Today’s youth must utilize new technologies to reclaim ceded space and foster peace through tolerance in 21st century Muslim societies
The Friday Times: Published in November 4, 2011 edition under the title “Generation Next“
For valid and practical reasons, the youth is always the most vibrant, energetic and hopeful constituent of any society. It is the ripe fruit which is cultivated and nurtured by every nation year in year out. In today’s Pakistan, though one can feel old if not fatigued by the time they reach their twenties, the generations that follow do not shun the standards of innovation and understanding that our society must desperately adhere to in the times we live in. New, avant-garde platforms that are collectively labeled as ‘social media’ offer a necessary space for freedom of speech, of expression and of association – in both the personal and the formal spheres of life – and like physical space in the territory of Pakistan, it is receding vis-à-vis exhibition of tolerance; it is being ceded to extreme and radical mindsets because people choose silence and expediency over voice and responsibility. In this situation, social media provides a platform for dialogue beyond distances, and across structural barriers, free of cost. But indirect connectivity can only do so much.
Last week, Khudi Pakistan and Mirador Productions collaboratively hosted the 2nd International Youth Conference & Festival (IYCF 2011), a youth platform for direct engagement, interactivity and action on pressing social and cultural issues. This year, the venue was the Pak-China Friendship Center in Islamabad, a megastructure of a building with a panoramic view; it allowed delegates to understand the enormity of the tasks for which they congregated at the IYCF. Ali Abbas Zaidi and Fatima Mullick hosted the conference and handled its substantive dimensions while Waqas Rafique, Christopher Neu, Fatima Akhter and Maajid Nawaz moderated most of the sessions. I was invited as a social media torchbearer (SMT) to promote the conference and its proceedings on social media platforms, but as a participant I feel I have a responsibility to transmit its message and share my experience with as wide an audience as possible.
The theme at IYCF this year was “building bridges across the world”, and there was no way better than to invite young people from all over the world who were not only engaging individuals, but active members of their society and community. Youth from not only Pakistan, but other (mostly Muslim) countries were also present; one could meet with delegates from Kalash, rural Sindh and Balochistan as well as the youth of Indonesia, Thailand, Afghanistan, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the US, and the UK, who were there to represent their culture and their country’s future. Even Yemen, Syria and Libya – countries undergoing transformation and turmoil – were represented by their youth. Some criticized why the IYCF only had Muslim countries’ delegates: one reply was that Western countries do not readily send youth delegations to Pakistan because of their ‘obvious security concerns’. But the youth of today cannot be separated according to ‘East and West’, or according to other constructions of mind and identity: they are true global citizens who interact with each other on new platforms and are already questioning traditional structures that do not make sense anymore.
On day one, Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed, an eminent voice on Pakistan’s foreign policy, delivered the opening address, drawing important linkages for the audience so that they could relate between social transformations within Pakistan and a number of recent events of international magnitude that will have historic consequences. Thereafter, a panel themed “our global village” deliberated on whether the international community was helping or hurting Pakistan, and eminent personalities like Raza Rumi, Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, Jami Chandio and Ahsan Kamal discussed possible answers to the question and addressed others posed by the audience. Dr. Geet Chainani, who was supposed to talk on “reaching beyond borders”, sadly couldn’t make it. In the second theme of the day, “active citizenship”, the Citizen’s Archive of Pakistan delivered a vibrant visual presentation on how to preserve Pakistans heritage and educate the future by revisiting the country’s true history. Sarmad Tariq – a real Pakistani hero who epitomizes the embodiment of the fighting spirit – delivered an overwhelmingly motivational lecture on “overcoming adversity” by telling the youth how no challenge is too big to overcome if one is realistic and determined; he physically inspired the audience with his words and his life story. The conference then moved into the theme of “resistance through cultural expression”, which allowed participating delegates to choose between a number of specialized workshops: participants could choose between Arieb Azhar’s workshop on music and poetry, Samar Minallah’s talk on filmography, Durriya Kazi’s lecture on street art, and a presentation from Ajoka theatre, all of which covered salient aspects of expression and non-violent resistance in Pakistan. The first day’s festival was a colorful and vivacious celebration of global culture, as delegates presented traditional cultural dances to an enthusiastic audience that cheered all performances.
On the second day of the conference, the first panel discussion on the Arab Spring, themed “responsible societies”, became infinitely more important because of the death of Mu’ammar Gaddafi the day before: Christopher Neu, Maajid Nawaz and Noman Benotman dived headlong into the argument of how the Arab Spring has defined (or redefined) the identity of Muslim youth, and whether democracy is possible in the Middle East or not. After this particularly exciting discussion, which was of critical interest to Muslim youth in general and Arab participants in particular, Prashan De Visser of Sri Lanka Unites delivered an important talk on “leaving hate behind”, which is the penultimate stage in creating a progressive and functionally tolerant society. Todd Shea of SUNSHINE Humanity spoke about music and relief, and how destroying both barriers and tools of hate is supposed to be an individual mission. The keynote speech on the theme of “non-violence in a violent world” was given by Jeremy Gilley of Peace One Day, who emphasized finding starting points and common denominators for peace, in addition to discussing ways and means to work towards a global truce. After a film screening, the conference then went to Shamoon Hashmi in conversation with Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy – a star for the audience because of his style as well as his command of words and language – who became a true representation of Pakistan’s intellectuals and who was later bombarded, especially by foreign delegates, with difficult and sometimes intricate questions, which he kept on answering till the organizers had to move on to the next order of business. The second day’s festival was in the shape of a concert by different artistes and performers, and the delegates were dazzled by Todd Shea, Arieb Azhar and other performers.
The final day of the conference also welcomed the first wintery morning of Islamabad this year. It commenced with an impromptu workshop hosted by Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, Director-General of ISPR, along Chatham House rules; the audience engaged in a frank discussion with the participant and posed pressing and controversial questions on which the Pakistan armed forces’ point of view was not quite clear. After the workshop, one participant commented that the Pakistan army should engage in human rights work, and not just human relief efforts – he believed it would be the best way for the institution to improve image, personify its role in society, and affect a diminishing trend in the disconnection between state and society. Afterwards, a panel set on the theme of “the new face of media” discussed whether recently-invented media tools and techniques would be able to transform modern social relationships or not, and also dealt with questions of digital governance in the 21st century. This panel was composed of blogger Tazeen Javed, founder and CEO of Globan Natives Daniel Teweles, THINK Consortium’s Stephanie Rudat, and Express Tribune’s Jahanzaib Haque. A flurry of questions and answers about information, propaganda and an individual’s role in society made the panel and its pursuant talks even more interesting: Mishal’s founder Amir Jahangir spoke on where “new media” was taking Pakistan, followed by Stephanie Rudat, who delivered a lecture on “tech and tolerance”. Workshops for the third day were designed to address interactive imperatives for social activists and concerned citizens using new electronic tools to engage society or make a difference: Ali Abbas Zaidi and Prashan De Visser conducted a workshop on building a movement, Daniel Teweles and Stephanie Rudat talked about the basics of digital activism, Jahanzaib Haque explained how journalism transforms when new media and platforms are introduced into the equation, Christopher Neu delivered an interactive lecture on crisis mapping, and Fatima Akhter of SAMAA TV hosted a raucous workshop on citizen journalism and the power of storytelling in a journalistic manner.
The closing address was given by MNA Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s former Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting. Despite having consistent interaction with a broad cross-section of society, Sherry Rehman was amazed at the attentiveness and acknowledgment of an otherwise-indifferent audience – she thanked the audience every time they started clapping, till she realized that it would happen every time the youth accepted her statement and related to it themselves. In close consonance with the themes and substance of the conference, she emphasized the importance of tolerance and pluralism in modern societies, and affirmed that societal crises are precipitated because individuals cannot effectively balance or manage the multiple identities that each global citizen has. Sherry Rehman explained that leadership is not only about competence or inherent qualities; it is also about the exercise of rights rather than just the claim of having them, or being told that one doesn’t have them. “You must stay in the mainstream, don’t sit on the margins” is a message that resonated with the audience. Sherry Rehman showed how an Indonesian girl automatically became a leader of a team and a representative of her community just by asking a question on how she could become a leader in societies where “women are not supposed to be in power”.
The youth are not only the most integral part of every society; when empowered, they shatter a lot of myths. Together, they challenge fallacies and lies that they wrongfully believe to be true or unalterable. They are also able to overcome traditional differences and structural representations of ‘us’ and ‘the other’ by separating positive elements of identity from the negative ones. They become ambassadors who engage with other members of the international community, and share their experiences to create new ones without vested interests or ulterior motives as found in other “people-to-people” contacts. Stephanie Rudat said she made 5 new friends on the first day of IYCF 2011, and encouraged delegates to question inhibitions and break down barriers by making new friends in the same manner and by respecting differences of opinion and practice. I made around 7 and also got a chance to meet 3 old friends (just on the first day), and in addition to that, I was able to create new partnerships; I saw new methods of reason, respect and pluralism in action; my interactions and observations gave me renewed faith in the notion that the mistakes of the past will be corrected by the compassion of the future.
Most importantly, I saw the delegates to IYCF 2011 – the youth, the future – yearning to get out there and start making the difference that is expected of them. That counts for the most, because it is a much needed glimmer of hope in a sea of disillusionment.