By Zainab Mubashir
Today, Pakistan finds itself in a precarious position of social and political unrest, with violence and terror dominating the lives of its citizens to the point of inducing apathy. With this context in mind, Hum Aahang – a student-led initiative focused on tackling intolerance, extremism and terrorism – hosted a session this week in collaboration with esteemed personalities on the issue of empathy and future of activism in Pakistan. The guest panel consisted of Roohullah Gulzari (minority rights activist), Muhammad Jibran Nasir (lawyer/activist/politician) and Nadia Jamil (entertainer/activist).
Roohullah Gulzari started the discussion with considerable emphasis on reflection as a basis for empathy. Being a member and representative of the Hazara community in Pakistan, Gulzari presented a viewpoint that concentrated on the importance of acknowledging the very existence of sectarian violence in Pakistan. He emphasized the value of interaction and relationships among members of different parts of society, in order to recognize victims of violence as individuals rather than being looked at as mere numbers, and pointed out the disparity between the treatment of acts of terror in the media and the general public based on a “hierarchy of death”.
“It is only the oppressed who can tell you what oppression is” he stated with regard to the general desensitization towards violence against minorities, and elaborated further on the monopolization of public space by a certain quarter of the society. Gulzari related the reclamation of public space with the need for plurality and the presence of multiple narratives, and also shed light on the need for indigenous symbols to create interfaith harmony, and an environment that welcomes interaction and in turn, empathy.
Jibran Nasir, known for his prominent role in social and political activism as part of Pakistan’s civil society, then took the stage to further elaborate on the roots of the apathy internalized by the citizens of the country. He delved into the origins of this desensitization by relating it to the political turmoil Pakistan has historically lived through, and elaborated on how Pakistan as a nation is not inherently devoid of the ability to be tolerant and peace-loving. He argued that in a country that is home to nearly 15 different religions and 20 different ethnicities, waves of radicalization are not innate but are in fact imposed through different channels. He further elaborated on the prevailing ignorance when it comes to general issues by linking it to the priorities of a common citizen, and the lack of social integration. Nasir concentrated on the role of ingrained prejudices and unconscious bigotry in shaping sociopolitical narratives, and recounted personal experiences to elaborate on the need for humanizing the victims of oppression and sectarian violence in Pakistan. With regards to the future of activism in Pakistan, he highlighted its various aspects and discussed the roles of education, awareness and communication in arming the youth with the ability to bring about change of significance.
Nadia Jamil, an acclaimed television artist and a passionate activist, took the discussion forward by elaborating on the definition of empathy. She differentiated it from sympathy by equating it to the basic ability to feel, stating, “The loss of empathy is the loss of the capacity to feel.” Her take on empathy focused greatly on what it is to be alive and what constitutes as the core of human existence, and she identified the desire for power and material gains as antithetic to human empathy. In doing so, she drew examples from her personal and professional life to build a connection between violence and the ability to feel. “The experience of violence”, she stated, “is an integral part of life. Don’t be scared of violence; don’t reject violence. The internal struggle that lets you make the journey from violence to peace is what makes you empathetic.” She further stressed upon recognizing the value of freedom by using historical context, and let her hopes be known about a prosperous future for the youth of Pakistan. In terms of activism, Nadia Jamil emphasized on action as a force of progress, asserting that, “Empathy is when you care, and then do something about that caring. It’s when you put yourself in an uncomfortable position and push your limits.”
The orientation and panel discussion thereby ended on a note of positivity, with the air heavy with emotions, and most members of the audience left instilled with a sense of responsibility and a willingness to strive for a better future for Pakistan in its entirety.