For a Lesson on Coexistence, Pakistanis Could Look Up to Gilgit Baltistan

Pakistan is often associated with religious intolerance and extremism. But things are not as bad just north of mainland Pakistan in the Gilgit Baltistan territory. Gilgit Baltistan is one of the most bestowed and beautiful places on our planet. And its people: equally marvelous. Here is a story from Gilgit that should inspire the rest of Pakistan.

Attabad Lake in Gilgit Baltistan.

In Sunni majority Pakistan, the picturesque territory of Gilgit Baltistan is the only Shia majority region. As such, the sacred month of Muharram has a special place in the region’s annual calendar. Just days ago, during the commemoration of Ashura(reverence of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad), social media lit up with a feat of intra-faith collaboration and outreach that is unprecedented in present-day Pakistan.

Love for All Hatred for none medical camp by Jammat ahmadiyaa for azadaran in Gilgit @R00mi1 @theRealYLH@Ayeshaspeaksnow @KashifMD

The Shia student body of Gilgit – Imamia Student Organization – joined hands with the local Ahmadiyya Muslim Community to organize a medical camp for participants of the Ashura processions in the area. The banner at the gate of the medical camp proudly displayed the official motto of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community: “Love For All; Hatred For None” in the Urdu language.

Though not uncommon prior to the Constitutional amendment and anti-Ahmadi lawspassed against the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan, such examples of faith outreach are unprecedented in this era. Working with Ahmadi Muslims in a faith-based context is huge taboo in Pakistan. Even government bodies refuse to engage the Ahmadis in interfaith events, claiming Ahmadis are infidels and not a “legitimate religious group.”  Despite all attempts by the Ahmadiyya leadership to build bridges and work on common grounds, no religious group in the country is willing to publicly partner with the community on its numerous humanitarian projects. In such a climate of ostracization, the Imamia Student Organization in Gilgit Baltistan deserves applause for their exemplary outreach and respect for pluralism. As things stand, I doubt a similar Shia organization (not to speak of a Sunni group) in mainland Pakistan could show the same level of tolerance and respect for coexistence.

Intolerance and sectarianism have sadly taken deep roots across Pakistan. And the same mindset behind this radicalization is also responsible for trying to destroy the peace in Gilgit Baltistan. But fortunately, the people of the region continue to resist such bigoted influence and take pride in their pluralistic ideals.

This was very evident as doctors and volunteers from both the Shia and Ahmadiyya sects helped provide free care at the medical camp set up last week. When it was time for prayer, the Shia Muslim student volunteers did not hesitate to say their prayers at the local Ahmadiyya Mosque (picture shows Shia students performing ablution at the Ahmadiyya Mosque).

امامیہ اسکواڈ گلگت بلتستان کے ممبران احمدیہ مسجد میں نماز پڑھنے کے لئے تیاری کرتے ہوئے۔۔
اس ملک کو ایسی ہی مذہبی ہم آہنگی کی ضرورت ہے.

Many Pakistani social media activists took note and lauded the Imamia Student Organization. Riaz Akbar, a human rights activist, wrote on his Facebook page:

“While Ahmadis face the harshest persecution and isolation across Pakistan, they are a widely respected community in Gilgit. This #Ashura, the awesome #Ahmadi community and Shia organisations collaborated during the Ashura procession. Looks like the rest of the country has a thing or two to learn from us. Feeling proud of Gilgitis. Stay awesome.”

Another activist from Gilgit, Mr. Zaeem Zia shared pictures of the medical camp and commented:

“Beauty of Gilgit-Baltistan, Ahmadiyya community and Imamia Students Organisation arrange a medical camp.” #LoveForAllHateForNone #Pluralism #Peace #PeacefulCoexistence #Ashura

Journalist and civil rights activist, Bilal Farooqi, celebrated the intrafaith gesture and hoped for the same level of basic tolerance and coexistence in mainland Pakistan.

This is how it should be! Medical camp set up with Ahmadiyya community’s help in Gilgit for Ashura processions in the area. via @KashifMD

To find out if this pluralistic spirit was the rule in the region or merely an isolated incident, I spoke to a few members of the Shia and Ahmadiyya communities in Gilgit. I was thrilled to see how members from either sect were praising the other for their commitment to preserving pluralism in the region. Shia Muslim students praised the Ahmadiyya community for their peaceful and humanitarian outlook, while Ahmadi Muslim students lauded their Shia neighbors for having such open hearts. One Ahmadi leader told me:

“I cannot imagine being invited to an event at a Shia or Sunni Mosque in mainland Pakistan. Here, our local Shia Mosque invited me to speak on Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) righteous character at an intrafaith event recently.”

And when I asked him about the rampant sectarianism and Takfir (anathematization) across the country, he replied:

“Oh no, not here. We identify as Muslims in Gilgit Baltistan. People here respect religious freedom and we do not have to worry about being thrown into jails for professing our faith.”

A Shia Gilgiti proudly reiterated:

“Ahmadis are our brothers. We will not let anyone hate them. Gilgit stands for peace and love.”

The Pakistani government has often admitted that Takfir is at the root of sectarianism, and sectarianism the precursor for terrorism. But it has taken no steps to curb the sectarian and Takfiri language in the State’s most sacred documents. If we dream of religious harmony and peaceful coexistence in Pakistan, we must look North to our Gilgiti neighbors and try to model their attitudes throughout the country.

Like Gilgit, the rest of Pakistan must also understand the basic principle of “agreeing to disagree” on theology, while embracing friendly community ties. And like them, we must make no exceptions to calls for interfaith and intrafaith coexistence. We must embrace ALL of our neighbors with open hearts. Instead of emulating the Trumps of the world, we should be its Trudeaus – and its Gilgitis.