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(First published on January 18, 2020)

When terrorists killed innocent children in 2014 it was as if a dam had broken — the dam of denial. When terrorists killed others I know for a fact that some played a pretend game — the silence of the lambs; that this was not happening, that this somehow made sense in the greater cosmic scheme of things. But then that tragedy woke many up. It became easier to refer to terrorists as terrorists and our martyrs as martyrs on television. There was a time that it was frowned upon. There is a personal story that I often share in private gatherings about the attempts to distract the conversation by shifting the attention to Charlie Hebdo from our own slain children. But I will keep it for another time. Suffice it to say that the narrative and the consensus against terrorism were saved from distortion because good people never gave up. Lucky, right?

If you want to know how lucky we are today, think of the day after, when many of us parents refused to send their children to schools. That day appears to me as the single biggest crack in our social contract. When your children are not safe in their schools, how on earth can you trust the entire society? But then the situation started getting better. Politicians stopped hedging and signed on a unanimous national action plan document. The fight against terrorism had finally found the political ownership and legitimacy it badly needed. With luck, a lot of perseverance, Zarb-e-Azb and Raddul-Fasad, the nation managed to degrade the threat of terrorism. It is still there. How could it not be? The theatre in Afghanistan is not closed yet. Iran threatens to become another flashpoint. And people from Ajit Doval, Benjamin Netanyahu to Steve Bannon still see a great opportunity in the revival of militancy among Muslims so that they can sell their own goods. But in Pakistan it is still degraded to an extent that it does not hamper the daily life.

And that is why this phase is so tricky. Exterminators did their job. But bugs can always come back. So what do you do? You remain vigilant of course. But you also make sure to plug all the holes in your building so that you can keep the pests away. But how do you do that? By taking a long, hard look at the state of affairs and figuring out what your vulnerabilities are.

For instance, the biggest challenge Pakistan faced in the past decade was of inner harmony. With too much happening, too many people viewed themselves as the victim. When you think you are surrounded by your enemies, you do not live in peace. Consequently, anger, distrust and paranoia give birth to aggressive dissent and narratives that contradict each other. The result is a highly-charged, post-truth society. Now the post-truth damage might still be limited in the West because they constantly strive to remain an open society. But in countries like Pakistan and India, in short the entire South Asia, where institutions were forced into existence and did not evolve over long periods of time, you have to make an extraordinary effort to survive it. And that is why mankind invented democracy. It has the capacity to harmonise a society if it is allowed to function without interruptions. In Pakistan this is the third mostly uninterrupted cycle of democracy. I say mostly uninterrupted because except for the two prime ministers that were sent home by the courts, the assemblies completed their term.

The first thing needed to harmonise the society is to engage with dissent. There is no gainsaying that the country faces propaganda of the enemy from abroad and it can find its way into our discourse because of the permeability allowed by the internet and social media. But here is the brilliant part; if the dissent is real you will find real people in the society. It may seem difficult to engage them at the start but you can always create a mechanism to engage dissent. Bring them face to face. Have a heart to heart. Discern what the genuine concerns are and where exaggeration starts. When a state tries to get rid of dissent through means other than dialogue and engagement, it ends up glamourising the cause of dissenters. Not a great strategy by any means.

There are many whose age-old privileges are gone. They use you and me to fight for their privileges while we remain where we are. So, the best way possible is to upgrade your processing power and patience and engage. A lot can be achieved by doing this.

The second problem Pakistan faces is the fixation with history. Since we have already established that we are a post-truth society, history only ends up dividing us. We all have our favourites in our history but recently an exercise of deifying the favourite and demonising the opponent has reached its summit. It is harmful to the society? Why? Because it is a lie. In truth if you take a dispassionate look at our history, except for our Founding Father, who died a year after the country’s birth, everyone else failed. Look around. Why do you think we are in the mess for the past two decades. When you think that you have to glorify a leader just because they delivered two or three per cent of what they were supposed to deliver, you display a characteristic ignorance of self-worth and self-esteem. So, show yourself some mercy and dwell less on the fictionalised versions of the past. A better pastime is to think of the future.

If you look at the stories of other nations, you will notice that none has a perfect past. What makes them a nation is not a misplaced faith in the past, or memories of deified leaders but a will to live together and forge ahead. As a nascent state it is not too late for Pakistan to define a Pakistani dream. An ideal worth striving for. A place where our children are not just safe but have the opportunity to actualise their true potential. Where we judge others less and celebrate them more. Where opportunities are willingly offered, not snatched. Where wisdom, intellect and knowledge are not frowned upon but are rewarded. Where diversity is cherished.

Any good leader can take these ideals, share them as coherently as possible with their followers and transform this motley crowd into one of the greatest nations in the world. Will you like to give it a shot?

Published in The Express Tribune, January 18th, 2020.

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