It is a world that Pakistanis, watching the mass murder in the name of religion in their midst, seem to believe in. To be the same, and even more same still, is a matter of pride in the land of the pure.

There are no bricks with which to construct an argument of tolerance in the Pakistan of today. The themes of respect and restraint, religious equality and interfaith or inter-sectarian harmony, have all been sung at length, their tunes drowned out by the quest for unity, for the death of diversity. But while the dirge for an end to persecution of the ever so slightly different — the most delicately dissenting — may fall on deaf ears, another truth spoken by the Pew Survey may not.

As the list recounted at the beginning attests, the most religiously diverse countries in Asia are also those with the better functioning economies. Among Muslim countries, Malaysia with its mix of Muslims, Christians and Hindus, is one story of a Muslim majority that enjoys economic prosperity based not on the random luck of oil wealth, but on its ability to attract foreign business, to accommodate difference such that newcomers are eager to invest.

Pakistan’s death march to homogeneity, for all its fury and fervour, is a dead-end road. The extermination of one, then others, and then some more, has revealed reasons to kill, not to get along. Droves of Pakistanis now populate the asylum and refugee lists of any country that shows the barest possibility of taking them. At home, the beast of bloodletting demands more and more, and smaller and smaller differences become the basis of fatalities. There is no end, just an endless circle of annihilation, based on a faulty premise that the elimination of difference is the foundation of a better future, even a peaceful one.

The golden epoch of Islamic history is a dear favourite. In this too is a betrayal, for the most proximate of these halcyon times, the Ottoman Empire, was a time of much balancing of difference, a learning from exchange, an acknowledgment of the good things that can be born of encountering something other than exact copies of the self.

Those perhaps were the indulgences of a secure people, unafraid of losing themselves when confronted with those who believed differently, ate other things, wore other clothes. In exchange, they saw opportunity, and in opportunity they saw improvement.

Ultimately, the exclusion of others is the exclusion of self. The two other countries with similar rates of religious homogeneity are Afghanistan and Iran, one a war-wrecked skeleton of a nation and the other a global pariah.

The cost of excluding others, of an inability to manage difference with justice, is reflected then in borders becoming walls and homelands traps. The same may be familiar, even comforting, but it is also an evasion of challenge without which there can never be triumph.


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