Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) announced on 14 October last year that it was going to operate direct flights to Syria and Iraq twice a week. When a PIA aircraft landed in Damascus in September it ended a 22-year hiatus; this was clear evidence that Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s efforts to repair religious fault-lines within the country were taking shape.
The 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the subsequent rise in terrorist activities within Pakistan — including the murders of Daniel Pearl in 2002 and Benazir Bhutto five years later —damaged Islamabad’s international image badly, and reversed earlier achievements. Moreover, the increasing attacks on minority groups within the country supplemented the existing fear of the spillover of sectarian violence from elsewhere.
However, the relatively improved domestic law and order situation, coupled with the government’s realisation of the importance and potency of projecting soft power, have seen efforts to bolster Pakistan’s international standing being stepped up.
One example of this is religious tourism. Pakistan is home to many creeds and religions, pre-historic and contemporary, and innumerable pilgrimage sites. It is also the second most populous Muslim-majority country in the world after Indonesia, with 96 per cent of its 200 million population professing a belief in Islam.
Historically, due to poor standards of law and order, and official neglect of the sector, religious tourism in Pakistan has been overlooked. Until now. Indeed, from the very beginning of his tenure as prime minister in August 2018, Imran Khan has been highlighting Pakistan’s potential for attracting religious pilgrims.
In 2019, before inaugurating the much-awaited Kartarpur Corridor, whereby devotees from India could visit the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, three miles from the border inside Pakistan, without a visa, Khan reiterated the need for interfaith harmony and underscored the importance of maintaining religious spaces in the country, which he said were integral to Pakistan’s social fabric. The implementation of his suggestions appears to be gathering pace. Last month, for example, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony proposed that the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) should open Ziyarat [Religious Visit] Directorate offices in Mashhad in Iran, and Karbala and Baghdad in Iraq, as well as in Pakistan’s own cities of Quetta and Taftan.
In June last year, after consultations with the governments of Iran, Iraq and Syria, Islamabad announced a new pilgrimage policy aimed at increasing religious tourism in the Middle East. Among other things, this would encompass officially licensed tour operators operating at subsidised rates for ferry services to Iran and Iraq. This is intended to help prevent the extortion of unsuspecting individuals and encourage religious pilgrims.
The following month, Khan authorised a comprehensive proposal for developing state-owned lands around shrines for the construction of educational institutions and medical facilities. During Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s trips to Iran and Iraq last year, the promotion of religious tourism was a key focus of the discussions. In August 2021, during his Iraqi counterpart Fuad Hussein’s visit to Islamabad, a “pilgrims’ management policy” was discussed, as well as the setting up of Pakistani consulates in the Iraqi cities of Najaf, Ashraf and Karbala to facilitate pilgrims’ needs.
There are many reasons why Imran Khan is driving this agenda. For a start, he is keen to portray Pakistan as a tolerant and neutral country. However, even in the middle of a global pandemic — which should have reinforced unity — religious discrimination remains highly visible. An example of this was the labelling of Covid-19 as the “Shia virus” by an anti-Shia group on Twitter. In a country where 20 per cent of the population are Shia Muslims, the government needs to work hard to defuse such sectarian tensions.Khan has also realised the earnings potential from religious tourism in Pakistan. In April 2021, he claimed that if Pakistan played its cards right, it could pay off all of its debts from tourism income alone.
Moreover, the upcoming Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) conference to be held in Pakistan next month will be an ideal opportunity for Islamabad to present itself as a beacon of tolerance to the international community. It could also attract investment from countries reluctant to consider Pakistan in such a way due to domestic unrest.
Rightly or wrongly, Pakistan has influence in the Islamic world as the sole Muslim country to have a nuclear arsenal. It has had security agreements with Gulf States as well as familial and business ties between leaders in Arab countries and officials in Pakistan, although these have been neglected of late.
The promotion of religious tourism also bolsters Khan’s campaign against Islamophobia. During the 2021 UN General Assembly, he advocated a global dialogue on this issue, which he described as a “pernicious phenomenon” that must be combatted collectively.
Two events over the past year seem to have turned the tide in Pakistan’s favour. The first was Islamabad’s change in its foreign policy strategy, from a focus on geopolitics to geo-economics, which has meant cementing sustainable economic ties. The other was the Taliban’s swift takeover of Kabul last August, which not only reinstated Pakistan as a key player in the region, but also diminished India’s position.
As a result of all of these developments, Islamabad is being perceived once again as an important and serious stakeholder in international affairs as well as being a strong voice of reason, hence the need for it to present itself as a place of harmony and stability. This will also go a long way to help Pakistan to fulfil its geo-economic ambitions.
Past mistakes cannot be undone, but there is no reason why they need to be repeated. In today’s fast-paced, interconnected world, time is of the essence and every opportunity must be seized. This is something that Islamabad needs to establish firmly as its mantra, and continue with its efforts in this respect in 2022 and beyond.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.