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First published in the youth magazine, Laaltain.

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When one thinks of sacrifice, two historical figures stand above the rest – Jesus Christ and Imam Hussein. Jesus, according to Christian belief, climbed the cross to save humanity, while Imam Hussein offered himself to the desolate desert of Karbala to uphold certain values and rights. Imam Hussein’s sacrifice however remains singularly distinctive, as human history knows of no other individual who sacrificed not just himself but his entire kith and kin for a higher cause, a greater struggle.

I will not go on at length about the events that took place in Karbala, but the significance of a 1400-year old incident that still inspires organized activism around the world cannot be doubted.

There are times when one loses interest in a struggle, or the charm of the cause one stands for begins to fade away. Hopelessness creeps in, urging us to just give up. But it is precisely at such moments that our will is tested. How we then choose to respond is not only a testament of our resolve but a defining moment, because what we stand for defines who we ultimately become.

Pakistan is going through upsetting times, but the fight is not over just yet.

If outcomes were determined solely on the basis of greater resources or numbers, Karbala would have been a forgotten story. But the truth of the matter is that the alam (banner) of Hussein’s army, which was carried by the fallen Abbas Alamdar (standard-bearer) in Karbala, is visible in streets, villages and metropolises even today. I have personally witnessed the overwhelming effect on people that the story of Karbala has had. This is as clear a proof as any that strength is not derived from material advantage, but more often than not, is a result of un-wavering belief in one’s struggle and an unshakeable will. Perhaps the poet who penned these lines said it best:

Aik pal ki thi bus hakumat Yazeed ki /
Sadiyan Hussein ki hain, zamana Hussein ka

The future does not exist in the present, nor has it been promised to any of us. The glorious past depicted in the (distorted) books of history cannot be conjured, no matter how hard one tries. Thus all we truly have is the present – a present which reveals that 100 million-strong youth of Pakistan are yearning for a better tomorrow.

If the current situation of Pakistan were to be compared to a season, I would say it is like autumn. Autumn is when nightingales are melancholic because their gardens have lost spirit. Late-autumn days are thought-provoking; the shadows that fallen yellow leaves cast are overcome by hope that fresh ones in their place will bear a better garden.

As I currently complete a fellowship miles away from home in Europe, I yearn to return as soon as possible. I miss the struggle I saw on the streets of Pakistan every day. Every woman, man and child is a warrior fighting for their right to the basic necessities of life, and sometimes even their right to live. Even if some have given up, a vast majority still carries on. Every day they wake up to challenge a corrupt system, an unjust judiciary and an insecure security establishment. The astonishing thing is that most of them have not lost hope and continue to believe in ‘change’.

I have travelled all over Pakistan in the last few years, working on the ground with different communities and addressing a variety of issues. The smiles that appear on the faces of such people despite all their troubles, the courage that I see in the face of adversity and the will to carve out a better life and a better country resonates in every corner. We battled through the worst natural disasters of modern history, we ousted dictators, fought for our democratic rights – we are in the midst of a war that has caused unprecedented damage to our social fabric, but despite the extremism and intolerance that threatens our way of life, we find a way to co-exist in this melting pot of languages, ethnicities, cultures and ideologies that we call Pakistan.

The struggle that we see on the streets every day relays a silent message of hope; we might just find treasure in the ruin. The harsh conditions we face might end up helping us as the relentless rubs might polish the gems in us. The cracks in our society might be the opening points for light to enter. We only have to believe and shrug off the fear of failure, for even if we don’t succeed, we have a chance to fail better. We need to learn from Karbala how not to lose the most important resource we are gifted with: our determination.

Har daur apnay saath laata hai aik Yazeed
Har daur ku zarurat rahay gi Hussein ki

May the right to witness the spring, the yearning for true love and the event of Karbala inspire us to take Pakistan forward.

To every autumn, spring
To every heart, true love
To every struggle, Karbala

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi 

First published (with edits) in Newsline – Pakistan (August, 2013 issue)under “Pakistan of My Dreams” — rants of Pakistanis about how they want to see Pakistan..

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There was another attack on Hazara Shia community few hours ago. News of nepotism in PIA promotions, dishonest commentary on Abbottabad Commission Report, obfuscation of ills that plague our society and video of an elderly beaten up for not fasting by a mob is doing rounds on every TV channel I flip. My plan to escape load shedding by staying out did not work as electricity is not back on and I am contemplating how to influence this government officer at Qasim Port Karachi tomorrow; he is asking for “favors” to release hospital supplies for disaster struck victims in Khyber Pakhtunkhua.

“Pakistan has collapsed and things will only get worse from here.” This pervasive negativity prevails in every nook and corner of Pakistan. But I have reasons to disagree.

I know of this Sunni family who saved lives of 150 Shia passengers in Gilgit when militants were offloading Shia passengers and killing them. I lost my dear friend and fellow activist Irfan Khudi Ali in a terrorist attack in Quetta but activists in my organization the Pakistan Youth Alliance and from Hazara community have still not lost hope and advocating for their right to live. I know some great journalists and analysts pestering upon internal reforms using the same media platforms. I know many honest government employees. I have seen people doing amazing work throughout Pakistan. How can I ignore the miraculous resilience, urge for redemption and desire to better prevalent societal norms I have seen from Karachi to Swat?

We speak in more than 300 dialects and languages. We have a glaring sectarian divide. Our skin tone varies from dark to pink-white. We boast distinct cultures and some of the oldest civilizations of the world. We are diverse in every sense of the word. In a multi-layered class-identity-ethnic-religious web, our diversity is a huge advantage. We have to see potential in our differences. We have to see how efforts to disunite us make us find ways to co-exist, and we do.

A positive change in the society reflects on the system. The only way to move forward is to change our mindsets from problem identifiers to problem solvers.

I remain hopeful in Pakistan, knowing that there are Pakistanis who are not affected by what’s wrong but are willing to stand up for what’s right. Every 40th person in the world is a Pakistani. Imagine the potential we harness through our experiences, ideas and skills. We have to start the conversation which inspires innovative solutions to the plethora of problems we face as a society. A telephone line man asking for bribe to fix your connection is not influenced by the Presidency to do so. We have to take those decisions in our daily lives in terms of how we relate to one another. We have to figure out how to engage with each other and how to drive home with solutions, not just problems. All of us have to find our focus in walking the talk rather than just talking.

We have to start tolerating conflicting religious and political ideologies. We have to learn to respect exclusiveness and pester upon inclusiveness. We have to realize that we are in this boat together.

We need to instigate urgency in doing as just thinking is not enough. We are our only hope and we have to keep our hope alive!

Dil mein kuch soz-e-tamanna ke nishan milte hain

Iss andhere mein ujale ke samaan milte hain

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi is the founding chairman of Pakistan Youth Alliance. He also represents Khudi Pakistan. He tweets @ali_abbas_zaidi

Why We Shout

A Hindu saint who was visiting river Ganges to have a bath found a group of family members on the banks, shouting at each other. He turned to his disciples, smiled and asked,’Why do people shout at each other?’

The disciples thought for a while, one of them said, ‘Because we lose our calm, we shout.’

‘But, why should you shout when the other person is just next to you? You can as well tell him what you have to say in a soft manner.’ said the saint.

The disciples gave some other answers but none satisfied the other disciples.

Finally the saint explained.

‘When two people are angry at each other, their hearts are very distant. To cover that distance they must shout to be able to hear each other. The angrier they are, the stronger they will have to shout to hear each other to cover that great distance. What happens when two people fall in love? They don’t shout at each other but talk softly, because their hearts are very close. The distance between them is either non-existent or very small…’

The saint continued, ‘When they love each other even more, what happens? They do not speak, only whisper and they get even closer to each other in their love. Finally they even need not whisper, they only look at each other, that’s all. That is how close two people are when they love each other.’

He looked at his disciples and said, ‘So when you argue do not let your hearts get distant, do not say words that distance each other more, Or else there will come a day when the distance is so great that you will not find the path to return.’

LOU DEKHU DHARNA JARI HAI!

Dedicated to multiple sit-ins across the world in solidarity with Hazara Town sit-in. The world will not forget how even after recurring, unprecedented attacks, the persecuted community remained non-violent and instigated a spontaneous movement against religious extremism. 

The poem was recited a month ago, when we sat in Islamabad to show solidarity with Alam-dar road sit-in. 

Shaitan pey larzaa tari hai
Lou dekhu dharna jari hai

Tum apnay amal chuka baithay
Dekhu ab apnee bari hai
Lou dekhu dharna jari hai

BumbarooN sey hum dartey naheen
Jitna maaro, hum martay naheen
Iss khoon ki qeemat bhari hai
Lou dekhu dharna jari hai

Yeh haath humaray seenoN par
Laanat hai tum bay-deenoN par
Aik azm yeh matam daari hai
Lou dekhu dharna jari hai

Hatt jao, dekhu baaz aao
Abaa’ key amal na dohrao
Pher aglee lash tumhari hai
Lou dekhu dharna jari hai

Taghoot key ayee pairo-karooN
ab saamnay aakey waar karu
Ab jagi qoum yeh sari hai
Lou dekhu dharna jari hai

Talwar banay ga apna qalam
Na khouf koi na koi alam
Emaan ju hum-pay taari hai
LOU DEKHU DHARNA JARI HAI!

- Unknown

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First published in South Asia Global Affairs magazine

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The youth of Pakistan is a force full of vitality and enthusiasm. However, if consistently distanced and belittled, it could lose its energy and become a liability rather than an asset.

The ways of the world have changed;
The tune is new, instruments have changed;
Free your mind from mental slavery;
Make the young, masters of the old.
– Alama Iqbal

Today, every 40th person in this world is a Pakistani. Some 68% of the country’s population is below the age of 25, making youth an important factor in an increasingly fragile society. In fact, Pakistan’s youth alone could constitute the world’s 12th largest country. Such statistics signify the importance of young people in Pakistan; a valuable yet troublesome bulge that will indeed continue to be visible well into the mid 2020s.

The youth is often considered to be an optimistic constituent, with dreams and guided by fervor and hope. However, in Pakistan, while the numbers are high, negativity prevails. One need not go far as this trend has permeated local news channels, dominates newspaper headlines and features prominently in conversations at the mass level on any local, regional or national issue.

Education is hard to attain for most of them, health facilities are scarce and economic and social justice is simply not available for the majority. Inflation is slowly squeezing the lower and middle classes, electricity has become a luxury commodity, CNG and petrol pumps are often not operational and hunger and poverty cripple an already desperate and discontented society. In the midst of all of this, the ugly head of corruption rears itself.

Adding salt to the wound is the all-powerful threat of extremism, which is rapidly permeating an unstable economy and shaky society. Extremism is evident in recurring incidences of religious, ethnic and social intolerance. Terrorism has left more than 40,000 dead in the last decade and the Pakistani society still struggles to challenge the radical narrative, in word and spirit.

Despite the thousands of challenges Pakistan faces, this dominant section of the population, namely youth, can serve as a trump card for the future success of the country since more than 105 million people, nearly two-thirds of the entire population, comprises youth.

This section of society can become a game-changer for Pakistan and the entire region. However, if their voice is ignored and their issues not addressed, it will not be long before their despondency turns into sheer hopelessness and transforms into a mass revolt. While much hope can be placed in the youth of Pakistan, they are still nothing more than a wild card. Depending on the conditions, this huge cohort of young people can prove to be a challenge as well, either leading to conflict and violence or opening the window to new opportunities

It is critical to remember though, that the existing youth bulge grew up in troubling times and is living in even more testing circumstances. The elders of their society were not able to broaden their world-view, empower the young with the mental faculty to look for errors within and consequently be a part of the solution, rather than becoming a part of the problem.

Every mistake made was instantly blamed on a foreign conspiracy, cementing the ‘victim’ mentality. The consequent identity crisis was never subjected to an intellectual and vibrant discourse to pave the way for an ideological coherence. The youth is essentially a victim of societal trend that undermines young talent, ignores its voice in national discourse and fails to understand that in their individual and collective lives, they might not want the kind of future their elders may want them to have. Never being able to cultivate a role in their communities, the youth has never had the opportunity to hone its leadership potential and become the future stakeholders in Pakistan.

Battling this clash of generations, the youth of the country, equipped with technological advancements, is ready to break free and work towards a more prosperous and evolving society. Traveling across Pakistan and working for the Pakistan Youth Alliance has unveiled for this writer the struggle that Pakistani youth are (unknowingly) engaged in. This perhaps is the first step towards Pakistan’s empowered youth involved in the decision-making process of its communities, cities, provinces and, subsequently, the country.

In many ways, the youth of Pakistan is in a desperate search for ways to improve the lives of 190 million people and find common ground between different segments of Pakistani society. The youth today is more vocal, critical and aware of its circumstances such as debating false nationalism or questioning the role of intelligence agencies. The youth has risen as an important player in Pakistan and has played a pivotal role in the democratic history of Pakistan. Swarming on to streets the youth today debates rigid theological interpretations and politicization of religion, illustrating pluralistic tendencies in the masses.

Scores of youth-centric organizations have sprung up and most major political parties have vibrant youth wings that in 2010 and 2011, bravely battled adverse weather conditions to deliver relief to victims of floods.

The diversity that Pakistan boasts of from Karachi to Khyber, the resilience that the Pakistani nation illustrates and the untested sea of youth potential that Pakistan asserts, makes one a strong believer in a ‘better’ future of Pakistan.

But this cannot be done in isolation. The older generation needs to broaden opportunities for the young to develop the human capital through knowledge and advice. By giving the youth an active role in the collective lives of neighborhoods, communities and the society at large, all generations can work together towards a more prosperous Pakistan.

It is up to the current stakeholders of Pakistan and the Pakistani system whether it wants to engage with and consider this youth bulge a ‘gift’ or turn its back on an opportunity that may transform into a ‘curse’, ready to rear its ugly head sooner than later.

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi  is the founder of the Pakistan Youth Alliance, CEC at Khudi Pakistan and  community lead at Hosh Media.

Cross posting documentary made on me & PYA by Al-Jazeera English, highlighting some of the work we do.

 

First published Council on Foreign Relations website

The following was written by Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi, the founder of Pakistan Youth Alliance and a member of Khudi Pakistan. He tweets at @ali_abbas_zaidi.

It was November 1979. Anti-American outrage filled the streets of Pakistan. Several U.S. facilities were attacked across the country. A mob in Islamabad nearly burned the U.S. embassy to the ground. The chant “Kill the American infidels!” echoed in the air in response to the siege of Mecca’s grand mosque, Islam’s holiest site.

Pakistani crowds angered by the unprecedented events unfolding in Mecca concluded that such a plot could only be orchestrated by Americans. It turned out they were wrong. The homegrown radical group in Saudi Arabia that led the bloody siege had no link with the United States.

While the U.S.-Pakistani relationship has experienced many changes in the decades since, miscalculations of ground realities on both sides and anti-American sentiment have remained.

The majority of people in Pakistan admire the way Americans live—almost every Pakistani family has a member settled in the United States—but a glaring majority hates the impact of U.S. policies in Pakistan. The United States is considered by many to be the “great Satan.” Every U.S. political move in Pakistan is interpreted as an effort to destabilize Pakistan or to fight a war against Islam. Aggressive rhetoric on the Pakistani side—at times reflecting an unrealistic worldview and at times responding justifiably to belligerent U.S. action—molds mass perceptions.

A few months ago, I was in Kot Addu in the south of Pakistan’s Punjab province filming recent flood damage in the area with a British filmmaker named Oliver. He was confronted by a local who, after pushing Oliver, scanned the sky and shouted “drone, drone” as if Oliver’s tripod and camera were the equipment that maneuvers drones. Bear in mind that south Punjab has never had a drone attack and is very far from the area where drone attacks take place.

For me, this incident highlights an important fact for U.S.-Pakistani relations. The general public in Pakistan cannot be expected to understand the complicated nature of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. When something goes wrong in Pakistan, the public relies on their interpretation of the events at face value. In the case of drone attacks, for example, the United States must consider this effect and act more responsibly.

Many of my American friends ask the same question: “Why do they hate us?” By way of explanation, the discourse rampant in Pakistani streets is closest to what most Muslim-majority communities feel. The invasion of Iraq, decades-long support for oppressive governments, bias in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the killing of thousands of innocent Muslims, recurring stories of torture and abuse of prisoners—all have combined to generate suspicion of the United States within Pakistan. When Pakistanis find evidence that the United States applies its values of democracy and human rights selectively depending on its interests (the Raymond Davis episode and “collateral damage” from drone attacks being prime examples), for many, suspicion turns to hate.

Finally, solidifying this ill will is the lack of understanding between the two countries on a human level. People-to-people, civil society-based contact and interaction is scarce, and misconceptions are aided by a U.S. media that does not propagate alternative opinions from within U.S. society. The result is the image of the United States as a monolithic society.

Disagreement is a trait of democratic society and should be considered a strength rather than a weakness. If on-the-ground dissent in the United States can be understood in Pakistan, and communication between the United States and regions that “hate” the United States is given importance in the international media, the United States’ monolithic, negative image will become less rampant in Pakistan and other Muslim-majority communities. This will not only benefit the image of the United States worldwide, but will give “conspiracy theorists” reason to look within before pointing the finger at the United States.

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