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Peaceful coexistence and sectarianism

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Defining peaceful coexistence, in an interesting article by Mr Khrushchev carried by Foreign Affairs, signifies, in essence, the repudiation of war as a means of solving controversial issues. It presupposes an obligation to refrain from every form of violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of another state. It implies renunciation of interference in the internal affairs of other countries. It means that political and economic relations must be put on a basis of complete equality and mutual benefit. It involves, he says, the elimination of the very threat of war. It is something that "should develop into peaceful competition for the purpose of satisfying man's needs in the best possible way." 

Ground realities are different. War may become inevitable as not all countries are equal--some are more equal than others. The discourse ignores the presence of non-state actors and vested interests. The definition also overlooks to accommodate the desire by some nations to undertake acts that lead to an increased control over different regions, in order to maintain and reassert their global hegemony. It also ignores that political and economic status of different countries are different and unequal degrees in development make for unequal partnerships between nations, especially if one is on the giving and the other on the receiving end. It also presupposes that the best way to satisfy man's needs globally is the same. 

It was Lenin who advanced the idea that the socialist state should pursue a policy of peaceful coexistence towards countries with different social systems. This policy was long followed by the Communist Party and the government of the Soviet Union under the leadership of Lenin. 

A closer look at the concept of peaceful coexistence is needed in the world we live in today. The modern era is one where the world has shrunk to being a global village. Nations have economic dependence and political alliances with each other. Approach to issues may differ greatly owing to distinctive cultures, religious and moral values, and history. These variable factors make us individually and nationally different from other individuals and nations. The world and ongoing issues are interpreted differently by different people within a country and as a country as compared to others. Each will have their own perception and their own interpretation of events as they unfold.

The desire for peaceful coexistence must aim at cultivating, first and foremost, a tolerance and understanding towards these differences by all. Failure to do so must result in differences, acts of terrorism, and ultimately war. The fact that we did not 'choose' our beliefs in which we were born, we did not 'choose' the sects within which we were born, makes religious intolerance completely unnecessary. Different religions and different sects have lived together all over the world and in Pakistan -- why the growing intolerance?  Martha Nussbaum in a piece in Forbes argues that religious intolerance is born out of fear: "In order to move beyond a climate of fear, then, we need more than good principles: we need the cultivation of sympathy and, therefore, we need approaches through education and rhetoric, not just through argument" (published August 27, 2010). 

Pakistan in recent years has become a hotbed of sectarian violence. Religious intolerance is a major reason. Other elements also play their part, including political, economic, and external interference. The cascading effects are devastating; creating wedges between different sects, destabilising a peaceful environment thereby damaging the economy, creating internal security threats, and politicisation of religion, to name a few. The recent step-up in sectarian violence is also due to the fact that many sectarian-based organisations have greater space to operate. 

The result is that we are facing an increasingly polarised Pakistan. Different 'groups' appoint themselves to decide who is a 'good' Muslim. They decide upon other religious issues and operating outside the realm of law, take a decision to act against the 'guilty' accordingly. Sense of self-righteousness convinces the group that any means, no matter how harsh it may be, is justified. In other words, ends justify the means. The post 9/11 scenario, in particular, fanned intolerance between different schools of thought and, more particularly, different religions. This does not mean to say differences did not exist before. Tools like blatant military interventions, militarism, and authoritative democratic orders have been used to promote particular thought processes. 

Quoting one example only; United Nations had shown concern over the ongoing sectarian violence in Pakistan. On February 17, 2013, the Secretary-General strongly condemned the terrorist attack carried out on February 16 in Quetta that targeted the Shia Hazara community, resulting in more than 80 persons killed and nearly 200 wounded -- many of them women and children. 

There has to be a well-thought-out and comprehensive plan by the government to defang the evil of sectarianism. First, the gaping economic disparities must be addressed. This has to be a sustained and long-term strategy. When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, while talking to BBC, stated that the revival of the economy would help resolve extremism and terrorism, it is a pragmatic approach. 

Second, the various shades of religious opinions of the people of Pakistan will have to be appreciated, allowing space to the followers. The different identities that come together under the umbrella of Pakistan need to be acknowledged. A united Pakistan means diversified groups based in Pakistan and respecting these diversities.

Third, the space of religious sectarian groups to operate must be restricted, allowing plurality of views. Violence has been the natural outcome of intolerance. 

Fourth, the government must develop and implement good governance through broad-based policies, encompassing different religious hues, and shun policies based on patronage. 

Fifth, encouraging interfaith learning may go a long way towards bringing different sects within Pakistan closer. 

The recent initiative by Darul Iman Jamia Masjid Qurtuba to construct a mosque that is sect-free is a brilliant approach. Its library is filled with books of all sects. Based in Islamabad's Margalla foothills, one hopes the message of peaceful coexistence is received loud and clear by all Muslims. A progressive nation must have its people living in peaceful coexistence to develop and prosper. Only once the countrymen are in peaceful coexistence with each other, the same can be sought with other nations of the world. 

The veteran Iraqi politician, Adnan Pachachi, rightly said: "Everybody seems to be imprisoned in their own sectarian or political affiliations. They don't seem to be able to rise above these things."

The writer is a lawyer, academic and political analyst. She has authored a book titled A Comparative Analysis of Media & Media Laws in Pakistan. Her Twitter handle is: @yasmeen_9
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