Recently, at the 1st National Youth Summit organised by the Centre for Sustainability, Research and Practice (CSRP) in collaboration with the Ministry of Ministry of Youth and Sports Punjab at the University of Lahore, I was asked to speak about the “Ethics of disagreement, promoting inclusion and countering violent extremism in youth”.  The connotation of the topic was premised on the myth that if can all learn to agree to disagree, promote inclusion and choose diversity, we will be able to counter violent extremism rampant in universities and visible in our youth as various incidents, including the killing of Sabeen Mahmud and Mashal Khan , surfaced.

However, before we can even begin to discuss this idea, we need to understand what ‘countering violent extremism’ really entails. It sounds like a fancy term but when linked to notions such as ethics of disagreement and inclusion, the implication is that there are or can be specified set of factors that are universally indicative of someone becoming a violent extremist when in fact, research has shown time and again that no set of factors, authoritative data or a given trajectory or pathway exists that a person follows to become prone to extremism as acknowledged by the United Nations General Assembly itself in its 2015 Action Plan to prevent violent extremism and by the Brenan Centre of Justice in New York. Therefore, the idea, that there are specific indicators or the presumption that there is a predictable process to identify rogue individuals with extremist tendencies, is inherently problematic and the topic itself which encourages to agree to disagree and promote inclusion to counter violent extremism therefore itself seems to be based on a premature conclusion drawn that disagreement is somehow a relatable factor to violent extremism when in fact it is not.

We have often witnessed cases where apparently perfectly normal and socially integrated people have been responsible for some of the most unimaginable extremist actions; Sabeen Mahmud’s murder is a case in point.

Agreeing to disagree is a good notion. One is not reducing the social and moral importance of promoting tolerance and inclusivity however, countering violent extremism cannot be reduced to this simplistic idea. It is a much bigger issue that requires a systemic and holistic approach at a multidimensional, policy and at the executive level to implement those policies in action and make them a reality for the nation. It requires concerted efforts on many fronts, at grassroots level, at community level as well as at a national, regional and global level.

In a society such as ours, the starting point is not the idea to agree to disagree. It is the freedom to disagree to begin with which we do not have. In a society such as ours, where the margin to disagree itself is a luxury, talking about agreeing to disagree seems premature. A child is not allowed the space to go against his father, a student has to reiterate and regurgitate the words of his teacher, a good wife is the obedient wife who listens to and acts according to the wishes of her husband and in-laws, the boss is always right! Where do we have the space to disagree? When there is no question of disagreement and that is what we teach our children and that is what they grow up learning, how do we expect the youth to be accommodating of another’s opinion or point of view? Where are the role models? When were the youth ever taught to respect and entertain or engage critically with an opposing thought? These are tough questions that go to the root of our society, our family structures and our educational culture. So, before we can begin a conversation on agreeing to disagree, we need to allow disagreement to be and we need to dispel the notion that disagreement is somehow a bad thing and a challenge to authority, which it is not. If done effectively, critically and rationally, it can lead to progress and development in ways we cannot imagine because when energies are synergised and a third better alternative is allowed to nurture, wonders happen.

Along with that, we have to understand that violent extremism is not only a product of disagreement. There are macroeconomic level issues that plague the youth which allow the space to the rogue forces to exploit the vulnerable. For example, lack of socio-economic opportunities, marginalisation, discrimination, prolonged unresolved conflicts, poverty, inequality and disregard of rule of law lie at the very root of any society which if prevalent create room for further turmoil.

One means of addressing these fundamental and underlying factors behind most of our issues is by aligning the national development policies with sustainable development goals such as eradication of poverty, inclusive education, reducing inequality, etc. I would highly stress the importance of turning our focus to being an innovative and creative economy that not only envisions but also builds its own future. All developed economies made the same decision at some point in their history where they chose to create, to grow, to develop. In this regard, I cannot stress the importance of research and development. Instead of asking what has the government done for providing the youth with jobs, our youth needs to think of creating their own initiatives, networks, organisations, applications, products, literature, scientific breakthroughs and use their abilities to develop creative new technologies and be the face and driving force behind a progressive Pakistan. We need to shift our focus from a job-oriented mindset to an entrepreneurial mindset.

While there is no guarantee that absence of these issues and challenges would prove a sure shot measure of countering violent extremism as there is no one predictable factor that causes it, but it will certainly reduce the number of grounds and basis on which a vulnerable person may potentially be manipulated, besides, if we focus on developing our economies in a sustainable fashion, we may be able to bring a sense of collective and shared prosperity for all which will add value to our lives as individuals as well.