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Tolerance under fire in Pakistan

Abul Hassan Ali Hajvery was a Persian poet and scholar who was born in Afghanistan and travelled throughout Persia in the eleventh century, before being taken as a captive to Lahore in modern-day Pakistan, where he lived and preached until his death in 1077. Here, his tomb has long been an important shrine offering food and shelter to the poor and homeless. As well as beggars, many street-sellers of food and flowers rely on the site for their livelihoods. But for the fundamentalist modern-day terrorists of Pakistan, this 1000-year old shrine was targeted precisely because of the more tolerant and humane sect of Islam it symbolises. Using suicide bombers, terrorists killed at least 42 people and injured another 175 in their attack on the shrine at the beginning of July.

Shops and businesses shut in the city of Lahore on Saturday to protest against the new wave of suicide bombings and strikes were also called in the southern city of Karachi. Public anger is unsurprisingly running high, as a new research opinion poll shows 80% of Pakistanis opposed to the militant views of the terrorists. Pakistan’s Prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, has in response, called on all political and religious leaders to help in the fight against religious extremists. In his statement he said that a national conference would be set up to formulate a strategy to combat the rising terrorism and that all leaders from political parties, religious bodies and civil society would need to come together.

With 177 million people, Pakistan is the sixth largest country in the world by population. 95% are Pakistanis are Muslim, with a 75% majority belonging to the Sunni and 20% to the Shia branch of the faith. The remaining 5% of people belong to religious minorities and regularly face discrimination. This includes the nomadic Kihal community, who live along the banks of the River Indus. IRIN recently reported on the plight of these people, who now resort to sending their children to beg in nearby market towns. Traditionally the Kihals have survived on fishing and basket weaving. But the community’s way of life is under threat from commercial logging and dam building and the dwindling of fish stocks because of pollution. Expanded cultivation of land along the river has also lead to a reduction in the reeds used for their baskets.

With an estimated 50,000 families, the Kihal people have limited access to schooling and health care, since they have no fixed address to qualify the adults for ID cards. Viewed as “impure” by mainstream Muslims because of a diet which includes crocodiles and tortoises, the children of the Kihal community often face bullying and harassment at local schools. So after centuries of living off the Indus river, some of these people are reluctantly moving into the cities and adopting mainstream Muslim names and practices at a time when, despite the Prime Minister’s call for communities to come together, religious tolerance is increasingly in short supply.

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