One of the items I brought back from my recent visit to the Duomo in Florence was a bracelet which was adorned with little crosses and a small disc engraved with a picture of Mary and baby Jesus. Upon my return back to regular and uneventful days, my pretty bracelet got lost somewhere in the confusion of my cupboard and its presence faded to some remote part of my memory.
This morning while searching for a document of need, I emptied my cupboard and found the bracelet still packed in its box at the far end of the storage drawer. With excitement characteristic of a new buy and in remembrance of my wonderful trip, I wore the bracelet and left for office. During lunch I sat next to a colleague who happened to notice the shiny jewelery on my wrist and questioned me on the relevance of the small crosses and what the etching on the disk signified. His eyes opened wide with disbelief when I replied that the bracelet signified Mother Mary and Jesus; he could not believe that a Muslim could condescend to wear the sign of any other religion. The silence in the room became heavy and uncomfortable when I realized that all were looking at me with their own versions of interpretation; anger, disbelief, concern and questioning.
My mind drifted back to my history classes in College and a famous quote came to mind; “You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed”, Presidential address to the first Constituent Assembly in August 2017 by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan. Looking at our current state of religious intolerance, we could not be further away from this utopian wish Jinnah had nurtured in his heart when he fought tooth and nail for an Independent State of Pakistan. The reality on the ground is so polar and the examples so many that I’m glad he did not live long enough to see all his dreams of religious unity crumble into the sandy shores of Clifton beach. The terrible lynching of a University student in Mardan over a fake facebook account, or the burning down of Christian homes in Lahore by a crazy mob over alleged blasphemous remarks, or the murder of an accomplished Ahmadi professor in her University residence, or the fearful Jews living in hiding in Pakistan scared of declaring their true faith, or the Shia community of Pakistan who are being gunned down whilst driving back home to their families! Religious intolerance in Pakistan and across the Muslim world is on the rise and there seems to be no respite in view.
I snapped out of my reverie when I realized that lunch hour had ended, and I wondered what I could say to ease the tension in the room: that I believed in religious freedom of thought and action, or that my mothers family was Roman Catholic and I had a part of that in my blood, or that I was convinced that only God knows what deeds and actions of us mortals would win his heart, or that simply I bought the bracelet because it was colourful and pretty! Burying my personal views deep in my heart, I rose from my chair and pretending to make a phone call, I walked out of the cafeteria and shut the door behind me.