Since its inception in 1947, Pakistan has struggled to find voices that represent the radical middle, encouraging religious freedom, reconciliation, and equality within its Muslim majority and between it and minority faith communities.
The threats to Pakistan's voices that represent the radical middle, are evidence of this continued struggle. Friends of IGE, Dr. Farooq Khan (a religious scholar, clinical psychologist, and Vice-chancellor of Swat Islamic University), and Shahbaz Bhatti (the Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs) were gunned down by Islamic extremists for speaking out against such things as blasphemy laws and violent extremism. The silencing of their voices has many worried that intolerance toward the "other" will become the norm in Pakistan.
No place reflects these fragile dynamics more than the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (formerly the Northwest Frontier Province). Given its majority conservative Muslim population and its geo-strategic location bordering Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas as well as Afghanistan, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province is a haven for extremists like the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Economic concerns exacerbate the problem, as 40% of the province's population lives below the poverty line, with a 26% literacy rate overall in the tribal areas, and 3% for women.
IGE's engagement in the region began in 2005, when, seeking to move past mutual stereotypes of Pakistanis and Americans, IGE invited the province's Islamist Chief Minister to visit the U.S.
Following the Chief Minister's visit to the United States, he extended an invitation to IGE to visit the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in October 2005. As a result, IGE was able to gain unusual access to a remote region that most Americans are not able to visit or experience.
Since that time, doors of opportunity have opened for increased impact in the region, from the signing of an agreement with the Chief Minister in 2005—agreeing to mutually promote tolerance and respect in the region, and exploring projects for the enhancement of the socio-economic condition of the people—to discussions of peace talks between conservative Islamist groups in the region and the U.S.
Given recent events, the American relationship with the Muslim world is at a point of heightened sensitivity that threatens to worsen. Yet this is also a time of opportunity through intentional and practical steps that promote the best local efforts for the betterment of society.
In the context of this agreement, IGE has joined with provincial institutions to address regional needs:
- IGE has established the Global Engagement Fellowship program with the University of Science and Technology in Bannu as an alternative to the influences of radical Islam in the Pakistani-Afghan border region. The program develops a scholarly dialogue on religious pluralism and tolerance, and provides scholarships for religious minorities, women, and tribal students to attend the program and gain a degree. The Fellowship program graduated its first cohort of 16 students in December 2010, including 7 female students. There are currently 20 students enrolled in the program, including 9 women.
- IGE is partnering with Faith Friends, an interfaith organization working on issues of education, development, and dialogue that shape religious freedom in Pakistan. IGE co-sponsored a first-ever Interfaith Conference on Religion and Peace in Peshawar in May 2007; two IGE staff addressed the forum, along with religious scholars and political leaders. This was also the first time that minority faiths were able to address an audience of 40 imams and students from throughout the province.
- In January of 2008, IGE's Joshua White compiled the definitive work on religion and politics in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. This work has been frequently utilized by those within the U.S. security sector, as Josh has been sought as an advisor on issues of culture and security in the region, and is currently working toward his Ph.D. on the role of the Pakistani Islamist JUI-F party in Pakistan's politics.
For photos of IGE's work in Pakistan click here.