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Looking for heroes

December 01, 2018


WHERE have all the heroes gone? Who are the role models young people should emulate?

This subject came up for discussion over the dinner table the other evening, and we all struggled to find a name. Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar no longer qualifies after her callous disregard for the Rohingya ethnic cleansing. After her fall from grace, she is virtually a pariah among the very circles who once elevated her as a symbol of democracy and resistance to dictatorship. Seldom has an icon burned and crashed so quickly.

Who else? As I look around the world, I see the rise of populist leaders with pronounced autocratic inclinations. While Donald Trump leads the pack, many others are in close competition. There was a time when Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed to have pushed the country’s interfering army into the barracks, and had transformed the Turkish economy. But his increasing taste for authoritarian rule, especially after the failed coup against his government in 2016, has exposed him as a latter-day sultan indifferent to democratic norms.

Benazir Bhutto, for all her flaws, was a genuine Pakistani heroine.

I know I’ll get a lot of flak for this, but Benazir Bhutto, for all her flaws, was a genuine Pakistani heroine. While much of her two short stints in power were tarnished by charges of corruption, her commitment to democracy was unflinching and inspiring. For me, her assassination, and the courageous way she faced her enemies, was the ultimate redemption.

Imran Khan, for all his charisma and populist rhetoric, has made so many tawdry compromises in his relentless quest for power that it is hard to see him in a heroic light. His alleged backroom deals with the country’s power brokers have taken the sheen off his election victory, and made even some of his supporters question his self-proclaimed idealism.

Pakistan clearly needs heroes: the central area in its capital is tellingly called Zero Point. Almost without exception, each leader is demonised and demolished after he or she is no longer in power. So Islamabad’s streets and sectors are seldom named after those who once wielded power, or contributed in different ways to our history and culture. Instead, they are given numbers and letters like E7, G2 and so on.

Nevertheless, we are lucky to have people like Dr Adeeb Rizvi and Jibran Nasir, the human rights activist. Abdul Sattar Edhi and Asma Jahangir are, alas, no longer with us.

Adversity and oppression often produce larger-than-life figures who lead the resistance. In America, men like Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X were both assassinated when they challenged the country’s white supremacy. Clearly, shadowy operatives who opposed the concept of racial equality were not prepared to allow such charismatic black leaders to live.

A decade ago, Barack Obama appeared on the American political horizon like a meteor, and seemed to have cut across America’s racial divide. But our optimism was misplaced. As we can see, Trump’s victory in the 2016 election showed that little had changed, and the president’s overt racism is as much a sign of America’s divisions as it is of Obama’s failure to change attitudes. Like a meteor, he flared and fell to earth.

Europe, with its broad consensus on tolerance, democracy and social welfare, has a political system that, until recently, imposed a bland conformity. This uniformity made heroes redundant, and few giants have emer­ged. Now this consensus has been cracked by the immigrant crisis that has opened wide fissures in the political system. Only Germany’s Angela Merkel had the courage to put her political future on the line when she welcomed close to a million refugees. For me, this act of political bravery makes her a heroine.

Imran Khan initially offered citizenship to Afghan refugees and migrants from Bangladesh. But it only took a few angry growls from nationalists for him to retreat. Sadly, while our prime minister can talk the talk, it doesn’t take much for him to execute a U-turn.

In Africa, Nelson Mandela was a towering figure who devoted his life to fighting apartheid, and paid for his resistance with decades in jail. In a sense, his struggle went far beyond the boundaries of his country and his continent, and inspired people around the world. More than his commitment to racial equality, his refusal to seek vengeance against South Africa’s white ruling class has done much to defuse tensions.

Mandela taught us to forego revenge, and opt for a peaceful, democratic path instead. In today’s divided world, this is a lesson all politicians need to take to heart. Unfor­tunately, despite the example set by the great South African leader, lesser men and women at the helm of affairs choose to be guided by anger, bitterness and short-term gains.

And this is why we need heroes. Young people today have few role models to follow, and are often confused by the loud, mindless shouting matches that pass for informed debate on TV. Surely they deserve better.

Published in Dawn, December 1st, 2018