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- Sunday, September 23, 2012 - From Print Edition

What does it mean to be young in Pakistan at this time?

This was the question I posed to a group of about 70 young boys and girls representing all parts of the country, including AJK, Gilgit-Baltistan and Fata on Wednesday – two days before Friday’s national holiday. We were at a conference in Nathiagali, some distance away from the raw winds that blow across the country.

The idea was not to explore different interpretations that the participants would offer. I just wanted them to take this question home and reflect on the issues that would flow from this question. I then embarked on my presentation on democracy: ‘What, Why and How’.

This was just one brief session in an extensive agenda of the three-day youth conference on “Dialogue and Inclusiveness – Central to Democracy”, sponsored by Strengthening Democracy through Parliamentary Development (SDPD), a project of the UNDP.

However, I did explain that the young have to be particularly mindful of the present state of affairs in the country. After all, being young is a rite of passage in a universal context, attended by its own pain and ecstasies. But being young in Pakistan at this time is an experience that has some unique and specific features.

Anyway, I left Nathiagali early in the afternoon of Thursday, in the same car with TV anchor Asma Shirazi, her husband Mudassar and their little son Abbas. Our descent into reality was gradual, as Asma and Mudassar got in touch with their respective channels. Our apprehensions were confirmed when we reached Islamabad and found that our entry into the city was blocked.

Thursday in Islamabad was almost a preview of the countrywide demonstrations on the next day. For about two hours, we made unsuccessful attempts to reach our destinations. I had a chance to pass by the homes of some leading politicians in Bani Gala. I will not recount the story of how we finally broke through the barriers. But this dramatic encounter set the stage for the emotions and thoughts that I had to struggle with all day on Friday.

It so happens that an unusual family get-together had been arranged in Islamabad on Friday. My wife Sadiqa had arrived from Karachi on her own assignment early on Thursday. Younger daughter Aliya and her husband Nico joined us late on Thursday. We had set a hectic schedule for ourselves.

Be that as it may, one important aspect of collective disorders is how they interfere with individual lives. For that matter, Friday’s events caused massive disruptions in the lives of entire communities and have left a trail of distress. Would you call it a tsunami? We, to be honest, were only mildly affected. Confined in a guest house in F-7/1, we watched the proceedings from a safe distance and all we had to endure was a sense of misery and pain about the state of the nation.

I also found some comfort in sharing quips and comments that my daughter kept gathering from her excursions into social media. Personally, I am not into Facebook or Twitter. On Friday, my daughter’s iPad allowed me a glimpse into this virtual world. While news channels covered the grisly events in their frenzied style, I picked up some fragments from the stream of jingles, though admittedly of a partisan nature. It was a revelation for me that Twitter was a quicker and generally a more accurate source of news than the traditional television news channels.

In Nathiagali, I had an opportunity to interact with a slice of middle-class, educated youth. Ideally, they would be more aware of the problems and challenges this country confronts. It was disconcerting to find them confused and in some ways superficial in their understanding of the facts of history and current affairs.

These young people constituted just a fraction of youth in their age bracket. We were introduced to another sampling of our youth, a much larger segment, on Friday. These boys who were part of the mobs on the streets constitute the face of today’s Pakistan.

Who are they and where have they come from? Who is shaping their minds and guiding their actions? What role have the political parties, the media – particularly the media – and educational institutions played in promoting the dark passions that they invest in their public behaviour? Frankly, I find myself an alien in their midst. Still, this is my country and I aspire to live in this society.

What happened on Friday did not come from nowhere. We had seen it coming. All political parties have religiously played the religion card. They have not had the courage or the inclination to take on the fanatics. In the first place, these passions were inspired by some of our national security policies. At this time, a change of course, though inevitable, seems beyond the capacity of our present rulers.

What is the message that Pakistan transmitted to the world on Friday – the day that was declared a national holiday to observe “Youm-e-Ishq-e-Rasool”? Yes, to some extent, it was more of the same. Our image as a society is more often defined by marauding mobs. On Friday, the scale was extensive and it is intriguing that the higher authorities preferred to adopt a policy of not confronting the protesters by force.

Now that the hangover of Friday has set in, we have time to think. This deliberation, we know, is not possible in our talk shows or public speeches or, in a true sense, on our campuses. An environment has been created in which a rational, patient and sincere debate that incorporates facts and realities is just not feasible.

Meanwhile, we can find some solace in our secluded hideouts and ‘pine for what is not’. There is, for many, the ‘strategic depth’ of the social media, though the mobs can also intervene in this magical domain. On Friday, I was watching over my daughter’s shoulders to look at a corner of a global conversation – on Twitter.

For instance @kaalakawaa tweeted: “A moment of silence for Pakistan’s ‘soft image.’” @Khalid_Munir said: “Liberals: if u r thinking of a change in Pakistan, watch tv. Look at what u will face on roads. Better off on Twitter. Safe.” @samishah, in his usual style, tweeted out: “This is how the world ends. Not with a bang but a youtube video.” @alisalmanalvi said: “mulk jalao ...blasphemy mitao.”

And there were many candid and not so amusing comments on how an embattled government was playing its religious card and on how the electronic media was inciting violence. @nahaltoosi summed it up: “Just a quick question: Who’s in charge in #Pakistan?”

The writer is a staff member. Email: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail. com