Lessons from the ELP Fellowship

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Emerging Leaders of Pakistan (ELP) is a great forum for the future leaders of Pakistan to learn from the experiences of US counterparts, policy makers, civil society, right activists and media, and apply it in their respective fields for the advantage of their country.

Moreover, the forum enables Pakistani youth to apprise to these individuals about their outstanding work back home, and garner support for fulfilling their plans. It also provides an opportunity to develop a network and linkages among young leaders from Pakistan and the US to work together, as well as towards global peace and security. The ELP fellowship helps remove misconceptions between the two and paves way for fostering cordial relations. Receiving honor and appreciation from the outside world for their work and achievements boosts the confidence level of young Pakistani leaders. It encourages these leaders, who otherwise face limited opportunities to get exposure even at the national stage, to play their role with more passion and dedication.

Hailing from Pakistan, which is often known for acts of terrorism and extremism throughout the world, I thought we would be treated with disrespect and face discrimination in the US. But I was astonished that we were well received and welcomed by US immigration staff, government officials, police, and even the general public. I found them to be caring, loving and supportive. The ethnic diversity in the US shows that the country is welcoming to people of other nationalities and ethnicities and easily absorbs them in its society. It shows the people of the US and its government are tolerant and believe in co-existence and mutual respect.

2012 ELP Fellows with Sec. Chuck Hagel

2012 ELP Fellows with Sec. Chuck Hagel

As a resident of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), I was of the opinion that the US was the enemy of Islam and Pakistan, keeping in view its concerns relating to Pakistan’s nuclear program and drone attacks in tribal areas. But when we discussed the two issues at length with US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (who is also the former Chairman of the Atlantic Council), Lieutenant General Douglas Lute (former special assistant to the President and deputy national security advisor for Afghanistan and Pakistan), and other officials at the Pentagon, I came to the conclusion that from the perspective of a global player like the US, concerns regarding an unstable nuclear Pakistan were genuine and need to be addressed.  I partially agreed with drone operations in Pakistan on the account that it was causing minimal civilian casualties and achieving its targets, but opposed it on the grounds that it violated Pakistan’s sovereignty.

2012 ELP Fellows with Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute

2012 ELP Fellows with Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute

Religious freedom for minorities in Pakistan is diminishing day by day, but it is exemplary in the US where Muslim and other religious minorities freely exercise their religious obligations. Visiting the Islamic Galleries in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City where Islamic history relics were preserved, I realized that the US was not the enemy of Islam but its protector. Unlike her perception in Pakistan as a custodian of Christianity, I understood that the US was not a country of a single religion rather it was a state of all religions and cultures.

Islamic Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Islamic Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I experienced the horrible Hurricane Sandy in New York City and closely observed natural disaster management measures taken by the district and federal government to protect its citizens. I remember when President Obama suspended his election campaign and arrived in New York City to extend his support to the Republican mayor. The two leaders put aside political differences and focused on crisis management to save as many people as they could. In a country like Pakistan, politicians often exploit disaster situations for their advantage and criticize each other to get political scoring. I liked the early warning system in the US, which is non-existent in Pakistan, fast mobilization of government machinery, and coordination between the various government departments to mitigate the bad effects of Hurricane Sandy. The role of US media was brilliant in dealing with the disastrous situation and persuading people to take timely safety measures. The work of reporters and journalists who reached the worst affected areas and reported from there to give the exact picture of disaster to the world was unmatched.

I liked observing the presidential election and people participating in the polling. I expected that, while campaigning, political leaders would use abusive words to attack their rivals as we experience in Pakistan, but to my surprise I did not hear or see it anywhere. I found that the US has real democracy, and I did not see any violence related to the election. On the day of the election, I visited a polling station near Washington DC where I saw voters of different ages, ethnicities, and even some with disabilities arriving in their own vehicles to cast their votes. It meant that voters were well aware of the importance of their vote. The election process was so smooth and well managed that I did not observe complaints from voters. In the evening we were invited to Meridian International Center to attend an election party. There were three big halls full of people, mostly belonging to the Democratic Party, watching big screen televisions to see the incoming results. With any result coming in favor of Democrats, the young supporters would applaud and jump up from their seats to mark the lead of the party. I thought for a while that democracy in the US was the name of fun, love, peace, tolerance, real representation and empowerment of the public. Unfortunately in our country, it is the name of loot, plunder, corruption, hate and violence.

As a station manager at a local radio in Khyber Agency, I was interested to see how the US media covered the election. I visited NPR and saw how it focused and interviewed election candidates in the studio. After returning to Pakistan, I started a daily hour long show at my station to interview candidates and make reports on issues related to the election in FATA, where for the first time political parties were allowed to participate in the election.

The important thing I learned about NPR was that it produces and distributes news and information to 975 independent stations. It gave me an idea of how to produce and distribute news bulletins to various radio stations in KP and FATA. I have also established a radio news agency in North West Pakistan which will start its service in August.

I enjoyed the Sunday brunch in Washington hosted by an interfaith organization, formed by Jews and Muslims, to which Christians and Hindus were also invited. It was unbelievable for me as I have never seen the three religious groups working together for interfaith harmony in Pakistan and elsewhere. The Muslims and Christians have no problem working together in Pakistan, as there are many Christians working in militancy hit tribal areas. But Muslims, especially Pakistanis and Pakhtoons, are very hostile towards Jews. Seeing the group working with Muslims and Christians was a new experience for me. I think we can live in peace with Jews if we listen to each other and find common ground between us. I came to the conclusion that among Pakistanis and other Muslims, hostility against Jews is not on the basis of belief, but rather it stems from the occupation of Palestinian land by the Jews. To bring harmony and peace at the global level, the US and other world powers should play their role for the resolutions of ongoing disputes, like Palestine and Kashmir.

I was very much inspired by the non-violent struggle of Martin Luther King Jr. and his leadership. I did not know him until I visited the MLK historical site in Atlanta as an ELP fellow. He was a true leader. He was imprisoned, his house was bombed, his supporters and friends were killed but he neither retaliated nor gave up his mission.  He awakened 20 million African Americans, mobilized them to end racial discrimination, and integrated them into US society. He was a pastor and clergyman but unlike religious leaders in our part of the world, he was never violent in his actions but he was emotional in his words to achieve his objectives. More interestingly, he borrowed the idea of the nonviolent movement from our sub-continent and successfully applied it in the US. The philosophy of no revenge and nonviolence is also advocated by our great religion, Islam. But I am sorry to say that Muslims and people of the subcontinent have become more extremists and abandoned the philosophy of nonviolent action. The life and personality of MLK offers many lessons to young leaders. They should not be afraid of challenges facing them but follow his footprints to achieve their goals.

I have established Tribal News Network (TNN), a private limited company to start local radio news service in KP, FATA, and Baluchistan in August this year. Our news will be broadcasted by a number of independent FM stations hourly in the target areas. After a lot of work, TNN received financial support from a free press Dutch organization. Now, I am working on building a team of 40 reporters from the target area and arranging training for them.

We, the ELP Fellows, remain connected to each other and the Atlantic Council to inform each other of new opportunities and achivements. The fellows coordinate and help each other in their area of operations. The Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center actively share new opportunities and connect us with other leaders, government officials, and potential donors and partners to meet our objectives.    

In short I would say that the ELP fellowship broadened my horizon and insight about the US and its people and policies, and now I am no longer critical of the US.

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About Said Nazir Afridi

A working journalist from the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) of Pakistan, Said Nazir Afridi serves as the Station Manager for Radio Khyber, the first ever news channel in FATA, based in the tribal region of Jamrud in the Khyber Agency, a high risk area known to be a hot-bed for militant activity. Through Khyber Radio, Said has brought awareness and a first-hand perspective of the people from that fragile region. In 2008, he introduced female reporters to Khyber Radio, and despite threats to his life, has continued to cover sensitive issues such as militancy and the war on terror. He is currently working on developing the Tribal News Network, which will focus on the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and FATA, and bring forward, to other Pakistanis, the untold stories of life and people in that region through radio stations and a magazine, and internet technology.
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