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PIPS holds Consultation on “Promoting Narratives of Diversity, Inclusion, and Peace among Youth” in Islamabad

Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) organized a one-day consultation on “Promoting Narratives of Diversity, Inclusion, and Peace among Youth” on May 19, 2023, at Margala Hotel, Islamabad.

The consultation consisted of three sessions on different themes, which was attended by lawmakers, academics, journalists, rights activists, government officials, civil society representatives, and students, among others. Programme Manager PIPS Ahmed Ali, and journalist as well as researcher Imran Mukhtar moderated the sessions respectively.

Experts at the discussion called for engaging youth at the level of political parties and the parliament to avert May 9-like incidents of vandalism and arson attacks on civil and military installations.

They expressed their apprehensions that problems of youth of Pakistan were not on the radar of political parties, academia, and media – a reason that they are tending towards violence in extreme frustration. Some speakers also proposed a revival of student unions across the country to engage youth.

First Session: The Challenges of Navigating a Multicultural and Multiethnic Society:

In this session with scholars, participants discussed how youth can build cultural awareness and develop understanding of the dynamics of multiculturalism; and incorporating religious, and ethnic diversity into education to improve youths’ social skills to interact in a multicultural setting. They also deliberated on strategies for curbing religious and ethnic prejudices among youth; and empowering them to become advocates of multiculturalism.

At the outset of the session, Programme Manager PIPS Ahmed Ali said that the institute had held workshops with around 750 students at different universities nationwide to sensitize them about cultural diversity, and unique characteristics of the region etc. He said that such consultations with different experts including lawmakers were being held across the country with the focus on youth to know about their problems and reasons behind the existence of extremist tendencies among them. “We develop policy documents regularly about youth-related issues, which are shared with different institutions, policymakers and legislatures.”

 Dr Abid Hussain Sial, head of Department of Pakistani Languages at National University of Modern Languages (NUML) in Islamabad, opening the discussion said that as many 77 languages were spoken in Pakistan, but they had no information about most of them. “Anybody’s expression of intense love, beyond nature, towards his identities, religion, culture, language, and region creates problems,” he said, adding this factor promoted hatred towards one another.

Sial argued that tolerance and openness could be promoted in the society only if they become able to naturalize the intensity of ownership of culture, and other identities etc. By adopting this way, others would get some space, and tolerance as well as the normalization process would start.”

 Dr Amir Zia, assistant professor of political economy at NUML, said that there was invisible indoctrination in the whole system, which has been embedded in political culture. “The entire cultural framework, on the basis of which different behaviours are formed, reinforces our worldview to the level which is rejectionist in its tendency.” In this whole process of cultural and academic socialization, we make a contradictory identity, he added. He said that such rejectionist behaviours were also politically viable in the present circumstances.

Zia underlined that teachers, especially of Islamic studies, should carry a kind of worldview that actually reflected the very idea of diversity and inclusion, whereas it was not the case there.

Director Research at Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Professor Dr Fakhr-ul-Islam viewed that diversity could be brought in a multicultural society like Pakistan, but it has some requirements. “The problem in Pakistan is that any ethnic group has certain biases or myths against other ethnic groups,” he said. He further said that these misunderstandings needed to be rectified.

For this purpose, the initiative should be taken from the curriculum in which every child should be taught about different ethnicities, Islam said, adding that this would help youth to annul stereotypes about one another. He also argued for introducing cultural exchange programmes among students and called upon the government to play its role in this regard.

 Dr. Nazia Rafiq, assistant professor of anthropology at Pir Mehr Ali Shah Arid Agriculture University in Rawalpindi, called on the need to follow a “holistic approach” to cater to all needs of the youth. She said that youth were looking at them to get any policy and direction.

“Culture is the baseline which provides you with identity and paves the way towards forming a worldview,” she said, adding that sensitivity towards absorption of other cultures was very important.

“We should devise such policies and dialogues between different communities that can raise such social capital, which caters to needs from the household level to academics.” She further explained that cultural dialogues and exchange of ideas among different communities were the need of the hour to address problems of youth.

Educationist and columnist Dr Naazir Mahmood held the present education system responsible for all ills, saying it plays a key role in promoting stereotyping and increasing religiosity — a reason for bringing intolerance and self-righteousness among youth. He said that the teacher’s behaviour was also intolerant and the same was the case with the media.

Mahmood again said that their educational system was itself a reason for increasing intolerance among youth and society, besides state institutions who have promoted this phenomenon. He called for decreasing ever-increasing religiosity in the present education system of the country.

Dean of Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at Muslim Youth University Professor Dr Muhammad Munir underlined the need to create awareness about multiculturalism among youth and introduce cross-culturalism among them. He gave the idea of establishing cultural centers at the level of universities and society, saying this was the way to change the minds of students.

Munir highlighted that they should first identify the challenges and design some strategies to find solutions. The challenges also include how to project identities, and there are language and communication problems as well, he added. “The strategies should encompass respect and celebrate cultural diversity, understand multiculturalism, and change mindset, and attitude through awareness.”

 Justice Dr. Khalid Masood, member of Shariat Appellate Bench of the Supreme Court, opined that “relativity” could promote diversity, and multiculturalism. He said that youth were neither included in any policy-making process for them nor invited for any dialogue. He added that such an attitude should be changed.

“When you do not talk with youth on an equal basis, then you adopt extremism to get your demands fulfilled from them,” he said and added, “The biggest problem is that we want the youth to obey us and do as directed by us.”

Dr. Masood went on to say that the slogan of nationalism in Pakistan has caused harm to diversity. “We generally take change as negative,” he said, adding that change was inevitable but should be continuous. He explained that change would benefit only when it would remain continuous.

He also said that there was a need to be critical in a true sense. Instead of taking sides, you will have to see critically what are the benefits of multiculturalism, and multidisciplinary, he added.

Dean Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bahria University in Islamabad Professor

Dr. Adam Saud remarked that diversity, tolerance, and acceptability were not taught in Pakistan at school level. He also said that teaching was among those professions in the country that was on the least priority of people and was not adopted by choice in most of the cases.

He urged for parents and teacher training, especially for primary teachers. He said that the present generation was only following CGPA’s race and lacked social manners and skills to live their lives successfully.

Giving his suggestion, he stressed the need to impart critical thinking among students. He informed that Bahiran University has introduced community support programmes as the same could move students towards multiculturalism. He also said that the university was holding different dialogues among students.

 Tahir Naeem Malik, lecturer at the Department of International Relations in NUML said that youth had not been engaged in political discourse. He condemned that universities take undertakings from students that they would not take part in any political activity.

Malik viewed that the facilities of higher education were not reaching out to common people – a reason that the middle class was not expanding. “The challenge of diversity is lack of knowledge about one another and better communication modes,” he said, adding that far-flung areas of the country still do not have access to the internet.

He underscored that universities were not holding any dialogue among youth and people having the same views usually shared the stage. “The governance (model of) universities is not democratic (in its nature).”

He concluded that the government was not providing due rights to youth in universities, which is leading them to extremism.

Chairman Council of Islamic Ideology Dr Qibla Ayaz in his concluding remarks said that dialogue among youth should be held to promote diversity, and tolerance among them and the same should continue. He appreciated PIPS’s efforts of raising these issues in its quarterly Tajziat.

Ayaz held the present curriculum responsible for promoting hatred, and extremist thoughts among youth. He criticized Islamization brought by then military ruler General Ziaul Haq. He added that the present curriculum was a continuation of those changes, which were made during the Zia regime.

Session 2: Youth Policy: Current Status, Challenges, and Opportunities:

In this session, participants discussed youth policy, its status, and obstacles; youth engagement in legislation; and combating unemployment, and social exclusion among young people. They also talked about ways for engaging youth in civil society and creating opportunities for improved youth participation in politics and governance.

  Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader and former senator Farhatullah Babar said that problems of youth were not on the radar of political parties, media, and academia. He condemned May 9 incidents of violence and added that there was a need to find the root cause of the problem. He added that such incidents were “manifestation of a clash between expectations and realities” of youth of Pakistan.

“We have to engage, and empower our youth,” he said, adding that there was no engagement of youth at the national landscape including at the level of the parliament and political parties. “Parliament and political parties should establish a linkage with youth,” he said. The engagement of youth means engaging students first. He also said that transgender persons, and people with special disabilities should be made part of this engagement.

Secretary General Pakistan Peoples Party Parliamentarian (PPPP) Babar further said that youth was totally delinked from the parliament. He suggested that national, and all provincial assemblies, and the Senate should introduce “a public hour” like forum to encourage youth, especially students, to present their problems there. They should be made part of legislation-making processes and all other activities of parliament, he also said. “Then they would have an ownership of the political process.”

Babar advised that revival of student unions would be another way to engage youth. He also called for focusing on sports activities. He further said that the doors of the non-government sector should be opened for youth to provide them with training and job opportunities. He demanded that the federal government lift restrictions on non-government organizations (NGOs) to give them some space to work.

For the empowerment of youth, he also suggested that at least 50 per cent of seats for youth should be reserved at the level of local bodies. Secondly, he said that education was a must for empowerment of youth and curriculum should be the priority with emphasis on teaching ethics, and tolerance regardless of religion.

Lastly, Babar said that there were two narratives in Pakistan, one is de jure and the other is de facto and they would have to expose the de facto narrative to empower youth.

Political worker, writer and associate professor of political economy at Quaid-e-Azam University (QAU) Dr Aasim Sajjad Akhtar highlighted that there was no youth policy in the country. He said that there was no serious discussion going on in the country about the problems of youth. “We have no meaningful long-term economic vision for youth, which is indispensable to give them a better life.”

He said that May 9 incidents of violence were a result of unmet expectations of youth and this behaviour could tend to increase in future.

Endorsing the view of Babar on narratives, he said that there were political and economic interests that demand to continue to reproduce and re-hash de facto narratives. “It certainly doesn’t look like there is a vision, beyond the short-term tussles for power and resources, which can address this larger question.”

 Dr Ishtiaq Ahmad, member at the Planning Commission of Pakistan, also stressed for revival of student unions to engage the youth, “There are both ideological, and structural issues in Pakistan when it comes to problems of youth.” He stressed that ideological issues would have to be settled first and the August 11 speech of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah should be used as the policy guidelines to move this country forward. He called for minimizing the role of religion in state affairs.

Religious scholar and columnist Khursheed Ahmed Nadeem rebutted Dr Ahmad by questioning how religion’s role in the society could be minimized or excluded when 96 per cent of the country’s population was Muslim.  “How would it be practical that we conceive such a policy that ignores feelings of the majority?”

Programme director at economic think tank PRIME (Policy Research Institute of Market Economy) Syed Ali Ehsan strongly opposed the idea of revival of student unions saying political organizations in educational institutions generally lead to violence. “It would be better not to politicize education.” He viewed that if some kind of political engagement needed to be done with students, it should not be at the level of universities.

Session 3: Youth and Social Media:

In this session, experts explored social media’s influence on youth’s perception of themselves and the world around them; impact of misinformation overload on youth; and how media can fact-check fake news.

They also discussed overconsumption of social media and mental wellbeing among youth; role of social media in shaping up social and emotional characters of young people; and challenges in enforcing responsible social media use.

Journalist, and columnist Sajjad Azhar opening the session said that print media was declining sharply as people had moved towards digital media. He also said that consumption of social media among youth was on the increase as they neither had alternate platforms nor had been engaged at any political and other forum. He added that the negative impacts of social media on youth were very large and serious.

Azhar highlighted that youth had not only become targets of fake news on social media but also, they themselves were part of the process that used to spread such news. He said that there were no fact-checking mechanisms available for social media. “The presence of fake accounts on such platforms was another big problem.”

 Yasir Chatta, Editor at Aik Rozan website and assistant professor of English at a model college in Islamabad, viewed that social media could be seen in many contexts i.e. from the lens of business and foreign policy, among others. The ways of communication have now changed from radio to podcast, and photos to videos etc. He said that technology was transforming itself at a fast pace. “The idea is surviving but its presentation is changing.”

Manager Media Projects at the Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) Ramsha Saghir talking about the mental health of social media users said that mental challenges including anxiety and depression were never discussed in Pakistan. “We cannot even use the latest statistics as there is no research on mental health issues in Pakistan.”

She said that frustration and aggression had increased among youth of the country because they were not engaged in productive activities. “That is what social media has done to our youth,” she said, adding that they had not provided any direction to young people. “Social media has nullified the potential of youth.” She also said that the local social media was based on hate narratives.

“Today’s generation does not want to read, only want to watch, and also, we want to watch our favourite things only,” she argued. She added that this trend had corrupted their youth besides adding anxiety and stress in them due to their growing expectations.

 Dr Qurrat ul Ain Malik, assistant professor at Department of Media and Communication Studies in International Islamic University, using the academic term said there was a gradual shift and divide between “digital migrants” (old generation) and “digital natives” (new generation) was gradually widening.

She said that social media and other online platforms were wonderful opportunities, but the lacking was on their part and their inability to grasp the true potential of such forums. She further said that social media was not bringing forth those people whose voices could actually have greater impact. She added that 90 per cent of the content on social media was disturbing and unimpressive.

Ms Malik suggested that there was a need to start using social media platforms in a constructive way. She asked for bringing those voices on social media who have greater impact rather than “leaving this vacuum unattended, which was leading youth in the wrong direction.”

Dean of Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at Muslim Youth University Professor Dr Muhammad Munir said that unfortunately, no mechanism had yet been developed to regulate social media. “There is a need to bring the new technology under some rules and regulations at international level.” He said that positive aspects of the new technology could not be ignored.

He urged that there should be some check and balance to stop the flow of fake information on social media. “Fact-checking should be in place so that no propaganda” or false narrative could reach youth.

Munir suggested that like plagiarism, spreading false news on social media should also be made punishable at international level. He said that it was high time that digital rights should be granted but at the same time, some responsibility should be fixed.

 Justice Dr Khalid Masood, member of Shariat Appellate Bench of the Supreme Court, in his concluding remarks said that they were actually preparing robots for so long, previously in seminaries and then by standardizing syllabus in the modern era. He said the problem was that reading, and note-taking skills were not taught in the present education system of Pakistan.

He pointed out that social media was participatory in nature, but it was commercial, and political. He said that neither standard knowledge nor tools were available to know what is right or wrong.

Dr Masood said that major discussion related to social media revolved around hate speech as to what was its definition and how to regulate it. “Hate speech in Pakistan is a political issue,” he said, adding that in this context, everyone knows which kind of hate speech has to be stopped.