Pakistan university students tackle intolerance problem

A growing number of blasphemy attacks on campus has prompted a new program to promote religious understanding
Pakistan university students tackle intolerance problem

Students at a diversity workshop in Lahore. (Photo courtesy Youth Development Foundation) 

When Muhammad Usman Farooq arrived to study at the top University in Lahore, there was animated discussion about an infamous blasphemy case against one of the lecturers.

In early 2013, former Fulbright scholar Junaid Hafeez's employment as an English lecturer at Bahauddin Zakariya University had been terminated.

Students belonging to Jamaat-e-Islaami, the largest religious-political party in the country, had protested on campus against allegedly blasphemous remarks Hafeez made during lectures and on Facebook.

Hafeez was arrested and charged in March 2013 with blasphemy, but struggled to find a lawyer to defend him. In the end Rashid Rehman, a regional coordinator for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, took up Hafeez's case but he was murdered in his office by unidentified gunmen. During an earlier hearing, Rehman was openly threatened by prosecution lawyers in court.

Farooq, 21, said since then NGOs had been organizing programs at the university aimed at promoting religious and cultural tolerance.

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He was among 40 university students who attended a workshop organized by the Youth Development Foundation (YDF) on Oct. 7-8 in Lahore.

The workshop, which followed-up on earlier events, asked participants to come up with ways of countering campus and classroom religious intolerance.


The Project 

YDF programs have involved 80 students from four universities in Pakistan.

Organizers are now planning to celebrate various religious feasts and make documentaries about what different religions have in common.

Speech competitions and "peace theatre" performances are also scheduled.

Meanwhile, Farooq and his Muslim friends want to display banners on university buses with quotes from leading Pakistani humanists.

"Photos of Muslim philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi and Catholic Sister Ruth Pfau (who treated leprosy patients) will be used, as both of them helped everybody and people will always respect them," Farooq said.

Many bus drivers had agreed in principle to the plan and permission from the university’s vice chancellor is being sought.



Shahid Rehmat, a Catholic and Executive Director of YDF, cites the April killing of journalism student Mashal Khan from Abdul Wali Khan University in northern western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Khan was also accused of blasphemy.

A few days later, a professor from the Ahmadiyya Islamic movement was found stabbed to death in her house in the residential area of Punjab University.

Ahmadiyya, founded in Punjab in the 19th Century, is considered by some mainstream Muslims to be heretical.

"The horrific attacks brought fresh focus to the growing intolerance and propensity for extremist violence on varsity campuses," Rehmat said.

"This is an alarming trend which requires immediate attention."

Professor Anjum James Paul, from the Government Post Graduate College in Faisalabad, blames a "sick society and class system" for religious violence at places of higher education.

He called for protection of diversity at universities where there has traditionally been political and religious wings of students and even teachers.

Out of the 186 universities recognized by Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission, only four made it to the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

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