LAHORE: The Punjab society, once an epitome of co-existence, can regain its lost element through promoting equality and cultural and religious tolerance.

Analyst Dr Syed Hasan Askari Rizvi said this on Wednesday at a conference on ‘Counter Narrative to Violent Extremism in Punjab’ at a local hotel.

Dr Rizvi said Zia’s era in the 80s had left a telling impact on Punjab.

Dr Shehzad Saleem, a researcher on the Holy Quran, reiterated the need to change the militarisation of religion, adding that even radical extremist elements quoted religious dictates to support their violence. He said dialogue must be promoted to discuss religion.

Bahauddin Zakariya University Vice-Chancellor Prof Dr Tahir Amin put up four recommendations to tackle the violent narrative: implement rule of law in institutions; ensure the continuity of democracy; promote a moderate religious narrative; and provide social justice as well as a paradigm shift in foreign policy.

“Besides Zarb-i-Azb, we need to think of a long term strategy. We may have some ray of hope because despite being badly fractured we are still surviving unlike many other countries, including Syria,” he said.

Punjab Higher Education Commission Prof Dr Nizamuddin said a committee consisting of vice chancellors of Punjab had sent its recommendations to the government on militancy but no action was taken.

Dr Nizam’s basic premise was that debate should be encouraged in educational institutions among the youth. “But what is the basis of our narrative? Is it our constitution, or Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s August 11th speech, or is it the last sermon by the Holy Prophet because as these could very well be the guiding principles of Pakistani society?” he said.

He said that no counter terrorism narrative could ever be brought about by force of law. “You cannot implement a policy in a university and expect a change of mindset among students.”

Deputy Director of South Asia Partnership’s Irfan Mufti said we had propagated an ideology of political Islam blocking other narratives. He also spoke about how militancy targeted poorer people for they had been neglected by the state and society.

Social scientist and academic Dr Saeed Shafqat said debate and critical thinking should be encouraged. “Narratives evolve, but in Pakistan we do not agree on basic things.” He despaired at the “non serious attitude by the education ministry and the home department”.

“You speak of bringing counter narrative in Punjab, and I say that Punjab itself is the hub of extremists. Punjab itself is also the biggest resistor to the 18th Amendment.”

Amir Rana from the Pak Institute of Peace Studies said, “Our national narrative is Punjab’s narrative.”

“Lahore is the capital of religious headquarters which includes moderate and sufi but it also includes militant and political. These elements have changed the mindset of the society here,” he said.

“Punjab’s dominant narrative is sectarian. Our national and state driven narratives have always been forced upon us, usually using religious elements as enforcers.”

Journalist Subookh Syed said the media was confused and the confusion was being established more and more each day.

“We as media are propagating narrow mindedness,” he said. “These discussions sound right within a certain room, but they certainly don’t apply when on the streets. People on the streets have already made their opinions. Certain religious groups are not allowed inside some districts, but they are openly talking on national TV.”

He said social media provided an unchallenged platform to hardliners.

Published in Dawn October 20th, 2016

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