Making citizens

The real sense of what being a citizen means is a question of identity and requires serious thought

Muhammad Hamid Zaman April 04, 2016
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

In the aftermath of continued violence, in glittery cities and dimly lit villages, lack of empathy against the poor and the marginalised, a national campaign by a group of people to deny women a fundamental right to violence-free homes, perhaps we should ask ourselves, what does it mean to be a citizen of Pakistan? What are the values that we should espouse and fight for? What does it mean to live in a healthy society? Or, perhaps, start with a fundamental simple question — do we know how to be citizens?

While the question may seem to be naively simple, the answers, and its manifestations, may surprise us. I have not conducted a comprehensive national survey (which perhaps we should run) on what it means to be a citizen, but from my limited interactions with those who I have spoken to, in and outside the country, both in the recent and the distant past, the answer is often contradictory, confusing and at times, troubling. What I have gotten so far, ranges from a belief in the constitution to be ready to sacrifice our lives for the homeland, to a definition of a citizen, based on their love of the country. While all of these answers may be well intentioned, none of the answers that I got focused on interactions and engagement with other citizens. The value of “to live and let live”, or being able to tolerate others for their faith (or lack thereof), mother tongue or ethnicity, never made it to the list. Is citizenship merely a privilege that we get by being born in Pakistan, is it only about defending the borders? Or, is it having a vague connection with the constitution, which, when put to the test, most of us would fail anyway?

The idea of citizenship is not just about arbitrary discussion of rights and responsibilities to be memorised. Though, even that theoretical concept, is extremely vague on having a sense of equality for all citizens. The real sense of what a citizen means is a question of identity and it requires serious thought and even more serious action.

Perhaps, the place to start our analysis and action is our school system. The idea about listening to others, acknowledging diversity of opinion and dealing with complex topics without resorting to extreme measures, is completely absent from our schools. In our annual debate competitions in our schools and colleges, there are plenty of debates but little discussion. The debates are about a competition of memorised lines, oft-repeated poetry and fist pumping, and not about an exchange of ideas, discussion of opinions or an opportunity to learn. We emphasise and celebrate the way to speak, but never teach our students how to listen and learn to acknowledge a viewpoint distinct from our own.

The idea of citizenship is not new, but somehow we never developed a national sense of what a citizen is. In generations past, we deferred the development of this idea of citizenship to training at home, but it has not worked. Institutions of the community, including mosques, have not delivered either. We then deferred it to a single course, taught year after year, about history of Islam and Pakistan, or our geographical importance taught ad nauseam, and that has not worked either.

The sense of pluralism and ability to separate unity from uniformity has to come from our educational system. This should not be just a one-time exercise, like an annual fire drill, but a continuous process that needs to cater to students of all age groups across the country. Here, our universities and colleges, particularly those who cater to sciences and engineering, have been particularly weak in creating a sense of citizenship. The high demands of courses does not mean that our future scientists and engineers have any less of a role to play in shaping society. The growing list of those who mastermind mass destruction and have engineering or science backgrounds, requires us to think deeply about what are we teaching and not teaching our students.

The love of the country, which is very real, needs to translate into understanding how to live with those we share the country with.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 5th, 2016.

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