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Interview: Amineh Hoti, interfaith scholar

11 March 2022

‘Learning about other perspectives doesn’t threaten anyone — it enriches us’

My Cambridge Ph.D. in the ethnology of Pakistan voiced women’s perspectives. It had been dominated by male perspectives. Too often, we hear about Muslim women being secondary and marginal, when the story needs to be seen through its own frame, not through our own. I, too, struggled with misogyny, but I was supported by my father, Ambassador Professor Akbar Ahmed. He’s been a great inspiration and support to me throughout my life.

After my Ph.D., I set up an interfaith centre at my college in Cambridge: the Society for Dialogue and Action,
where I took people of all faiths to churches, mosques, and synagogues. This worked really well, and Forman Christian College gave me a blank cheque to set up a course in Pakistan. We got a grant from the United States Institute for Peace, and started teaching young boys and girls from all across Pakistan.

I’d studied in a Christian school in Pakistan.
My great-grandfather, the Wali [king] of Swat, who was known for his swift justice, had encouraged nuns to set up a school for girls, and I was very familiar with the Christian community — who are the heroes of Pakistan. They run schools, universities, churches, and play key roles in all public areas of life.

As programme director at the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan,
I gave talks on UN Genocide Prevention, and Responsibility to Protect platforms in Bangkok and New York, and invited them to Pakistan.

Because of Covid, I arranged a series of webinars from the UK, connecting with the US and Pakistan
, which was very successful. I invited local scholars and experts on the Seerat — indigenous ways of soft, kind, and inclusive speech — which needs to be explored and celebrated more in the UK. People from Pakistan’s minorities attended and spoke, including a leading female Christian professor, a Hindu fieldworker, a Sikh in charge of the army, Kalasha and Baha’i role-models, a leading Parsi philanthropist, and inspirational Muslim female scholars.

Two hundred universities in Pakistan plugged in,
and many guests from the UK and United States attended. We’ll continue this year.

More than ten years ago,
the head of the Woolf Institute invited me to apply for the job of founding the Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations. I ended up learning so much about Muslim-Jewish relations, including some Hebrew and Arabic. I also learnt how close the Abrahamic faiths are — much more than we realise. The more we study, the more we learn about our siblings.

Muslims, Christians, and Jews are brothers and sisters.
We really need to sit together more often. Moses, Jesus, and Rasul Allah (peace be upon them all) would have done exactly that.

Peace education is essential
— not just in the UK, but globally. It must include studying empathy and respect for the gendered other, for minorities. It’s important to listen, learn, and respect in order to truly understand and see from the perspective of others.

Learning about other perspectives doesn’t really threaten anyone
— it enriches us. Every city, every nation, would benefit from an interdisciplinary field-based peacebuilding course that challenges anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

One project, “Journey into Europe”, took us to nine European countries.
I learnt that Dachau and Srebrenica are horrid lessons to which we must say “Never again!” I loved Al-Andalusian concepts of la convivencia (co-existence) and la benevolencia (benevolence). Europe has lessons of both love and hate to teach the world.

The book Gems and Jewels was sponsored by a Parsi,
and allowed me to travel all over Pakistan, from the Kalasha in the north and the Parsis in the south in Karachi. I learnt to admire others who are seen as marginal, but who are actually quite heroic.

The book is based on rigorous fieldwork, but is written for the wider public,
especially those who have little time to read. Seven photographers took stunning pictures across Pakistan, which is a beautiful country, with which England has such long and deep ties. Prince Hassan of Jordan wrote the foreword.

I grew up in the remote regions of South Asia,
and went to nursery in the Nash buildings opposite Regent’s Park. I have memories of Princeton and Harvard, where my father was visiting scholar.

I continued to learn about Jesus in my adult life,
particularly through my book Gems, and I’ve come to love both Jesus and Mary. When I think of the pain Mother Mary went through, it hurts me deeply. To lose a son as precious as Jesus is a very hard trial in this life.

My birth saved my father from war conditions between India and Pakistan;
so he calls me his miracle baby. I’ve felt the presence and love of God in my everyday life in every step. I’ve faced extreme challenges, and sometimes my path was closed ahead. Yet, through all the challenges, I felt always he embraced me, held me, carries me forward, even now.

Now, I have a deep and sincere love and longing for the beloved God,
who is embracing, responding, caring, loving, alive, and connected. Through works of the South Asian Sufi saints, like Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai and Waaris Shah — whose stories are about divine love for God symbolised in stories like Romeo and Juliet — Sohni Mahiwal, Heer Ranjha, and others, I’ve learnt that the path to divine love is not easy: it is difficult, but through patience and perseverance, it is possible.

I’m committed to scholarship
and promoting better understanding between different peoples and communities, but I also wonder how I can contribute towards healing relations between communities in the UK. There is so much diversity here; but, at the same time, so much healing still needs to happen. How can I do this in an effective way? Any ideas? I keep challenging myself.

Policies that drive poor people to homelessness make me angry.
Hearing recent stories has been heartbreaking. The justice system must be more merciful, and the secular structures of society must adopt more Abrahamic values of mercy.

I’m happiest being creative,
contributing positively to society, completing a project, helping the poor, reaching out to people from all religious communities. I loved working in the slums of Islamabad with my Christian friends. I visited churches, sat on the floor with them, and listened to their joys and sorrow.

I was diagnosed with cancer,
and, since my chemo treatment, I’ve been given life again. The most important things I learnt in the last two years is to search for and maintain peace of mind, reach out to others to help and heal — play a small role every day in healing the world, even if it is watering plants, feeding birds in my garden, or helping a refugee. Being kind to others and to myself.

I love the flowing of water,
the chirping of birds, the laughter of children and women, the calmness of trees, and the chanting of deep meditative sincere prayers. The UK is a lovely healing environment for this.

Humanity and hope are inextricably interlinked.
There’s always hope. Rasul Allah (Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) said, Plant the seed of a tree even if you know the world will end tomorrow.

I pray for my human family.
I see so much suffering, wars, genocides, ethnic cleansing, starvation, and suffering from pandemics. I pray to beloved merciful God to protect and love all women, children, and men, especially those suffering now, such as the Afghans, the Syrians, Rohingyas, the Kashmiris, the Bosniaks. . . It’s an endless list, and my heart cries tears for them.

If I were to be locked in a church,
I’d chose to sit at the feet of Mother Mary and Bibi Khadijah, for their dedication to humanity, their compassion, and teachings. I’d humbly give my salutations of peace, love, and support, and would listen and learn from them and gain strength to teach their wisdom to my present students and friends across the world.

Dr Amineh Hoti was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Gems and Jewels: The religions of Pakistan is published by Le’ Topical Press. For information, visit topicalprinters.com, or email info@topicalprinters.com

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