Scholars debate Pakistan at Oxford University
The News International
19 May 2014
OXFORD: Leading experts and scholars on Pakistan have said that political, social and economic transformation is underway in Pakistan which augurs well for its future.

Convened by Dr Ishtiaq Ahmad, Quaid-e-Azam Fellow, St Antony’s College, and hosted by the Asian Studies Centre, the conference titled ‘Pakistan: Opportunity in Crisis’ brought together 27 established as well as emerging academics and policy experts from Pakistan, UK and other countries, and around 150 delegates from across the UK.

Speakers on the occasion included Prof Ian Talbot, Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais, Prof Mohammad Waseem, Prof Saeed Shafqat, Imtiaz Gul, Prof Hassan Abbas, Dr Adeel Malik, former Nadra chairman Tariq Malik, Owen Bennett-Jones, Prof Maya Tudor, Toaha Qureshi, Prof Rashid Amjad, Mosharraf Zaidi, Hamayun Khan, Dr Tahir Wasti, Hannes Ebert, Dr Ayesha Siddiqa, Prof Yunas Samad, Dr Yaqub Bangash, Tayyab Safdar, Adnan Rafiq and columnist and researcher Huma Yusuf.

Stretched over two days, the conference debated Pakistan’s current state of politics, economy, foreign policy, media and education and what could be done to speed up Pakistan’s transformation.

“There is a different Pakistan beyond the narrative of bombs and beards. It’s the tale of society resilience enough to defy all doomsday predictions, of an economy that has the innate ability to absorb global financial crisis, and of a people with exceptional traits of hospitality,” said Imran Mirza, the Acting High Commissioner, in his opening address.

In his keynote address, Dr Faisal Devji, Director of Asian Studies Centre, said that Pakistan was founded with an eye into the future, just as the United States. This remarkable reality, in his view, was contrary to the role that factors such as soil, blood and history played in the founding of traditional European nation-states.

Dr Mukhtar Ahmed, the newly appointed chairman of Higher Education Commission, pointed out in his keynote address that, even amid apparent security quagmire, the higher education sector in the country had flourished unprecedentedly. “Expanding international collaborations with universities and academics in all disciples of humanities, social and natural sciences is our priority at HEC,” he said.

The first two panels debated democratic transition and prospects, with speakers offering a variety of contending perspectives. Dr Rais argued that the process of democratisation seemed irreversible in the wake of new social forces such as rapid urbanisation, middle class expansion, and proactive role of civil society.

Prof Talbot was of the view that “full democratic consolidation will be the work of several parliaments. It will also have to be accompanied by structural economic reforms, improvements in governance and a resulting reduction in social inequalities.” Bennett-Jones termed the “new normal” political dispensation “a significant positive development, which should result in the political system becoming more responsive to people’s needs.”

Imtiaz Gull stated that the judicial activism had helped shift the balance of power in support of the rule of law.

Although Pakistan is yet to go a long way in establishing a people-focused political dispensation, he argued, the judicial intervention was putting new checks on the traditional power structures and creating greater resonance for the rule of law in the country.

Prof Amjad argued that given the groundswell of support the present government had garnered amongst private and foreign investors and the inherent dynamism of the economy, Pakistan could break out of its current economic downturn and move to a higher and inclusive growth path. “It has done so earlier and there is no reason why it cannot do so again.”

Prof Abbas, while talking about the future of Taliban in Afghanistan, foresaw greater tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan amid the exit of Nato forces from the war-torn nation, and possibly greater nexus between Afghan Taliban and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its sectarian allies.

Hamayun Khan’s presentation covered the rapidly expanding strategic partnership between China and Pakistan.

In the last session on the role of education and media, Mosharraf Zaidi, Huma Yusuf and other speakers underlined the crucial role of these two factors in sustaining the process of democratisation.

Mosharraf Zaidi also talked about the blame culture in Pakistan and how conspiracy theories are woven to discredit NGOs and individuals. He was of the view that such conference were of huge importance as they encouraged critical debate on Pakistan.

Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed said that “this largest-ever scholarly gathering” at Oxford was intended to develop a mature understanding of Pakistan’s intricate ground realities.

He added: “In the critical debates that took place on the occasion, both the scholars and delegates seem to recognise the gravity of our multiple crises, but simultaneously are not ready to overlook the enormity of opportunity they entail. For the greater the crisis is, the bigger the opportunity.”

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