Tuesday, May 9, 2017

OPED: Pakistan at the Frontlines of Educational Reforms



Originally Published by Global Affairs / May 2017. Written before the Mashal Khan tragedy in Mardan




A terrifying document surfaced the other day on the social media that suggested a possibly extremist agenda in the education department in KPK - Pakistan. The letter dated 2015, ostensibly from Pervez Khattak directed DCTE Abbottabad to seek input from proscribed groups - the ASWJ for devising the curriculum. It was an alarming discovery and the comments that followed on the twitter timeline of the social activist who shared the story were even more alarming for they appeared to support making terror outfits stakeholders in the academia.

In a different part of town a few good Samaritans put forward a timely proposal that promised salvation for young Pakistani’s at the mercy of the hardliner’s pen.

Representatives from 7 organizations presented a pilot project launched to defuse the ticking time bomb of bigotry and hate. They dubbed it - ‘Badal Do’ – ‘Ignite the Change Within’ - a compelling vision that brought out a message of inclusivity, empathy, compassion - a commitment to embrace all the colors of Pakistan, a revival of its original values based on social justice and equal rights. In a word - humanity. These were attributes the society desperately needs at the moment; a belief system that can alter the fabric of life.

The scale was ambitious. Their overarching plan however had earmarked the perfect place to start - with the children. The audience that day was made up of educators and the idea was to ignite the spark where it could have the most impact and gradually filter down to society.

It was a well articulated design that offered hope to the masses; a way forward for its ‘at risk generation’ in an increasingly polarized world. It appeared to be the perfect antidote to the poison peddled by the media and mullahs and mullahs on the media.

It was ironic that they had identified a key element needed for the success of Operation Radd-ul-Fassad though the term counterterrorism did not figure in any of their conversations. Instead they delved into training for teachers – for field trips to promote a deeper understanding of the cultural bonds they share and historical contours of the cities they lived in. They suggested the need for children to identify heroes from within communities, seek out role models in imaginative ways to tackle gender biases and nullify class differences. They offered a quaint little skit performed by school kids that dealt with changing mindsets – that countered mean attitudes, deep seated prejudices and petty differences with humor and grace.
It was not an alien concept at the heart of their dream - ideals that forged this nation had been dusted off and presented for consideration.

By taking a stand, they did the unthinkable. Generate optimism about the future darkened by conflict, distrust and melancholy. It was telling that the luminaries featured in their ‘In Memoriam’ section reflected the very diversity they were hoping to safeguard. These were the pillars of society like Sister Mary Emily, Dina Mistry, Bishop Lobo, Fatima Surriya Bajia, Gool Minwala etc who had contributed to Pakistan’s greatness. Their names served as reminders of their country’s tolerant roots and deep potential.

The people at the helm of this project represented a cross section of corporate society. It was clear that they meant business for they unveiled their striking vision early in the day, without much fanfare, customary red carpets, mandatory celebrity appearances or vacuous displays of wealth and privilege. No long drawn out speeches or political heavyweights sapped the energy. And there was surprisingly little coverage in the mainstream media, perhaps because of the missing glitz and glamour that has become the staple of most events. Even the piteous condition of the chosen venue (Arts council, Karachi) reflected the misplaced priorities of the authorities and the resolve of these pioneers.

The pitch itself was brief yet powerful in its simplicity. It was a revealing moment that proved that society is not ready to surrender, and that they intended to fight till the last.

These were architects on the frontlines of educational reforms who insisted that their concept was fluid – they had allowed it room to grow, adjust, and expand over time. Since a battle for the soul of a nation was already being waged in different theatres, the theme went well with the message of the COAS Qamar Bajwa who deemed every citizen of Pakistan as a soldier in this war. Some are already in the trenches.

Such initiatives show the next generation a way out. There was no shortage of motivation on that sunny day in March. This was not a pipedream to be left at the mercy of self serving politicians, though the local government had reportedly thrown their weight behind the project. It would be a people’s movement that aspired to reach every citizen and make them stakeholders in their children’s future.

They also intended to reclaim the shrinking spaces – art, culture, literature - leaving room for free thinkers to rebuild the foundations of a kinder, more accepting Pakistan. There were cafes that would introduce the cuisine of different cities and allow conversations to promote an appreciation of their diversity. A platform along the lines of Ted Talks where educators could speak about their experiences and the lives they changed; where all employees regardless of their social standing would be welcome provided they had something worthwhile to share. The power of theatre, radio, film would be harnessed to take their message further.

Present day Pakistan has a very high threshold for corruption, fanaticism and violence. Introducing these values in such a toxic environment is bound to be a challenge. There will be resistance from those whom the broken system benefits. Who misuse its flawed principles to rally street power, contaminate impressionable minds and silence liberal avenues of expression. Their voices are loud enough to drown out any debate on rationality, ride rough shod over human rights and chase mirages of blasphemy for political expedience. The nation’s voice must be louder.

Which is why it is imperative that movements such as these be protected, and the authors of this new script encouraged. Whoever wins this battle controls the future of Pakistan. Wresting that power away from the keepers of the hardliner interpretation of an ideology and giving it back to its rightful owners will be a test of the citizen’s commitment to their children’s future and their own.

Their strategy, even in its simplified form was viewed as a lifeline. Should ‘Badal Do’ succeed in implanting seeds of tolerance; it could be the ideal narrative needed to counter the hate peddled by some that has been exploited by extremists in our midst and is increasingly gaining traction. That leads to shocking outbreaks of violence like massacres at a shrine in Sargodah at the hand of faith healers, or unleashing mob justice on minorities. That makes it ok for Nobel laureates to be disowned and their families targeted because of their religious beliefs while murderers of sitting Governors are honored with monuments by radicalized factions. Terrorism may be a global threat but conditions that allow it to take root and thrive have been ripe for sometime.

Rolling back these trends begins with awareness, introspection and education.

It is worth a shot. And if this experiment succeeds, a version of it can perhaps be transplanted on the seminaries in need of reformation which is one of the primary tenets of the famed National Action Plan - NAP.

Follow BadalDo @BadalDoPk

Image Source: BadalDo Twitter

OPED: The Impact of Raheel Sharif as Commander NATO-lite


First Published in Global Affairs / May 2017

Former COAS Raheel Sharif (R.S.) is a rare bird. He did not ask for an extension - make a play for the throne, get embroiled in scandals, financial or otherwise, or walk away with the coveted title of a Field Marshal. It was a dignified exit; and a first in Pakistan. As COAS he was the cat’s pajamas. Then he got a job offer. And everything changed.
Since then, laudatory reports regarding his achievements in counter-terrorism had given way to critical debates concerning his forthcoming appointment. One in particular devises a fear-mongering narrative from the General’s future prospects and needs some clarification.

The post entails commanding a NATO styled, Saudi backed coalition of Muslim nations, Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terror - IMAFT. And should he don the mantle of commander in chief - NATO - lite, it will be another first.

Is there anything keeping the General from assuming charge of a coalition sponsored by the House of Saud besides the obvious?

IMAFT is unchartered territory and the military commander’s foray into the unknown is fraught with risks – it also threatens to tilt the balance of power in the Kingdom’s favor. Pakistan resisted Saudi Arabia’s calls to join the fight in Yemen a few years ago and that decision was hailed given the sectarian colors of the banner under which it would be waged. Now that a Pakistani General (R) may end up as the face of the resistance – so to speak, those concerns have made their way back to the forefront. And some new ones have been added from across the border adding a sinister tone to the takeover.

A former Army Chief / President expressed his reservations over this deal because of the aforementioned sectarian elements in play. Politicians worry it impinges upon national security. Neighbors fret about losing their place in the changing world order.
In many ways R.S. is a logical choice for the task. The freshly retired General is battle hardened – as is his army he had commanded. He remains a prominent figure and is more than qualified to lead a coalition of 40 something nations in the good fight.

But there’s a catch. Because they are predominately Sunni, such an alliance has been viewed with suspicion. Because he is a Pakistani, the pact has spooked the neighbor. And since he is a private citizen – these objections could become secondary.

Indian based media sources speak of the “most warmongering General to lead a global anti terror force.” Speculations are rife about the political fallout of this relationship on the Eastern front. They allege that this promotion somehow threatens the integrity of India. That access to terror syndicates can be harnessed and weaponised and deployed against its arch nemesis. Sharif could influence member nations to work against an outflanked Delhi in some future war between nuclear armed nations. And they suggest bolstering ties with Israel to balance out the scales.

It is understandable why being outflanked could give them sleepless nights. NATO – the original one is meant to promote democratic values, engage on trust building, foster security cooperation, encourage conflict resolution. NATO – the Middle Eastern Chapter for now adds an unofficial layer of support to the Saudi-Pak partnership as it determines Raheel Sharif’s place in the big leagues. Reports had already been circulating of increased defense and security cooperation offered by Pakistan that included training, intelligence sharing, narrative building etc to the Saudi’s. Recently rumor mill had been rife with stories about the deployment of a brigade within Saudi borders. And a contingent of Special Services Group of Saudi Royal Forces took part in Pakistan Day Parade on 23rd March 2017.

A Pakistani will headline an Arab coalition. It could be a game changer. Granted, such partnerships are bound to have implications for the region. But as Pakistan sets out to raise its profile and confront its demons, its decision making process regarding its Gulf brethren would ideally be motivated by its core strategic interests and not familial ties. Also, Raheel’s allegiance is unlikely to suddenly shift towards a petro-dollar vending machine and make him lose his neutrality. And his designation should not influence Pakistan’s position on matters of statecraft adversely. Getting embroiled in conflicts while its own house is burning would be a mistake.

The rest of the tirade however is absurd and farfetched; and a tad insulting to a General who has spent the better part of his tenure eradicating terror and stabilizing the region; who kept the army in the barracks, threw terrorists to the justice mill albeit via controversial military courts and cleaned up Karachi.

Little is known about this coalition except that Iran isn’t part of it, yet. Sharif’s immediate challenge as the architect on call will be navigating a terrain scarred by ancient rivalries, escalating threats and hostile agendas. Taking the poor man’s NATO from concept to a reality will be a test of his skills as a soldier and statesman and may demand the patience of a saint.

Does a Pakistani General’s stint as a strategic consultant create a conflict of interest with the Indian agenda?

It is unprecedented. True. It does not fit in with the stereotypical vision of retired Generals with their days filled with golfing, gardening, playing analyst on TV, cutting deals, in exile or hitting the international lecture circuit.

Some might say his day job is merely an extension of what the General was doing before. And with the experience accumulated over the years it gives him an edge. Sharif brings an objective viewpoint and a professional edge to the table. And since he is respected across the board, being an emissary brings prestige to the brand he represents – namely Pakistan. His star is rising. This is his moment.

Raheel Sharif was reportedly the belle of the DAVOS ball earlier this year where the Pakistani PM - Nawaz Sharif (no relation), who also happens to be R.S.’s last namesake was barred from addressing any forum on account of the corruption investigation underway. Headlines stating that he brought swagger back to the army demonstrate the level of esteem for R.S. in the Gulf region. That perception helps elevate Pakistan on the global stage and debunks the narrative of isolationism propagated by her Eastern rivals.

India, on the other hand, given their taste in elected officials chosen to safeguard their shining status need to take some time off from their (smear) campaign trail and observe the post election landscape. They should question how a bigoted priest turned politician facing criminal charges can ever be representative of their sacred tenants or be compatible with their progressive ideals. And they must divert their outrage at the waves of fanaticism sweeping through their territory and focus on containing the threat of extremism now knocking at their doorstep.

Will the sight of a Pakistani General alienate Iran remains a nagging concern. Though Sharif reportedly demanded Iran’s inclusion, the hostility between Riyadh and Tehran makes a truce unlikely. Relations between Pakistan and Iran, however, seem to be on the mend at the moment given the commencement of joint naval drills in Iranian waters alongside Pak - Iran trade deals in the backdrop. They showcase the security and economic cooperation underway regardless of Iran’s exclusion from the club.

Pakistan appears to have only two places reserved for their heroes – the pedestal or the dock. There is no middle ground. Raheel Sharif becomes a ‘man of the year’ by their standards one day – and a sell out the next. While the jury sits debating about the wisdom of his life choices, he is busy carving out a place for himself in history. Time will tell whether this gamble pays off or backfires on a spectacular scale.

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