Aurangzeb Haneef, MTS '09, has seen his home country of Pakistan transform into a target for criminal activity and terrorism. In response, he says that he's built up 'a certain numbness' toward acts of violence as a means of emotional survival.
When he heard of the double suicide bombing that killed 80 people at All Saints Church in the Pakistani city of Peshawar last September, however, he was shocked and deeply saddened.
"It was a new low," he says. "Two suicide attacks on a Christian church during Sunday mass. So many casualties. I felt disgust and grief."
If the violence of recent years has thickened Haneef's skin, it has also increased his desire to make a difference. That's why he works to encourage peace building from an Islamic perspective, both through the classes he teaches at Pakistan's Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and as an adviser to students.
"In my classes and talks, I promote critical understanding of Islamic religious tradition, religious peace building, and interfaith dialog," says Haneef, whose courses include "Islamic Studies,' 'Jihad: A Social, Political, and Theological History," and "Classical Sufism."
"I also run an online student discussion group where these and other topics are brought up."
The night after the church bombings, Haneef ran into a former student, Sarah Khan. A Muslim, Khan felt enraged and ashamed at the way the terrorists had used Islam to justify the attack. She says that Haneef shared her revulsion.
"Professor Haneef condemned the perpetrators of the attack outright," she says. "He said that the victimization of non-Muslim minorities in the name of religion is not only inhumane in itself, but also undermines the moral integrity of the Islamic religious tradition."
Soon after, Haneef joined the dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS in a meeting with about 100 students who wanted to respond to the violence. Haneef offered himself as an adviser to any student initiative that would engage with religion for peace building.
"I highlighted the importance of involving religious people, students, and the LUMS Religious Society," he says.
A Collective Response to Violence
The following week the students organized a candlelight prayer vigil on campus in response to the attack on the church. As a result of discussions among the students, a new initiative called Aahang ('harmony') was started.
"Aahang strives to achieve greater tolerance, plurality, and inclusiveness in a culturally rich and colorful Pakistani society," Haneef says. "It also promotes dialogue and participation to solve outstanding issues and gain better knowledge of the 'other' including followers of religions or sects other than our own, or people belonging to an ethnicity or identity different from our own."
Haneef had been engaging both in person and via the Facebook group he started to "have more interactions with students on matters pertaining to Islam, peace, and conflict." When another faculty member told him of an upcoming demonstration of solidarity with parishioners at nearby St. Anthony's Church, Haneef shared the information on social media.
Khan joined the group sponsoring the event, Pakistan for All, and planned to attend. She says that to keep silent and do nothing would have made her an enabler of "religious fascism."
The solidarity event took place on Sunday, October 6, 2013, two weeks after the attack in Peshawar. Khan and some of her LUMS classmates joined hundreds of demonstrators—both Christian and Muslim—in a "human chain" around St. Anthony's Church in Lahore to protect parishioners from attack. The families of several of her classmates forbade them to participate due to fears of another attack, but Khan says there's no safe haven from religiously motivated violence.
"The extent of terrorism and violence in our society leads us to question whether we are really secure, even when we are in the comfort of our homes," she says. "Would you still pretend to focus on your daily chores when your house is on fire and a part of your family is being burnt alive?"
Haneef wanted to join the demonstrators, but did not. He had seen religious scholars killed or forced to flee the country for challenging extremist narratives. Moreover, to preserve his credibility as a scholar, he needed to appear "neutral...in an environment where polarity is increasingly the norm."
"I have to keep a low profile," he says. "I am more of a teacher now than I am an activist. In the sensitive and dangerous environment of Pakistan, it is necessary to quietly do your important work without attracting too much attention."
Mobilizing for Real Change
Still, Haneef did speak out, and publicly. In an editorial for the International New York Times's Express Tribune, he argued for religious solidarity, writing that, "When innocent Sunnis, Shias, Ahmadis and Christians, or anyone else for that matter, are victimized by self-righteous Muslims in the name of religion (or as collateral damage in the larger 'clash of civilizations'), this threatens the 'moral integrity' of the Islamic religious tradition."
Looking ahead, Haneef says he will continue his critical scholarship and campaign for interfaith and intrafaith harmony in Pakistan. He gives credit to HDS in these areas, and says that the School provided him with knowledge and multifaith experience that helps him to make a difference.
"Before coming to HDS," Haneef says, "I lacked the theoretical framework, the theological foundations, the academic rigor, the vocabulary, the deeper understanding of the Islamic tradition, and most importantly, the guidance of teachers to challenge and fine tune my thoughts. HDS provided me with all of this. Professor Diana Eck's course and her book Encountering God helped me approach important questions about 'us' and the 'other' in a profound manner. Interfaith prayers and multifaith community events were a great way of knowing the other and a source of inculcating respect for other religious traditions."
Haneef says that he hopes the students he teaches will, like Sarah Khan, become part of a movement that will someday bring peace to his country through a serious engagement with religion.
"Some religious organizations and political parties have condemned the church attacks, but haven't done anything concrete to change the ground realities," he says. "Unless they become mobilized, secular voices will have little or no tangible impact in a deeply religious and divided society of Pakistan."
—by Paul Massari