111 510 510 libonline@riphah.edu.pk Contact

Where dreams can’t grow

At about the same time when Saad Hussain Rizvi of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) was released from prison in Lahore on Thursday, I was attending a session of the national consultation on “promoting soft approaches in countering terrorism and extremism” in Islamabad.

And a little later in the evening Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry spoke on the subject in another session of the consultation. In his speech, that was widely covered in the media, the federal minister made a rather confessional statement to suggest that the deal with the TLP was not exactly a vindication of the government’s responsibility to establish its writ.

This juxtaposition of the release of the young leader of a manifestly militant religious outfit with a solemn discourse on the growing extremism challenge may be seen as an allegorical representation of the enigma that violent extremism has become in this country. Take it as another illustration of the rulers’ ‘doublethink’ – simultaneously executing two contradictory policies.

Saad Rizvi’s release could be the final point in a deal that was struck between the TLP and the federal government on October 31, after two weeks of violent agitation by TLP activists. It was a bloody encounter in which seven policemen and a number of TLP workers had died.

This deal had come as a dramatic surprise after various rounds of talks had failed. Ambiguity about what was negotiated by whom was underlined by the fact that it was kept secret. It has not yet been officially revealed, though measures taken by the authorities have given away its contents. Essentially, the TLP has been removed from the list of proscribed organisations and its workers who had been held under various charges, including terrorism, were set free.

Incidentally, Saad Rizvi was released on the eve of the first death anniversary of his father Khadim Hussain Rizvi, which fell on Friday. That is how the three-day Urs of Khadim Rizvi was launched, lending a touch of glory to Saad Rizvi’s release. In a sense, the government’s obvious capitulation has amounted to the triumph of a party that had also been accused of getting support from India.

So, how would a federal minister who is generally located on the liberal fringe of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) deal with the subject of violent extremism against this backdrop? Well, he made a brave attempt to explain and interpret the entire situation. But confusion about the rulers’ willingness to completely eliminate the sources of terrorism, extremism and intolerance from the body politic will persist.

One headline we read on Friday: “State, govt not fully ready to fight extremism: minister”. Fawad Chaudhry was quoted as saying: “Many people think that the remedial steps taken by us are inadequate while the truth is that neither the government nor the state is completely ready to fight extremism”.

The session in which he spoke was held to launch a ‘charter of peace’, organised by the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS). It was part of two-day deliberations designed to finds ways of promoting soft approaches in countering terrorism and extremism. As would be expected, grave concerns were expressed on the prevailing state of affairs in extensive sessions in which experts from various disciplines, particularly the religious domain, and leading activists of civil society participated.

Since a proper summing up of the agenda items is not possible, I can only make a cursory reference to a few points that have lingered in my thoughts. We will have to wait for a comprehensive report that PIPS will compile. A survey is being conducted to define the scope of soft approaches in the context of Pakistan’s efforts to counter terrorism and extremism.

More than anything else, it is the use and exploitation of religion in politics and other spheres of public life that is seen to have endorsed extremism and intolerance. In the process, diversity and pluralism are suppressed. Where would soft approaches come from when there is little space for an open and research-based debate on national issues and when media freedom is under attack?

I was particularly touched by a speaker’s description of the region he came from, explaining how cultural identity there had transformed into sectarian identity and the threat of extremism was so pervasive that even a dream cannot sprout in that environment.

This analogy of the ability to dream a dream with the cultivation of peace and the pursuit of happiness in a community is something that distracts my mind from the subject under discussion. It would be a painful exercise to contemplate the state of higher education in Pakistan and the demographic surge of youth, comprising more than 60 percent of the population. There are intimations here of the desertification of the Pakistani mind.

Soft approaches for countering extremism are only possible in a culturally vibrant society in which young people can be creative and pursue their dreams. But where does the ability to dream come from? We are told that our dreams are limited by the reach of our imagination. I am fond of citing Einstein’s famous words that “imagination is more important than knowledge”.

In my frequent interactions with young people, mostly graduate students at private universities, I am utterly disappointed to see that they, with just a few exceptions, do not read books and are not at all familiar with the many challenges that a country like Pakistan has to confront. In my view, this is a major consequence of our cultural, intellectual and moral deprivations.

I was very impressed by British writer Neil Gaiman’s writings on the importance of reading fiction. It is fiction that builds empathy and expands the realm of our imagination. One of his lectures was titled: ‘Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming’. That is why I have endeavoured, in my way and not at all fruitfully, to improve reading habits among youth.

Anyhow, one soft approach would perhaps be to try to shift the battle (a la TLP?) from the street to the minds of our youth.

Email: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail.com

Ghazi Salahuddin, "Where dreams can’t grow," The News. 2021-11-21.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political will , Tehreek-e-Labbaik , Terrorism , Militants , Violence , Fawad Chaudhry , Saad Rizvi , Pakistan , TLP , PTI