Head of Programs
National Dialogue Forum
What connects us: our shared commitment to dialogue and ensuring every voice is heard.
What does the National Dialogue Forum (NDF) strive to do?
NDF works to promote tolerance and acceptance of diversity among young people. This is essential to countering the jihadist mentality that mushroomed across Pakistan from the 1970s to the 1990s. Young minds were systematically exposed to an extreme interpretation of religion, especially because of the intervention in Afghanistan. During that time, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. In response, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan joined hands to resist the Soviet occupation by supporting Jihadist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This has left a harmful legacy. The very fabric of Pakistan and Afghanistan was torn apart and ethnic and religious minorities were put at genocidal risk. It is why NDF’s work in promoting tolerance and acceptance of diversity among youth, who will be our future leaders, is critical.
What are some NDF programs enabling this cultural shift?
We create safe spaces for freedom of expression amongst students and activists across 60 university campuses in Pakistan. We help them organize activities that include marginalized students from religious, ethnic, and linguistic minorities. We also convene young leaders at conferences with decision-makers such as ministers, academics, activists, and national and international organizations. Last year, 31 students from diverse communities in Pakistan came to Islamabad for two weeks. We facilitated meetings with UN agencies, foreign embassies, Pakistan’s National Assembly, and the Prime Minister’s Office. Students were suggesting changes directly to decision-makers. It was powerful to witness a meaningful dialogue between these two generations.
On dialogue between Pakistan and Afghanistan: Pashtuns are the majority population in Afghanistan and are also one of the largest ethnic groups in Pakistan. Despite shared cultural roots and common languages, there has been continued conflict between the countries. We foster dialogue between civil society actors across our shared border. NDF also collaborates with Pakistan’s National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) and UNDP to convene academics and expert trainers. Together, we train government officials on how to identify weak areas in governance that terrorist groups exploit.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your community’s work?
NDF could not engage with students on campuses because of COVID-19 restrictions, yet young people are innovators. They quickly pivoted their activism online. As an example, theater productions on countering violent extremism were converted into YouTube and Facebook videos that reached larger audiences. However, we saw a lot of young people who remained at home report psychological stress due to their lack of access to education. Many students, especially in rural areas, don’t have laptops or internet access, or in some cases reliable electricity. When they are on campus, they have access to all of these things. So, when they are not on campus, they fall behind. Families who can afford better education for their children continue to learn, but children from poorer families have had to either repeat a year or jump a year ahead without learning what they missed. This results in a cumulative learning gap; it greatly affects their ability to keep up or excel in their studies in the future.
Sajjad, NDF Head of Programs, is a Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Fellow.
Young people participating in NDF programs for peace building.
Sajjad’s favorite read from when he traveled across North America.
When was a moment when you saw groups mobilize; what did they accomplish?
I come from a minority community: the Hazaras. We are identified as the most vulnerable community in Pakistan. We are a Shi’a community within a majority Sunni population. Hazaras are racially different due to our ethnic roots in Central and South Asia. We have different linguistics. We follow a minor branch in Islam. For these reasons, my community has been the target of much violence.
There is a large population of Hazaras in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan, we are small in numbers. So, we protest peacefully. Recently, I joined members of my community in a hunger strike to demand government action to improve our security. By the third day, after mobilization on social media, Pakistanis started to get involved in the conversation – pushing it to the mainstream. Our story became breaking news. It created pressure on the government. Finally, the Hazaras were being discussed at the national level. People were standing up for us and lending their support. It was a great moment of solidarity.
What can people do individually and in their communities?
Individually, we need to accept the diversity that exists around us. Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, and others – these groups have different beliefs than ours and that is normal. Not everyone has to be the same. We don’t need to push people to abandon their linguistic or ethnic identities.
At the community level, we need to emphasize building community together, not acting exclusively in sects or tribes. The latter two do not have an opening for others to join. We need to create community through civic spaces, shared professional spaces, and places where people can join.
What are some of the best books you have read?
“Lessons of History” by Will Durant and Ariel Durant. I read this on a road trip across North America. I also loved “The Idiot” and “Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostevsky. Throughout the book, central characters live with complicated questions. At some point, we see characters we thought to be treacherous are very pious and moral. I also enjoy philosophy; it is important for every young person to consider as they self-evaluate and determine their position in the universe.
What brings you hope?
Pakistan is the fifth biggest nation in the world in terms of population, and 64% of the population in Pakistan is under 30 years old. There is such potential if we succeed in providing these young people with a healthy outlook of the world, a sense of identity and value of self and others, plus economic opportunities so they can excel. If we don’t provide these opportunities, if we fail these young dreams, things will become worse. If we succeed, this country can be very different from what it is now. I am optimistic. We have so many bright young minds. They are grounded in local movements. They are fighting for racial equity and for economic equality. There is so much potential before us,