According to media accounts, Pakistan would seem an unlikely place to catch your breath from incessant noise out of Washington, post-election recounts, dispiriting news from the southern border, escalating trade wars and the unimaginable devastation caused by California wildfires. I have spent the past several days here in Islamabad as keynote speaker for a fledgling Pakistani NGO, the Center for Social Education and Development (CSED), whose core objectives are social cohesion and social entrepreneurship. CSED seeks mutual respect and cooperation among all sectors of Pakistani society; their leadership became acquainted with me through my work over the past decade with the US-Pakistan Interreligious Consortium (UPIC) where we have applied similar goals to the relationship between our two countries.
Specifically, this conference brought together administrators, scholars and students from both the university and madrassa communities in Pakistan in an effort to forge common ground between two social sectors often at odds with one another. I was asked to offer a global perspective on the importance of building bridges across lines of difference, a core objective of the work I did with UPIC during my tenure as Founding Director of Intersections International.
But, being here in Pakistan, I was reminded again of elements in Pakistani society that tend to lie outside the lens of US media. The first thing to notice is the extraordinary sense of Pakistani hospitality, from the organizers of the conference to hotel personnel to passersby on the street as we walked along a rural road and were asked over and over again if we needed assistance, I was surrounded by generosity and a graciousness of spirit that stood in stark contrast to the ways Pakistan is portrayed in the American press.
The next thing you observe is the sheer vibrancy of the place. One morning, as I waited in the hotel lobby for my hosts, Ali Tariq and Mubashir Akram, I took time to reflect on the scene around me. Cellphones were everywhere. People were bustling about, obviously engaged in purposeful activity. Individuals in traditional Pakistani garb greeted colleagues in business suits. And I was strangely comforted to know and understand that this potpourri of activity thrives irrespective of the daily dramas that so preoccupy our American understanding of reality.
Another hopeful sign during my trip lay in the conversations I had with Megan Ellis, Director of the Community Engagement Office of the US Embassy, whose very presence at this conference indicated her support for civil society involvement in programs that enhance the quality of life for all Pakistanis. It is a great comfort to see how the perspectives of this career diplomat so closely matched the goals of colleagues in the US who work tirelessly for peace, justice and human dignity.
One of the issues addressed by CSED is “crosscurrents” which we in the United States know as “intersectionality,” an academic discipline that measures how various forms of social stratification, such as class, race, sexual orientation, age, religion, ability and gender do not exist separately from each other but are woven together, thereby increasing levels of marginalization. In Pakistan, this is clearly an issue in cohesion between the university community and the madrassa community. This conference brought together leaders from both of these sectors, structured settings for conversations among the participants and engaged in dialogue to break stereotypes and build sustainable bridges toward the future.
And, as has been my experience in previous visits to Pakistan, I was profoundly impressed with the women I met who are not at all like the timid and repressed population they are often portrayed to be in our Western media. While I was disappointed in the number of female presenters, a highlight was the presentation of UPIC’s own protegee—Sobia Khan—who spoke about her inspiring work with women in KPK (Pakistan’s northwest territories). I was deeply affected by the level of professionalism and warmth by the women on the CSED staff. Proud, articulate and thorough, these women, Itrat Asad and Sheher Bano, clearly were the fuel that made this conference run. They provided, through their example, a living testimony as to how women’s empowerment can be a potent force in the development of what people here refer to as “emerging Pakistan.”
I return to the US during Thanksgiving week, forever grateful for the place I call home, but inspired as well by the words of the hymn, This Is My Song, sung to the tune of Finlandia:
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean
And sunlight shines on clover leaf and pine
But other lands have sunlight too and clover
And skies are everywhere as clear and blue as mine
Oh hear my prayer, O God of all the nations
A song of peace for their lands and for mine.
Happy Thanksgiving, all.