It is only after you are forced to leave a comfortable habitat behind, that you realize the importance of retrospect. I recently completed my undergraduate degree. Four years of neatly aligning every issue with a probable theory, resolving ‘conflict’ inside air-conditioned auditoriums and feeling as if these credentials were enough to pursue any lifestyle and career path.

After countless failed interviews, predictable consolation emails and the feeling that the summer after graduation might actually be a forced summer vacation, I accepted the fact that life takes time. What I was not ready to accept was how the notions of equality and tolerance that my education deemed as being prime, did not exist in “real life”. Here we live in a state of injustice, where any semblance of difference can be used as a weapon against you. However, what I realized while trying to pinpoint who to blame, it became obvious that may be I was, rather, we, the people, are the problem.

I recently went for a field visit to a school at the outskirts of Lahore as part of the training programme by an NGO. Along with my other team members, I was asked to conduct a debates class, the topic being ‘My country’. All these children were enthusiastic, intelligent and confident in their arguments and deliverance. However, when it was time to leave, one boy asked one of my team members, ‘ Aap Shia hain? Aap namazain parhtay hain?’ (Are you a Shia? Do you pray?) With a surprised look on his face, the accused murmured that he was, and obviously he did. What struck me was that this boy, not more than 12 years old, was so aware of someone’s religious beliefs from just the mention of only a Shia sounding name.

When I was younger, religion, at least what I was taught, was something directly associated with what good deeds I did. It was those everyday lessons, starting from not wasting food, taking care of plants and ending with thanking God when the day was over. Even in my school, any talk of religion started and ended with the Islamiyat Studies period. I had shia friends, but it never really bothered me. There was never any barrier between us. It was normal. But, today, I really do not blame that student for asking such a question. It may have been considered disrespectful back then, but now what religion and sect you belong to has turned into something everyone should be privy to. To make something as patronising, as blatantly asking someone if they follow one of the pillars of Islam, should concern us about what will happen if these curious muses, that have already dichotomized us for being only either Muslims or non-Muslims, become undisputed facts for children. What should worry us is how easy it has become to make sure, that person never feels a part, or even safe.

During one of my last classes of undergraduate, one of my instructors said something , that stuck by me , despite almost all my attention being elsewhere (getting to that finish line was starting to feel unbearable). During his last lecture, in order to explain why it is important to study the past he told us that ‘We should fear the moment, when we can’t even think that they are other ways of living. This can’t be it. This shouldn’t be it.’ For me, after coming out of an unimpeachable undergraduate bubble, these words fit perfectly. We have become so used to identifying what is unholy, that we have forgotten how to be a little empathetic towards each other. Can you still name your son Ali, or your daughter Ayesha, without being seen as belonging to a certain sect? Can you name your child Sophia or any other ‘English’ sounding name without being looked at as if you’re irreverent and unpatriotic? Are we that scared of making sure we do not stand out? Are you not already thinking in your head that this write is such a ‘pseudo liberal ‘or a ‘burger bacha’…. terms that make no sense except to demean people. Does the pseudo mean, I am after all, not a liberal? By ‘burger’, do you mean I am entitled and rich?

Respect shouldn’t have any strings attached, and it is respect that we are desperately seeking from the rest of the world. We cringe when were are called backward or uneducated or terrorists. Then why is it that, we project the same layer of bigotry towards our own people? We can’t seem to look past someone who might not believe in the same values. Is it now “cool” to point fingers, cry “kafir” and watch people burn? Empathy is when we see ourselves in someone else. In Pakistan we don’t because we don’t look beyond a persons name.

It would be quite simplistic to say that such a way of thinking would just go away through education. I wish it were that easy. The most educated are sometimes the most intolerant. Our normalized terror of being different will not allow us to learn from our mistakes.