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Posts Tagged ‘activism’

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 

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First published: Ceasefire magazine UK

The past decade has seen millions marching against the Iraq invasion and other wars, millions more helping and being helped as natural and man-made disasters struck from Japan to America. Just in 2011 alone – much to the amazement of political and social scientists – we witnessed the street revolutions of the Arab Spring. A revolutionary wave of demonstrations not only toppled decades-old dictatorships but have prompted a healthy ‘culture of debate’, across the world.

These protests shared a number of common techniques of civil resistance, through sustained campaigns involving strikes, demonstrations, marches and rallies, as well as the use of social media to organise, communicate, and raise awareness in the face of state attempts at repression and media/internet censorship.

The Arab Spring confirmed the significance of the power a “common” man or woman can possess. Dictionaries and historical narratives have undermined the usage of the word ‘activism’. It is now usually understood to be intentional efforts to bring about social, political, economic, religious or environmental change. Activities that are usually understood to be ‘activist’ in nature include protests, walks and demonstrations. This is only partially correct.

Activism is not necessarily about ‘change’ for change’s sake, activism also exists to maintain and protect the valuable freedoms and rights secured through the sacrifices and resistance of those before us. Activism is not only rebellious protests challenging authority but a broad set of activities to meet clear ends and objectives, to instigate a debate in society, and therefore to continuously meet evolving circumstances.

As such, it might not necessarily involve any ‘protesting’ at all. Let us remember that not everything that calls itself “activist” is inherently positive in its nature. Many “activist” groups and organisations across the world work diligently towards outcomes that others would hardly describe as ‘positive’.

Possibly due to the confusion that surrounds the word, historians have not been able to produce a ‘history of activism’. And yet, shouldn’t we start seeing our own common history of mankind as precisely that? A ‘history of activism’? After all, human history and progress have been built, in one way or other, upon various types of “activism,” all the way back to when the first human being stepped on earth.

Every one of us is affected by the happenings around us. From bad drainage across the street to extremist organisations propagating intolerance. From domestic state policies that need to be opposed to Imperial oppression that should be resisted – everyone is affected. Some feel the need to ‘do something’ and try to challenge, inspire and lead whilst others, convinced that one voice, one action, or one person are helpless against the enormity of the task, resign themselves to do nothing instead. The former are called ‘activists’, the latter I call ‘slacktivists’.

With advances in telecommunications and internet technology, we are more exposed to information than ever before. With a sudden burst of social networking sites, we are more powerful than ever before. The ease with which digital activism can be the driving force behind tangible output is awe-inspiring. Blogging is already the new face of media: we all can be journalists and activists. The only ingredient that distinguishes an activist from a slacktivist is the will and the desire to do it.

Of course, it’s not all about marches and campaigns. Volunteer work for a social cause is an equally valid way to alleviate poverty, fight corruption or to ensure equal rights of education and health facilities to all.

Complaining about contemporary state of affairs is easy; trying to work towards how you envision your society, country or world ought to be is the real test. As we move further and faster towards a more globalised world, with technology that enables us to matter beyond our mere physical borders, we as global citizens need to realise that we matter. And activism, in whatever form, is the spark that leads to the streets, to the ‘change’ that we, the global masses, aspire towards.

Some believe an activist is born and cannot be ‘made’. I don’t: every man and woman is born an activist. Whether we admit it or not, it is carved in our common history and, whether we like or not, it will define the future of our humanity.

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi is featured in ‘Activate’ a new series on Al Jazeera English following activists

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First published: Al Jazeera English [for series of docu-films on youth activism in 08 countries, called ‘activate’. Ours airs on 25th oct, at 1030 GMT 

I grew up in a country enshrouded in uncertainty, being taught a distorted version of history as part of a school curriculum that incited religious hatred. It was a country that endorsed almost anything, social or political, in the name of religion; where state organs coloured geo-strategic shifts in ‘holy’ flavour; where the intelligentsia fathered militant organisations; where the right-leaning media propagated conspiracy theories; and where public sentiment sanctioned militancy by calling for intervention beyond borders.

How can I forget the banners hanging in the main marketplaces of Pakistan calling out for ‘Jihad’ against whomsoever they deemed an ‘infidel’? I grew up listening to the clerics for whom every other sect within Islam was heretical, to news of attacks on shrines, mosques and religious festivals, to dictators who extended their stay in office for personal gain – with corruption plaguing every walk of life, mob mentality justifying acts of violence and the judiciary serving selective justice.

I grew up in a country battling wars, natural disasters, corruption, religious and social intolerance, disease, poverty, illiteracy and ideological perplexity. But it was also a very resilient environment. I cannot name any other country that has faced such multi-faceted problems with such intensity. If we were not struggling to infest democratic norms and a culture of peace and mutual coexistence, we were battling the biggest humanitarian crisis in all of modern history.

But there would not be opportunity if it were not for crisis. The future is what we make of the present; and the past offers us an opportunity to learn from our errors. Realising the individual’s importance in the collective life of a neighbourhood, city, province, country and, consequently, as a global citizen is the defining moment that instigates ‘change’.

Change is within, however concealed by incompetence and naivety. Trying to ‘be the change’ turned me and some of my friends into activists who battled dictatorship and media blackouts, who stood up against extremism amid threats and insecurities, who were chased around and harassed by the very agencies that should have protected us, who rallied for peace when the masses were victims of war-mongering, who have reached out to more than 70,000 displaced families with material relief. Much of the time, these amazing youngsters have been pro-active rather than re-active in their activism.

Unprecedented acknowledgements by the United Nations, the government of Pakistan or by international media outlets are no milestones when compared to the fact that what started as a Facebook group in 2007 as the result of a few exuberant young minds now gives a voice to thousands.

More than 100 million aged under 24, a youth bulge unparalleled in the world, cannot be made a liability. This is the future of Pakistan and the future of a region in which one-fifth of humanity dwells. Turning crisis into opportunity will mean transforming 65 per cent of the population of Pakistan into pro-active citizens agreeing to disagree peacefully; making them realise their potential as individuals and then as a collective force to be reckoned with.

Some believe that Pakistan’s prospects have dimmed over the past few years and that there is no hope. But we believe that only stormy weather makes good sailors and only the most vigorous of rubs polishes the best of gems.

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi can be found on twitter and facebook and is the founder and chair of the Pakistan Youth Alliance.

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