|There is a youth bulge in Pakistan, but can it be utilised for good? [GALLO/GETTY]
Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi has dedicated his life to challenging the complex religious, economic and social divisions which plague his country. Here he explains why.
I grew up in a country enshrouded in uncertainty, being taught a distorted version of history as part of a school curriculum that incited religious hatred. It was a country that endorsed almost anything, social or political, in the name of religion; where state organs coloured geo-strategic shifts in 'holy' flavour; where the intelligentsia fathered militant organisations; where the right-leaning media propagated conspiracy theories; and where public sentiment sanctioned militancy by calling for intervention beyond borders.
How can I forget the banners hanging in the main marketplaces of Pakistan calling out for 'Jihad' against whomsoever they deemed an 'infidel'? I grew up listening to the clerics for whom every other sect within Islam was heretical, to news of attacks on shrines, mosques and religious festivals, to dictators who extended their stay in office for personal gain - with corruption plaguing every walk of life, mob mentality justifying acts of violence and the judiciary serving selective justice.
I grew up in a country battling wars, natural disasters, corruption, religious and social intolerance, disease, poverty, illiteracy and ideological perplexity. But it was also a very resilient environment. I cannot name any other country that has faced such multi-faceted problems with such intensity. If we were not struggling to infest democratic norms and a culture of peace and mutual coexistence, we were battling the biggest humanitarian crisis in all of modern history.
But there would not be opportunity if it were not for crisis. The future is what we make of the present; and the past offers us an opportunity to learn from our errors. Realising the individual's importance in the collective life of a neighbourhood, city, province, country and, consequently, as a global citizen is the defining moment that instigates 'change'.
Change is within, however concealed by incompetence and naivety. Trying to 'be the change' turned me and some of my friends into activists who battled dictatorship and media blackouts, who stood up against extremism amid threats and insecurities, who were chased around and harassed by the very agencies that should have protected us, who rallied for peace when the masses were victims of war-mongering, who have reached out to more than 70,000 displaced families with material relief. Much of the time, these amazing youngsters have been pro-active rather than re-active in their activism.
Unprecedented acknowledgements by the United Nations, the government of Pakistan or by international media outlets are no milestones when compared to the fact that what started as a Facebook group in 2007 as the result of a few exuberant young minds now gives a voice to thousands.
More than 100 million aged under 24, a youth bulge unparalleled in the world, cannot be made a liability. This is the future of Pakistan and the future of a region in which one-fifth of humanity dwells. Turning crisis into opportunity will mean transforming 65 per cent of the population of Pakistan into pro-active citizens agreeing to disagree peacefully; making them realise their potential as individuals and then as a collective force to be reckoned with.
Some believe that Pakistan's prospects have dimmed over the past few years and that there is no hope. But we believe that only stormy weather makes good sailors and only the most vigorous of rubs polishes the best of gems.
Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi can be found on twitter and facebook and is the founder and chair of the Pakistan Youth Alliance.