The following piece has been originally published by Peter Quinn on London Connection, the online magazine of the University of London International Programmes. In this post, PCL’s very own LLB (Hons) graduate Maryam Akram reports on representing Pakistan at the Vienna International Christian Islamic Summer University.
In August 2014, I was selected to attend the Vienna International Christian Islamic Summer University (VICISU) in Austria. The purpose of this programme was to bring diversity under one roof by inviting young Muslims and Christians from all over the world to participate. It was a three-week summer school that not only taught students the meaning of pluralism but also helped them live it.
As a student of the University of London International Programmes, I completed my law degree in 2012 from Pakistan College of Law with the aim of becoming a corporate lawyer. Words have always fascinated me, but I learned their increased importance as a student of law. Words, whether written or spoken, give force to our arguments, shape our world, and form our ideas. Three years of gruelling hard work, as a law student, sharpened my ability to be selective about the right words, and articulate forceful arguments. While a good law degree helped me learn how to win arguments and debates, it was the experience of interfaith dialogue which taught me the importance of winning hearts.
In Pakistan, the process of qualifying for this summer school is by applying to a representative of this programme. Professor Nasira Javaid Iqbal, along with a panel of alumni, conducted an interview with the shortlisted candidates. My knowledge of law, especially that of the EU, helped me address the questions which were being asked by the panel. I feel honoured that I am a University of London alumni, for this international programme helps one survive not just locally, but globally as well.
My intent, motivation and purpose of becoming a part of this programme all stemmed from the drive to help build a tolerant society around myself. I knew that to further this aim I’d have to step out of my comfort zone and give this belief an empirical life which was only possible if I lived in an environment where I would be a minority, as this would help me step away from the parameters which I had created in my mind. This was essential for absorbing the true meaning of tolerance and diversity. It was always easy to read and appreciate diversity in books, in social gatherings where I would meet Christians, but I knew that it would be different if I started living it. I told myself that, if given the opportunity, I would prove myself as a great ambassador from Pakistan who would then portray a clearer image of Islam, one that the media fails to show, one that is really the essence and spirit of Islam.
In my role as a teacher at Pakistan College of Law, my aim is not alien to that which this programme has to offer. Dealing every day with students of various backgrounds, I have developed an understanding with them which helps me resolve conflicts that arise, as well as other problems that my students face. I impart in them the value of respecting the opinions of others. I help them understand and encourage the beauty of disagreeing with one another but not at the expense of being enemies with one another. I try to create a world within this world of my own which helps me improve relationships of people with each other, which helps me make them understand the value and importance of diversity of thought, opinion and belief.
Another one of my aims is to work for the harmony of the minorities within the majority in Pakistan. I want to help in creating better lives for Pakistani people, people whom I see around myself who are on the lesser side of the equation. I want to help not just people who hold similar beliefs as I do, but also want to help those who are of a different belief living in my country. Being a part of the VICISU programme gave me an opportunity to understand the meaning of diversity at a greater level and this consequently helps me create more bridges at home.
Unfortunately, Pakistan has been in the limelight for all the wrong reasons. When the spotlight is always on you then whatever good you do is insufficient because there is always something bad and ugly happening which is constantly being highlighted. It’s similar to the filtration process which we study in Chemistry. The scum is seen because it’s evident, because it is on the top, and all the good is always on the bottom, unnoticed and ignored. Being a part of the programme, I tried to help people understand that Pakistan is no different from the country they live in. Of course, Austria is a developed first world Christian country and Pakistan is an developing Muslim country, but we have people here who hold values of enlightenment, tolerance and peace and are contributing positively in society.
One of the experiences of diversity in the monastery happened when an Austrian woman asked me why ISIS is killing people of different faiths in Iraq. Perhaps, she asked me this question because I was wearing a headscarf. Then I explained to her that there is always another side of the detail missing. I told her about Israel committing genocide of the people of Gaza (and back then the ceasefire hadn’t taken place). I wanted to tell her that the actions of people do not necessarily reflect the actions of their religions. Jews are peace loving people and so are Muslims. That there are extreme elements in some adherents of each faith and thus this makes them fall out of the parameters of their religion. I explained to her that whatever the agenda of ISIS might be, it doesn’t reflect the preachings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and it negated the essence and spirit of Islam. I told her that whoever kills in the name of Allah is committing a heinous crime because Allah ordains peace when He says in the Quran that whoever kills one person, it is as though he has killed the whole of humanity. And this ‘person’ is not specifically a Muslim, but it is any human being, any Christian, Buddhist, Jew, Zoroastrian, Hindu, or secular person. No one group can represent a religion of 1.57 billion people and we must appreciate that there is diversity within such a big group.
In my class on Pluralism, I learned that diversity can be promoted at three different levels: through the government, through the academics and through the general public. I told myself that since I belong to the second category, and because I am a teacher by profession, I need to help create bridges of diversity which are much needed in my country and that can be possible if I impart what I learned from my experience at VICISU.
The VICISU programme is a great initiative for world peace. It helps people of two different faiths to understand that they can live under one roof for 21 days, eat the same food and drink the same water, sit in the same classroom, visit the same places, ride on the same bus/train and they can survive together.
I commend the initiative taken by the people who started the VICISU. If we have more of such programmes organized all over the world, perhaps this will change the perspective of the youth and bring more stability to our increasingly violent world. Perhaps what we hear in the media about young people joining organizations that promote violence can be cured through the promotion of inter-religious dialogue between the young. This would equip the youth with the sufficient knowledge and wisdom of when and for what to say ‘Yes’ and for what to say ‘No’, and it is always a BIG yes to world peace and a BIG no to extremism.
Lastly, there are too many people to thank but I would take this opportunity to especially thank Pakistan College of Law for always providing me opportunities to excel, both when I was a student and now as a faculty member. There are, in fact, very few places that recognize the achievements and give credit to people who deserve it.