MSAS Seminar: The value of difference: Hindu Muslim encounters in Karachi, Pakistan

Chair: Yasser Kureshi

Speaker: Ammara Maqsoud (UCL)

In Pakistan, official state ideology, with its insistence on sameness and unity – encapsulated in the idea of one nation, one language (Urdu) and one religion (Islam) – tries to erase difference in the name of nation-building. In everyday settings, however, relations and exchange between communities are often sustained through a maintenance rather than overcoming of difference. In this paper, I consider the centrality of the maintenance, rather than the closure of difference, in encounters between young Hindu and Muslim men and women in Karachi. Focusing on upwardly mobile settings, where many of my interlocuters have migrated from smaller towns in Sindh to Karachi for education and employment, I illustrate how friendships across religious divides develop out of mixture of practicality, need and personal inclinations. Aware of their position as a vulnerable religious minority and (rightfully) fearful that any hostile encounter could transform into a blasphemy charge, my Hindu interlocuters often depend on the protection of their Muslim friends. Familiarity humanises the ‘other’, transforming an abstract hostile figure to a person, but too much familiarity can bring hostilities sharply back into focus. Hindus worry about giving their Muslim friends access into their homes and family life, in case it leads to romantic liaisons and attachments with sisters and female relations. An attention to difference, both in ethnography and theoretically, opens up a “space of mediation” (Giordano 2014) that allows us to understand what friendship means in this context as well as to unsettle some of the assumptions of liberal tolerance and secularism on coexistence.

Ammara Maqsood is an associate professor in social anthropology at University College London. Her research coalesces around questions of middle-class religiosity, aspirations and intimate subjectivities and class politics in urban Pakistan. Currently, she is working on the ERC funded project Multi-Religious Encounters in Urban Settings that explores inter-religious interactions in non-liberal contexts. Her research has been published in American Ethnologist, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute and Environment and Planning D among others, and her book The New Pakistani Middle Class (Harvard University Press) was awarded the 2019 AIPS Book Prize.