A culture of dialogue

BY M U H A M M A D A M I R R A N A | 5/3/2015

A SENSE of optimism has been prevailing in the country over the past few weeks. An improved security situation in terms of a reduction in the number of terrorist attacks, the incoming $46 billion worth of Chinese investment in energy and infrastructure projects, and Pakistan`s decision to stay away from the Yemen conflict are some major factors behind this.

At the same time, there is an element of growing fear that makes this optimism somewhat shaky. The tragic killings of human rights activist Sabeen Mahmud and Karachi University teacher Dr Syed Wahidur Rahman have scared many amongst Pakistan`s intelligentsia and civil society. These incidents also hint at the shrinking space for freedom of expression in the country.

This fear also indicates some persisting structural and behavioural problems in Pakistan. It keeps growing largely because of a lack of trust between Pakistan`s intelligentsia and the state, whose interaction and mutual perceptions are not based on rational discourse. Apart from the establishment`s penchant for censorship, the fear factor also nurtures self-censorship in this country.

Establishments always perceive dissident voices as adversaries but respond differently depending on how situations vary. During political transitions or crises, they may tolerate such voices but they find it hard to do so during times of economic and strategic reframing. Most social scientists consider this attitude unhealthy, and say it could prove counterproductive.

A narrow focus on objectives is a common practice among power elites, which may seem necessary in order to achieve certain targets. But when they become inflexible in their interpretation, it creates further divides in society. It triggers a multifold process of exclusion in political, social and religious terms. It gives birth to exclusive clubs of political, ethnic, social, religious and sectarian classes, which try to align their interests within the narrow interpretations given by the establishment.

Narrow interpretations of religion and nationalism also increase ideological and political confusion, which ultimately cannot help but affect the strategic and development objectives of the state. The situation becomes more complicated when the establishments` dependence on the fear factor increases. They think only a fearful, or what they may call a controlled environment, would be conducive to achieving the objectives of the state. But the fear factor not only divides society, in addition it creates space for non-state actors, extremists and external interventionists to exploit.

It may be interesting that in most cases the divergent voices are not against the political, developmental and strategic goals of the state, as set by the establishment. What the former might want is transparency, and the assurance that all segments of society will be the beneficiary of a state initiative.

A constant dialogue helps in overcoming the communication gaps and confusion. It also helps in grooming society and generates the energy of tolerance, which is essential for a healthy and strong nation. Pakistan desperately needs to promote a culture of dialogue, which is essential for inclusive state-building as well as peace-building. The growing ideological polarisation and perceptual differences in the socio-cultural domain negatively impact the processes of social change in the country.

The existence of problematic group histories across sectarian, ethno-linguistic, and political divides further undermines prospects for peace and peaceful coexistence at various tiers of society.

Apart from the confusion that persists in public and policy discourses, at the societal level, one finds multiple and often contradictory interpretations of the threats and challenges that the country faces.

For instance, public opinion is still divided and confused on ideological and identity issues, a situation that eventually makes the radicals strong.

Social scientists and political analysts believe these issues are a political phenomenon. Clerics and religious scholars look at them in the socio-cultural and regional/international political perspective, but also through religious shades. Littérateurs regard them as a product of imbalanced ideological attitudes, the misinterpretation of religion and irrational behaviour.

In this perspective, the challenge has two aspects to it: social discord, and mistrust between the state and society. Both require a multi-fold dialogue.

Though the major responsibility of achieving peace, harmony and coexistence in society lies with the state, mainly through evolving and validating an undisputed social contract and effectively asserting its writ, efforts at the level of society itself are also imperative, particularly those related to imparting education and awareness to the people and bringing different segments of society closer through dialogue and frequent interaction.

The intelligentsia has a significant responsibility to develop and strengthen an academic discourse to understand the various issues. This is important for widening the spaces of dialogue and suggesting multiple policy options and solutions. For this, the intelligentsia needs to be creative and free from rhetoric.

Parliament has to play a leading role in initiating the debate on a diverse range of issues. A passive parliament can contribute to the shrinking of space for dialogue, and people will lose their confidence in the country`s supreme institution. A parliamentary and civil society dialogue can break the taboos of silence. Obviously, their discourse will generate informed opinion and the media would help to expand the outreach of rational interaction and promote a culture of dialogue.

A continuous and concerted exercise of dialogue between diverse segments can significantly contribute towards de-escalating the confusions and conflicts that have Pakistani society in their grip, particularly those existing at the socio-cultural, ideological, religious, sectarian, communal and ethnic political levels.

Dialogue should also be made a constant practice in Pakistani society to invite elements that have extremist tendencies with a view to engaging them in discussions of vital significance instead of just ignoring them. Such efforts are expected to promote a trend where efforts could be made to settle controversies among people and bridge the gap between them instead of leaving divisions to be settled in an undesirable way.
The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn