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February 13, 2016

Reconciliation strategy


February 13, 2016

The rising smoke puffs in the middle of the historic metropolis of Aleppo and the death of this ancient city, brick by brick, show the anger on both sides of the sectarian divide.

Why has Syria reached this state within a span of four years? Syrian society was quite moderate – with inter-sect and even inter-faith marriages quite phenomenon. Gradually, the elitist Syrian class developed an abhorrence for the downtrodden. Apathy to loss of life and human misery became the order of the day; the class gap increased to a breaking point and the delicate balance of inter-sectarian harmony was torn apart by a tug of war between the power hungry clergy and an arrogant secularist rich elite.

While the Syrian civil war is stereotyped as a sectarian conflict, it had its moorings in the class gap between the rich and the poor. Outside interference by power-brokers in the region and disguised fifth columnists within acted like fuel on fire, today Syria has been pushed back into a historic oblivion with no light visible at the end of a very dark tunnel.

Can we learn from Syria? Is the gap between the Pakistani conservative and moderate class unbridgeable? In short, can we avoid a repeat of Syria and Iraq in Pakistan? The national debate on petty politics, which takes hundreds of TV hours of media houses and the Pakistani public every week, is becoming monotonous – nothing more than barbershop gossip.

Syria failed because its academia, intellectuals, clergy, media, political elite and masses remained busy in petty debates, dividing and atomising society into individual entities. Nationhood gradually gave way to sub-nationalism and tribal tendencies gnawing at the fabric of Syrian society. Animalistic instinct finally suffocated the small minority of humanity flag bearers and Syria has now become a cauldron of human tragedy, where graveyards are the new abodes of living humans, as nobody bombs graveyards.

The Pakistani polity is becoming increasingly divided, everyone cocooning themselves into their comfort groups with no effort to reach out to the other group or side. Even our social media displays this cocooning of groups. One interesting but unfortunate example is the standoff between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and how the Pakistani public has responded. Irrespective of whether you are an intellectual, a media person, a political leader or a common Pakistani, an alarming trend of supporting your own sect (with disregard to what is in Pakistan’s interest) has been seen in mainstream and social media when it comes to debate on the Iran-KSA contest.

The other major degenerating trend is the increasing gulf between the moderate (liberal) and conservative class, also represented by the rich and the poor class in the same order. The worst is the inability of these classes to talk to each other and develop some format of reconciliation. Reconciliation means a society’s ability to develop an ethos of healthy debate, developing mutual respect between belligerent groups through constructive dialogue and reaching out to each other with an objective of lasting peace and harmony.

Nelson Mandela’s famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission saved South Africa from sliding into civil war. If we look at South Africa on the eve of the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as its first black president in 1994 and compare it with today’s Pakistan, South Africa was worse-off and naturally poised for a blood bath between the dominant poor black majority and the arrogant rich white minority. What made the difference was Nelson Mandela, his statesmanship and his resolve to promulgate and implement the grand reconciliation process.

Some thoughts on a reconciliation strategy for Pakistan:

Let us see an elite university professor offer his services to become visiting faculty in a madressah and an ustad or qari from a madressah lecture at a posh university. It may sound absurd but it may lead to a serious debate on how to create an environment where this kind of exchange can take place.

Let a group of boys and girls from posh localities spend a weekend with slum dwellers. If they can manage it, it will make them more humble and humane.

The above two examples may look trivial but there is a need to initiate a serious national debate on bridging the class and sectarian gap with constructive dialogue and clearly defined objectives. Do we need to integrate the madressah into mainstream education through outreach programmes? Do we need to develop sect-free mosques where everyone is welcome to pray in tranquillity? Should the Quran be taught in local language followed by a more deliberate education in Arabic at the college and university levels? Do we need MPhil and PhD ulema who can guide us? Should tolerance be taught as a subject right from pre-school? Could social responsibility, volunteer work and philanthropy be part of school and university level education?

If Pakistan is to avoid a Syria- and Iraq-like situation, a reconciliation strategy is the need of the hour. Our society is gradually losing the national spirit and cocooning itself into an in-group mentality of sect, tribe, ethnicity, class, clan and provincialism. There is a need to check these unhealthy trends…let’s kick-start the debate.

The writer is a Lahore-based defenceanalyst.

Email: [email protected]

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