The moment I saw all the new faces in the hotel lobby in Islamabad, it immediately struck me. The differences were stark. From unique names, to diverse geographic and linguistic roots, to professional profiles – we had nothing in common. Yet, we were thrown together in this unusual program to travel halfway across the world to a land which our people are often quick to hate but eager to go to; the aim being to meet and learn from social entrepreneurs and philanthropic organizations, and interact with people of various religions and from places we knew little about. This was bound to be an experience of a lifetime.
Fast forward three weeks. As I sat next to former Secretary of State George Shultz in the fancy conference room of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, I watched him wipe a tear off the corner of his eye, slowly reaching out for his hearing aid and placing it on his left ear. In a frail voice, astoundingly indomitable for a 93-year-old, Secretary Shultz quoted Jefferson and said, “Divided we stand.”
I could feel his words resonate as the single most conspicuous and recurring theme that overlay the entire ELP program. By this time we had been to New York City, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Kansas City, and San Francisco. We had had quite an array of experiences and could safely say that every city had its own character, and every place and its inhabitants were unique. Wherever we went, the only thing in common was DIVERSITY.
It was true, and Secretary Shultz could not have been more succinct. In differences lies our real strength.
Here was a man who has lived through the ups and downs of the century, seen the wars of the world and has held four different cabinet posts in the United States government (one of only a handful of individuals to have accomplished this), yet as humbly as he possibly could, he spent an hour with us and shared stories and personal experiences, rich with wisdom yet simplistically told.
He talked about complicated and controversial matters like conflict resolution and international relations, with reference to Pakistan, India, Kashmir and the U.S., but the way he looked at everything was so…human. His words stuck with me, perhaps because I was writing down frantically as he spoke, and much of what follows is quoted from or inspired by his talk.
As humans, we run away from complications. When situations seem complex, we often focus on analyzing the problem so much that we forget that solutions are usually much simpler. We forget that “nations” are not some gigantic robots fighting for power. We, the people, are what make a nation. It is up to us how we choose to look at others, and often times, it is reciprocated in how others perceive us.
We need to loosen up a little. We need to be more open. We need to find the strength to tell others that we’re NOT going to be angry at you just because you’re different.
Pakistan does not lack the mind, knowledge, wisdom, or intellect. But somehow, all of that is suppressed, because over and over again, we fail to accept diversity in our governance and even in our personal matters.
We need to come together and build an environment that allows all sorts of people in. We might never agree to the decisions people make, but we must be willing to respect things that are of value to people we don’t necessarily agree with. We can’t paint everything with the same brush.
Before we generalize and oversimplify our perceptions about other people, we must try to get to know them. It’s easy to draw conclusions or make quick decisions based on what we think, but it is impossible to resolve conflicts unless you’re willing to see both sides. Whenever you are at odds with a group of people, think of what they are like as human beings.
When you build connections with people and link a face to the names and stats, your pain on hearing about their suffering is completely different. Secretary Shultz spoke of his housemaid who was from the Philippines, and said that it was because of her that Typhoon Haiyan meant a whole lot more to him.
When I hear of the Hazara community being targeted, I know my pain is different now than it used to be, because I think of my friends, Sadiqa Sultan and Roohullah Gulzari. Roohullah’s words ring in my mind, when he said, “Each of us is like a piece of colorful fabric, and when sown together we make a quilt. The more colors we have, the more beautiful the quilt will be.”
I think of Kamran Bhatti (a.k.a. Chris Kam), another ELP Fellow, who advocates for the rights of the Christian community and other minority groups in Pakistan, and I think of the book he showed me, titled “Taleem ya Nafrat ki Aabyari?” (“Education or Nurturing Hatred?”), which contains excerpts from the textbooks used by government and most private schools in Pakistan, with words that potentially instigate feelings of hatred in children.
Then I think of Asad Mustafa, from another minority group, fighting against injustice and intolerance with his words and I think to myself that the power of the odd has proven to be tremendous, time and time again. All these different people who were brought together for this program were odd in their own ways, and it gives me hope because that is a true sign of change. It is this people-to-people interaction from different backgrounds that will break the stereotypes and prejudices in our hearts, and push us towards tolerance and acceptance.
This is the change we need. And the world will pass us by if we don’t work towards it.