Sparks of Hope. Zoya Science School at Islamabad Literature Festival 2021

A Panel of the Islamabad Literature Festival discussed the book by Prof Anita Weiss: Countering Violent Extremism in Pakistan.
Below is the presentation by Sarmad Khawaja:

Reimaging the Future, the theme of the Islamabad Literature Festival, is best captured by Prof Anita Weiss’ book. It is a very powerful attempt to blend together the sprouts of enlightenment, liberation and resistance that give hope for the future despite the abject surrender of the government to religious extremism. It draws attention to the many ways that people are making Pakistan more tolerant, non-violent and peaceful by revitalizing cultural traditions, promoting music, art, literature, poetry and science in theaters, art galleries, public places and schools.

It highlights the ‘sparks of hope’ that people are creating to forge ‘alternative narratives about culture and identity in Pakistan,’ and it celebrates what is flourishing in cultural performances, music, and social activism, which is little known even within Pakistan.

Prof Weiss is very well qualified to recognize the emerging trends that shape our future. She has studied the peculiarities of our society through out her working life; She shows an open and warm affection for the people she studies; She brings out the importance of looking at the micro level, at the small individual efforts that shape the culture, thought and actions of local communities; And, her narratives produce visually rich studies with photographs, as in the present book, that make the sparks of hope and progress in society more visible.

Prof Weiss says the inspiration to write the book was the monstrous killing of scores of school children of the Army Public School in 2014, and the apathetic reaction of an irresolute state doing little to counter violent extremism, which was far from the disgust, horror and deep resentment felt by the people.

Reflecting this mood the Qazi Faez Isa Commission Report of 2016 describes the state’s response to 2014 as ‘deplorable, lamentable and totally tragic’ and that ‘it is a monumental failure that the state has been unable to silent extremist speech, literature and propaganda or in producing and then disseminating a counter narrative.’

Prof Weiss, as well, censures the policies countering violent extremism of foreign official donors, which she says don’t build up on local initiatives but provide services they think up. Their efforts are ‘ill-conceived, based on stereotypes about people and do little to promote cohesion, or communal identity.’

So, then what are these sparks of hope and alternative narratives?

They are Pushto poets Rahmat Shah Sail who mourns the violence embroiling Peshawar, his historic ‘city of flowers’; Amjad Shehzad who tells the mullah ‘we are not the people who follow his chants, Our hearts are pacified only with the sounds of singing;’ Abdul Rahim Roghani who rails about the Imam who becomes Satan. ‘Oh leader’, he sings, ‘the moment you gain political power you become a looter and a plunderer and we are cursed.’ Usman Olasyar: ‘The Khan is seated on one shoulder, the mullah sits on the other, And the pir is seated on my back and refuses to move. The three of them torment me.’ Hasina Gul: ‘Peshawar will be young again. Nangarhar will have spring again. Kabul will smile again. Even death is appalled by what you have done.’

The sparks of hope are Sindhi poets Hafiz Nizamani, Khalil Kumbar, whose powerful poetry moves past adversity and tragedy to believe in a better collective future.

In music, the sparks of hope are Saif Samejo and his Lhooti Melo in Sindh, Taimur Rahman and his Laal band in Punjab and Paktun musicians Gulab Khel Afridi and Karan Khan.

In art, the sparks of hope are the Rang Dey art students of Karachi University, students of the College of Art and Design in Bahawalpur; and the Art in Public Spaces artists of Lahore who paint over hate language on the city’s underpasses and walls with messages of hope and love.

In religion, the sparks of hope are the faith-based groups countering violent extremism such as the Lahore-based Interfaith Council for Peace and Harmony.

Then, there are sparks of communal actions that are making a difference such as the Bhittai Social Watch Advocacy in Sindh, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, Lok Sujag in South Punjab and Orangi Pilot Project.

In education, the sparks of hope are the Bacha Schools in KP, which promote the spirit of Bacha Khan’s non-violence and Khudai Khidmatgari; and the Zoya Science Schools in South Punjab, which help underprivileged girls who are most affected by any violence whether it is of extremism or of poverty and hunger that is heaped upon them in abundance.

The Bacha Khan and Zoya Science schools provide vital services that the government refuses to do because of its convoluted priorities. They mobilize local resources to run them showing what a little reallocation of local resources can achieve.

There are no foreign agencies nor their funding in Zoya Science Schools which serve over 2,500 underprivileged children. The schools are built on land donated by the local communities. They are run by the local communities. Their welfare programs look after the children: giving food daily to undernourished girls and digging tube wells in government schools to give potable water to thousands of children.

The science taught in Zoya Science Schools of heliocentrism, solstices and equinoxes is linked with the changing seasons, and with the economic life of the villagers and so also with the solar-based ancient Aryan traditions of celebrating Poh, Vesaiki as opposed to the lunar-based, Semetic foreign culture creeping upon their lives and ours.

The sparks of hope so well and so timely blended together by Prof Weiss deserve widespread commendation and recognition. They make us look to our future with enthusiasm. And we understand the important underlying message of Prof Weiss: that because of them our future will be quite different from the past and the present. And that these brilliant sparks must join together to raise a blazing fire.

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