Role of youth for a peaceful and tolerant society in Pakistan
Lahore University of Management Sciences
Pakistan is an energy starved nation, both literally and figuratively. The load shedding that we all face greatly compromises the comfort and development of our nation. And there is yet another energy crisis far greater than mere electricity shortage. We, as a nation, lack the energy to change and develop. And who can blame us? With terrorist attacks, food shortages, inflation, crime and corruption at every turn, the energy of an average Pakistani is consumed in simply surviving from day to day. It is therefore all the more imperative that we tap into the only remaining energy reserve that we have – our youth. Youth is that proportion of our population which has not suffered as many disappointments as older Pakistanis. It is this segment of our nation that we need to cultivate to usher Pakistan into a new era of peace and tolerance.
While the above statement may sound like an obvious option, in reality Pakistan has done very little to develop its youth in a constructive way. Report after report in newspapers emphasizes the likelihood of Pakistan’s youth becoming “xenophobic, inward-looking and negatively nationalistic”¹. Many young Pakistanis now reject democracy as the solution to the country’s problems, and most believe that Pakistan is headed in the wrong direction². Even more worrisome is the tendency of Pakistan’s youth to blame others for the country’s failings. With multiple conspiracy theories circulating rampantly, young people are encouraged to blame the “other”, whether it is the USA, India or the national government³.
One can explain the tendency to ascribe to one conspiracy theory or another by the fact that Pakistan is going through increasingly turbulent times. In the midst of these uncertain times, young people need an anchor, some conclusive truth to hold on to; conspiracy theories that lay Pakistan’s failure solely at the doorstep of the USA, for example, are a convenient truth to hold on to since by providng scapegoates they direct Pakistani wrath outward, to a distant enemy, which is the easy way out. However, as Aryn Baker of TIME Magazine points out:
“It is ordinary people, locked in a series of personal Pakistans, who seem unable or unwilling to unite over the threat to their nation. Pakistanis will point to the oppressive hand of history or the machinations of foreign nations to explain their descent into chaos, and to a certain extent both have played a role. But no one bears more responsibility for a slow collective suicide than Pakistanis themselves.”
It is in this backdrop I would argue, that the essential contribution of our youth of our society should be personal development. Conspiracy theories will avail us nothing, we need to focus on understanding ourselves, understanding how our knowledge is created and how it informs our actions.
To a revolutionary, the maxim “change comes from within” is a bitter pill to swallow. Unfortunately for all of us would-be revolutionaries, that is exactly the path of action we must follow. Pakistan is still not ready for a revolution because real revolutions can only occur where there is internal cohesion. For internal cohesion there needs to be tolerance of the ‘other’. Regardless of whether the ‘other’ is an idea, person, belief or way of life. Moreover, it follows that we can only be tolerant if we understand the ‘other’. To understand the ‘other’, we must first understand ourselves at a deeper level.
As Pakistan’s youth, we need to be far more self critical. We must reach a level of understanding about the origins of our own beliefs and deeply cherished “truths” so that we can realize that the creation of knowledge does not occur in a vacuum. We are who we are because of our specific circumstances and environment. In this knowledge lies the simple truth that despite vast superficial incongruities, we are not so different from that despicable ‘other’ as we choose to think because in the end, all of us are a product of our surroundings and the knowledge we receive. To transcend the bounds of our individual selves, we need to look at knowledge creation and “truth” in a critical manner. We must begin to challenge the foundations of our existing beliefs and worldviews and take nothing for granted.
This crucial ability to think critically cannot come, as one would suppose, from routine education. As a student of the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), I am a first-hand witness to the fact that despite the unparalleled level of education LUMS students receive, many still fail to think critically about our society and our common future. These college-going Pakistanis are more concerned with portraying themselves as “liberal”, “modern” and “progressive”. Though the values embedded in these terms are crucial to the peace and development of Pakistan, yet these values are not adhered by the youth. I would say that Pakistan’s educated youth have become increasingly “liberal”, “modern” and “progressive” in superfluous matters. We think that we are “liberal” if we consume alcohol or have pre-marital affairs. I would argue that we have assimilated the easy loving values of the western world and have failed to incorporate the hard core ones. There is a need for Pakistan’s youth to adopt the liberal values of rationality, freedom and plain hard work. In these areas even LUMS students are lacking.
So if routine education does not play a significant role in the cultivation of critical thinking, what does? In my opinion, two factors determine one’s ability to think in a critical manner; the quality of education and the opportunity for dialogue between adherents of different views. Here I will be examining the second factor only because we, Pakistan’s youth, can control the second factor more actively than the first.
Critical thinking, and by extension, the ability to tolerate differences, can only come about through exposure to the ideas of ‘others’. Pakistani youth must leave the comfort of their own social circles where ideas and beliefs are relatively homogenous and seek the company of those who are “different”. It is only through the exchange of conflicting ideas that one can create ones own foundations of truth and knowledge instead of having them laid out by a parent, a teacher or even more dangerously, a violent fundamentalist.
One reason for the shocking success that groups such as the Taliban have had in recruiting young people to their cause lies in the inability of our youth to think for themselves. We need to start questioning the “truths” we are told. We also need to meet those about whom these “truths” are being told. The impetus of our antagonism vis a vis Indians, for example, has its basis in our unquestioning assimilation of propaganda that tells us that Indians are responsible for all our ills and mere so in our isolation and lack of contact with these Indians. By becoming more critical and engaging with the “other”, Pakistan’s youth can prevent those who advocate conflict and intolerance from gaining adherents to their cause. We need to play the critical role of cutting the supply of recruits to such organizations and thus play a significant part in promoting peace and tolerance in Pakistan.
While the role of today’s youth lies in discussing heretical ideas and bringing different beliefs into the public space, one must consider why this has not yet been done. What are the barriers Pakistan’s youth face in thinking critically and in participating in dialogue with those who are dissimilar?
I believe that many individuals tend to shy away from dialogue because of the fear that it will end not in understanding but in confrontation. One can note a vicious cycle in this tendency: lack of open discussion leads to the creation of dogma which in turn leads to conflict when opposing viewpoints are communicated which results in reluctance to engage in discussion in the first place.
Vicious Cycle Preventing Constructive Discussions Among Youth
It follows that for open discussions to take place in Pakistan, we need to break this vicious cycle or sidestep around it. For this purpose, I believe that modern networking tools are a major asset. I propose using the internet to create online discussion forums where the youth of Pakistan can post their views in a controlled setting, even anonymously if they choose to do so. Not only would this give a much needed voice to scores of frustrated Pakistani youth, but it would also encourage debate without fear of social backlash or conflict. Currently, Pakistan is buried in an environment of hatred and intolerance where non conformist ideas are actively suppressed. We need to work within this environment in a realistic manner, bringing change without inducing backlash from conservative forces, and for this, an online forum is the key to sustaining the flow of free ideas to and from our youth.
We also need to utilize educational institutions to their full potential. One possibility is for university students to volunteer and lead discussion groups in their old schools. Learning would occur at both ends, with university students becoming more civic-minded through interaction with the society as many may have become increasingly detached, while at the same time, critical thinking would be encouraged in younger students at an earlier stage.
The nature of society is determined by the individuals it is composed of. With more than half the population of Pakistan aged 20 years or less (New Generation Report, British Council), our collective future as a society lies in the hands of our youth, who will decide the path our society takes: the road to peaceful coexsistance or the road to intolerance and bigotry. It would be a tragedy if this generation goes down the latter path.
- Siddiqa, Ayesha. “Diet of Negativity”. Dawn Media Group, 23 Oct 2009. Web. 29 Nov 2009
- Tavernise, Sabrina. “Survey of Pakistan’s Young Predicts ‘Disaster’ if Their Needs Aren’t Addressed“. The New York Times, 21 Nov 2009. Web. 29 Nov 2009. <>.
- Rashid, Ahmed. “Pakistan conspiracy theories stifle debate“. BBC News, 27 Nov 2009. Web. 30 Nov 2009.