COMMENTARY
 
Pakistan beyond bombs and beards
The Asians
14 May 2014
Beyond bombs and beard, Pakistan is a land of opportunity which like USA was built by keeping an eye on future. These views were expressed by scholars debating Pakistan’s current state of politics, economy, foreign policy, media and education at a conference in Oxford University on May 10-11.

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 Britain. It was convened by Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmad, the Quaid-i-Azam Fellow at Oxford University, and was hosted by Asian Studies Centre at St Antony’s College.

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

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.”

Speakers on the occasion, among others, included Prof Ian Talbot, Dr. Rasul Bakhsh Rais, Prof Mohammad Waseem, Prof Saeed Shafqat, Imtiaz Gul, Prof Hassan Abbas, Dr. Adeel Malik, Tariq Malik, Owen Bennett-Jones, Prof Maya Tudor, Taoha Qureshi, Prof Rashid Amjad, Mosharraf Zaidi, Hamayoun Khan, Dr. Tahir Wasti, Hannes Ebert, Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa, Prof Yunas Samad, Dr. Tahir Kamran, Dr. Yaqub Bangash, Tayyab Safdar, Mr Adnan Rafiq, and Huma Yusuf. 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 vibrant civil society and media.

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.”

Mr Bennett-Jones termed the ‘new normal’ political dispensation as “a significant positive development, which should result in the political system becoming more responsive to people’s needs.”

According to Prof Waseem, the on-going legal, institutional, formal and deliberative forms of public life in the country belied the doomsday scenario of a failing state.

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

Prof Tudor pinpointed a host of encouraging signs in the country in recent years, including the generally fair elections of 2008 and 2013, the growth of the new, grass-roots-based PTI, the orderly handover by one civilian government to another after the completion of a full term, an increasingly active judicial branch, and proliferating media scrutiny of politics.

Dr Tahir Wasti stressed the need for de-Islamizing Pakistan, which, in his view, would ensure the freedom to profess religion and help end “the decimation of minorities on the basis of religious differences.”

In his paper titled ‘Pakistan’s Best Kept Secret: A Resilient Economy,’ presented in the third panel on political economy, Prof Amjad optimistically argued that, “given the groundswell of support the present government has garnered amongst private and foreign investors and the inherent dynamism of the economy, Pakistan can break out of its current economic downturn and move to a higher and inclusive growth path.”

The talk by Tariq Malik, the former chairman of NADRA, focused on how using a mix of information and biometric technology impacted on electoral transparency, creating social safety nets and effectively managing disasters.

In the fourth panel on foreign policy, 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 TTP beyond the drawdown deadline later this year.

Hamayoun Khan’s presentation covered the rapidly expanding strategic partnership between China and Pakistan, especially with respect to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

In the last session, speakers underlined the crucial role of education and media in consolidating democracy.

Toaha Qureshi shared with the audience his institutional experience in de-radicalising the youth in UK, which, in his opinion, was crucial for Pakistan to emulate in its own counter-extremism approaches.

According to Huma Yusuf, the proliferation of independent, privately owned broadcast media outlets has been a crucial part of Pakistan’s democratic transition.

This was the largest-ever scholarly gathering at Oxford in years, and a major success in terms of developing a mature understanding of Pakistan’s intricate ground realities. The critical debates that took place on the occasion did underline the gravity of multiple crises facing Pakistan but without overlooking the enormity of opportunity they entailed.

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