Racism knows no religion

Pakistan and Afghanistan have a long-standing history of political tensions. Both countries accuse each other regularly of supporting terrorism or not doing enough to eradicate it. These days, anti-Afghan sentiments have reached a peak in Pakistan. Media outlets, the military, and politicians alike blame Afghan refugees for terrorist attacks committed on Pakistani soil, and for almost any other imagineable crime: rape, street robbery, murder – you name it. The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan was closed in mid-February, allegedly to stop terrorist attacks. It caused millions of dollars losses in trade and disrupted the lives of thousands of people who have relatives on either side of the border. In early March, the border was reopened, but Pakistani security forces continue to racially profile Afghan refugees by randomly arresting, searching, intimidating, abusing and torturing them.

I was not really surprised then when a high-ranking cleric of the Catholic Church at a recent dinner conversation proclaimed that Afghans were at the core of Pakistan’s security problem. He pointed out incidents of suicide attacks, rape and robbery that involved Afghans (or people from the northern areas, because Pathans and Afghans are often just thrown together indiscriminately in public discourse). Suddenly, I found myself in the middle of a debate I could just as well have had in Germany. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

“In 2015, I was in Munich”, the cleric narrated. “The refugee crisis happened. I was asked by my hosts to give a statement. I said: take heed and learn from our mistakes. After the American invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan was pressured by the UN and other political actors into accepting Afghan refugees. We gave in, and look at the price we’ve paid. Our country has become destabilized by this.”

“But terrorism is first of all a home-grown problem. Attacks are overwhelmingly committed by local groups with long-standing roots in the country. There is a history to that which goes back to the colonial period”, I replied.

“You’re right, we have a problem with terrorism in southern Punjab. But in general, Afghans are also more prone to crime”, he deflected. “Or why is it than whenever a woman is raped on Pakistan’s streets, there is somehow an Afghan involved?”, he asked.

Border between Pakistan and Afghanistan“This is the same kind of rhetorics employed to ostracize refugees and immigrants in Germany”, I pointed out. “It is nothing but racial profiling. One group is otherized to use it as a scapegoat.”

“What about the rape and murder of a student in Freiburg, then?”, he asked. “Wasn’t the perpetrator also an Afghan?”

“Yes, but rape and murder is also committed by German men born in Germany with no immigrant background”, I replied. “Refugees, Afghans and Muslims aren’t more frequently involved in these crimes than other people. We just hear more about it in the news. Not all refugees are good people, of course. But they aren’t worse than other people, either.”

And so on. I have had these discussions so many times in Germany already. The arguments are always the same, they never change. Rhetorical devices are used to portray one group of people as the root cause for someone else’s problems. One could easily transplant this conversation from Pakistan to Germany or the US without changing its content. Just replace names and places, and you get the same thing. Whether Trump is saying it, or the AfD in Germany, or a Pakistani cleric doesn’t matter. It still boils down to the same problem.

This conversation brought home to me again that we are all prone to racism (sounds  like a commonplace, but it was a good reminder). Religious conviction, education, upbringing, affluence or social standing do not protect us from discriminating others based upon their skin complexion or background. Eventually, it is our individual responsibility to develop a positive attitude towards others that looks beyond outward appearance and sees humanity first. At some point in this process, all arguments will have to end, and trust in the goodness of the person next to us has to develop. Racism knows no religion, but humanity doesn’t either.



5 Things You Didn’t Know About Lahore

As I’m getting ready to head out for another trip to Pakistan, I realize again what a bad reputation the country has. Friends are usually just shaking their heads, wondering what on earth draws me to a country full of terrorists, religious extremists and bigots. So here are 5 (positive) things about Lahore you probably didn’t know:

1 – There is a critical mass movement. Never heard of it? Basically, it brings people  together to ride their bikes through the city. The goal is to reclaim the streets for cyclists and promote environmentalism. Originally, the movement started in the US and has now spread all over the world. While this might sound like an easy ride in San Francisco or London, it takes guts to navigate the crazy Lahori traffic on a bike. Usually, only poor people ride their bikes. Everyone else thinks it safer to behold the unfolding chaos and deafening noise from the back of a rickshaw or an air-conditioned car. Critical Mass Lahore has about 6,900 members on Facebook – and counting.


2 – Lahore is home to an enthusiastic board gaming community. Settlers of Catan is a favorite as I heard, as are Risk, Pandemic and other (mostly German!) games. People meet in coffee shops or at home for an evening of strategic thinking, heated debates, and adventurous moves. Ordering pizza or Chinese food is part of the fun as it is anywhere else in the world.

3 – Organic vegetables and bread are available from the Roshni Association located in Bedian village, just outside Lahore. A Pakistani and a German educationists set up the Anthroposophic community center, organic farm and inclusive school about two decades ago. Eating healthy and organic is a growing trend in Pakistan – if you can afford it, that is.

4 – The Peerzada family’s puppet museum is a marvellous discovery for kids and grown-ups alike. As stated on their website, “the Museum Of Puppetry consists of three stories (!), housing puppets representing more than 65 countries, totalling about 300 puppets displayed.” They also organize regular theater workshops, puppet shows, and festivals.

5 – Last but not least, despite news about religious discrimination and persecution, Lahore has a vibrant Christian community. Terrible attacks, mob violence and other atrocities occur and they are unfortunately part of the political realities. Yet, there is also a regular daily life for the Christian minority, who runs its own schools, churches, community centers, book shops, media outlets, and many other institutions.

Choir at the Convent of Jesus and Mary

Christians are part of Lahore’s social fabric, not a cloistered, cut-off, beleaguered minority. The international media and religious fanatics likewise try to suggest otherwise, but as (predominantly) Punjabis, Christians share a common history, language, and many cultural traditions with other Lahoris. They are not separate or “different” from other citizens, and they contribute in many important ways to public life.