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‘Pakistan setting up interfaith harmony bodies to confront sectarianism’

7th Jan 2021
‘Pakistan setting up interfaith harmony bodies to confront sectarianism’

By Islamuddin Sajid

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AA): Pakistan is establishing interfaith harmony councils at the local, provincial and national level to promote dialogue and resolve sectarian conflicts, Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, special representative of the prime minister on religious harmony, has revealed.

In an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency, Ashrafi, who is also the chairman of Pakistan Ulema Council, a top body of religious scholars, said Prime Minister Imran Khan is striving for unity among Muslim countries.

Referring to the recent killing of 11 innocent people in Balochistan, the southwestern province of Pakistan, the globally recognized cleric said terror groups such as Daesh/ISIS, the Pakistani Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and their affiliated organizations are destabilizing Muslim countries and harming the cause of Islam.

Praising the end of hostilities between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, he expected more good news in the coming days.

“As I told you earlier Pakistan wants unity among the Muslim countries and we are moving toward our goal. In the coming days, you will hear more good news Inshallah. Everyone knows that anti-Muslim elements never want our unity, they even tried their best to destabilize Pakistan like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Afghanistan but due to our committed army and strong nation, all their evil designs failed,“ he said.

Ashrafi recently shifted to the federal capital Islamabad from the northeastern city of Lahore.

Wearing a Chitrali cap instead of the usual turban in his first interview at the new office, he emphatically rejected the idea that Pakistan is under pressure from Arab nations to recognize Israel.

“Again, I repeat, no country has asked us to accept Israel. Pakistan is not a small country. We are a nuclear power, we have a strong army and we are a strong nation. Nobody can order us to establish ties with Israel,” he said.

On Pakistan’s relations with Turkey, the leading scholar said they are centuries-old and exist much before the creating of his country.

“The Muslims of sub-continent supported Turkey in the 19th century Crimean War, politically and financially. So, our relations are historical. Recently you saw when the leading character of the popular Turkish TV series Dirilis: Ertugrul came to Pakistan, our people warmly welcomed him. Turks are our brothers and sisters and we have many common things; our people love each other and relations are unique,” he said.

Unity of Muslims a priority

Anadolu Agency: As a special representative of the prime minister of Pakistan on religious harmony, what are the duties assigned to your post, and how you accomplish them in a country that came up as a home to the South Asian Muslims?

Maulana Tahir Ashrafi: I have two important duties, first to make efforts for interfaith harmony, arrange dialogue between the different sects, bring them together on one table, and resolve the issues they have with each other.

Secondly, Prime Minister Imran Khan has assigned me to work for the unity of Muslim countries, especially what is going on in the Middle East. So, we want to bring Muslim countries close to each other and also enhance Pakistan’s relations with all Muslim states. Without unity, we cannot overcome issues faced by Muslims. You see what is going on in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Kashmir. Muslims are being killed, displaced and no one is there to help them. If we [Muslim countries] join hands these issues can be resolved. I think we have the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and we need to strengthen it to make it play its role.

Q: Do you mean Pakistan is playing a leading role to bring all Muslim countries together?

Tahir Ashrafi: Yes, our prime minister wants to bring all Muslims together to counter extremism and terrorism. These days some organizations use the name of Islam to kill innocent people. We can stop this menace and need unity. You saw how Saudi Arabia and Qatar have resolved their issue and sat together, which was welcomed by all Muslim states. So, we request other Muslim countries as well to come forward, sit together and resolve all issues through dialogue.

Q: You are also the chairman of Pakistan Ulema Council. Off late, it is claimed that religious scholars sow seeds of discord and promote sectarianism? What are you doing to address the issue of sectarianism in Pakistan?

Tahir Ashrafi: First, we are going to establish interfaith harmony councils from the grassroots level to the top, from the union council level to the national level to promote dialogue and resolve all issues among different sects through negotiation. You know there is no space for sectarianism in Islam. We have a tolerant society in Pakistan, where we work together with Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and other minorities. They are far safer here if you compare what is happening with Muslim minorities in France, India, and many other countries. Our Constitution guarantees equal rights to all citizens including minorities.

Terror groups enemies of Islam

Q: The emergence of sectarianism is linked to activities of terror groups who claim to fight for Islam. But they end up killing more Muslims. You had called ISIS/Daesh a terror group, and decreed against suicide bombings…

Tahir Ashrafi: Deash, Pakistani Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and other organizations are killing innocent people. They are linking themselves with Islam, but they have no link or relation with Muslims and Islam. A true Muslim will never kill any innocent person because our religion never allows us to harm any innocent man or woman. Besides killing innocent people, they are destabilizing Muslim countries. Then how are they Muslims?

They killed 11 innocent people in Balochistan [southwestern province of Pakistan]. What do these organizations do in Syria, Iraq, Libya? India is the main sponsor of these terrorist organizations. This is India that is providing funding to Daesh in Afghanistan and Pakistan. India wants to destabilize other Muslim countries through these terror groups.

Q: Some Muslim countries recently established diplomatic relations with Israel. There are reports that Pakistan is under tremendous pressure to follow suit. As a religious scholar, who advises the government and has a good standing in Arab countries, how do you view this step of Arab courtiers and how should Pakistan act?

Tahir Ashrafi: This is not true that we are facing any pressure from any Muslim country to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. A section of Jewish and Indian media is spreading such propaganda against us to harm our relationship with other Muslim states.

Our prime minister has categorically rejected any plan to establish any kind of relationship with Israel until there is a just settlement, which satisfies Palestinians. And I don’t think Saudi Arabia will accept Israel too.

Q: Then how come the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain established diplomatic relations with Israel, without Saudi consent?

Tahir Ashrafi: I don’t want to talk about the internal policies of other countries. We have our policy and no one is allowed to interfere in our internal policies. We have good relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Turkey, and all other Muslim countries. Again, I repeat that no country has asked us to accept Israel. Pakistan is not a small country. We are a nuclear power, have a strong army and are a strong nation. Nobody can order us to establish ties with Israel.

Relations with Saudis

Q: Since you have close relations with the Saudis, and you are seen as a much-respected scholar there, how do you view the current state of Saudi and Pakistani relations. Did you meet any Saudi officials after tensions between the two countries?

Tahir Ashrafi: I maintain a cordial relationship with everyone. The head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate is close to my heart. I do not think Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia have deteriorated. Saudi Arabia is our brotherly country and we have good relations. But again, I want to make it clear that we [Pakistan] want good relations with all Islamic countries.

Q: It is believed that Saudi Arabia played delaying tactics to Pakistan’s call for summoning the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) foreign minister’s meeting on Kashmir. What are the reasons as per your understanding?

Tahir Ashrafi: No, Saudi Arabia also stood with us like Turkey and some other Muslim states on the Kashmir issue. Recently, at the OIC foreign ministers meeting in Niger, the Saudi foreign minister raised the Kashmir issue during his speech.

Q: Another Arab friend, the UAE, has also been lukewarm to Pakistan. It has suspended new visas for Pakistanis. What have been the reasons for such an attitude?

Tahir Ashrafi: It is due to the COVID-19 situation and some security measures as the UAE government is enhancing its internal security, nothing else. Every country has its internal policies and we should respect them. The UAE will resume visas for Pakistanis very soon.

Q: India has more daily coronavirus infections. but a similar action was not taken for Indians, and only suspended mostly for Muslim countries?

Tahir Ashrafi: As I told you, the issue has been resolved, and soon the UAE will resume the visas for Pakistani citizens.

Pakistan-Turkey ties

Q: Prime Minister Imran Khan directed state-run broadcaster PTV to telecast Turkish TV serials, which became an instant hit. How do you view the impact of Turkish soft power on Pakistani youths?

Tahir Ashrafi: As you know we have a long relationship with Turkey, even before the creation of Pakistan. The roots of today’s ties between the two nations can be traced way back to the 19th century. The Muslims of the sub-continent had supported Turkey during the Crimean War, politically and financially. So, our relations are historical.

Recently, you saw when the leading character of the popular Turkish TV series Dirilis: Ertugrul came to Pakistan, our people warmly welcomed him. Turks are our brothers and sisters and we have many common things; our people love each other and our relations are unique. Pakistan wants unity among all Muslim countries, and we are moving toward our goal.

In the coming days, you will hear more good news Inshallah. Everyone knows that anti-Muslim elements never want our unity. They even tried their best to destabilize Pakistan like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Afghanistan. But due to our committed army and a strong nation, all their evil designs failed.

In India, innocent Muslims and other minorities are getting killed. But the western world and especially the UN and other international organizations are silent. These western countries have double standards, they talk about human rights but never discuss about killings and abuse of Muslims in India, Kashmir, and other countries. This is the reason we want to bring all Muslims together, and raise a collective voice for the oppressed.

[Photo of Maulana Tahir Ashrafi. Photo from own facebook]

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