The role models of a free society | Pakistan Today

The role models of a free society

  • Some alternative role models

Howard Zinn, the historian, socialist and great thinker died ten years ago. He described himself as ‘a bit of an anarchist, something of a socialist, and perhaps a democratic socialist.’ Themes in his writings were mainly the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war movement and the labour history of the USA.

Among Howard Zinn’s most read books is A People’s History of the United States which in that country is something of an icon. It has sold more than 2,000,000 copies.

Zinn stressed that teachers must be honest with children, regardless of the child’s age, and he was honest. His viewpoint was not common in his lifetime. Even today when society likes to think of itself as more politically correct, possessing a greater social conscience, the view presented to the people in most countries is geared to make them proud of what they did, historically, whereas in reality that may not always be right.

It is suffocating to live in an unventilated society. Minds function better in an open atmosphere, not to mention the fact that fewer people suffer. Pakistan has made many mistakes, but it also has a lot to be proud of, something that its people will discover if they are permitted to study and understand both

Zinn looked at the American Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, and whether historically it protected their rights. It did not.

Andrew Jackson was the seventh President of the USA, from 1829. Textbooks speak of him as “a man of the people” but Zinn saw him from the viewpoint of the Cherokees, who were the people native to Georgia, and spoke of him as a ‘a land speculator, a merchant, slave trader, and the most aggressive enemy of the Indians in early American history.’ In his book he presented Jackson as a man who exploited native land mercilessly and was responsible for a great deal of death and destruction.

Predictably, Donald Trump calls A People’s History of the United States a ‘propaganda tract,’ and ‘a book that tries to make students ashamed of their history.’

Well if the facts are shameful, then so be it. Being aware of a mistake is the only positive side of making one, because knowing what went wrong can prevent it from happening again, and US society has proved itself to be far from free and democratic. But this is speaking not of just US history, but of the history of any country. Do we in Pakistan know anything about what happened in 1971, if this generation has even heard that something happened then? Should we be proud of what took place then? Are we allowed to talk about it?

Zinn understood a young person’s need for icons and role models, and encouraged them to study their heroes, those currently held up as icons and role models. He wanted them to think outside the box and work out whether or not those icons deserve to be on a pedestal.

Unless we do this, our world, everyone’s world will never change. It will go on as it is, at the mercy of war and those who make coin from it. There will always be hunger, disease, racism, sexism dominating our lives.

Instead of Christopher Columbus and other imperialists, Zinn suggested other role models: Mark Twain who worked against the Spanish American war, Helen Keller whose achievements were not just for those deprived of vision; she was a pacifist, a staunch supporter of women’s suffrage, labour rights and socialism. Zinn suggested Muhammad Ali, the boxer whose greatest fights were outside the ring he was king of: his support of black rights, his insistence on personal identity, and his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War.

Zinn’s view is that a past to be proud is defined by dissidents, and by exponents of peace whose goal is the uplift of the masses, not by those who wage war. If that is so, who should our heroes be? The men in brass or people like Abdus Salam, the great Pakistan physicist and Nobel prize winner, hounded out of the country for his religion. Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the poet who wrote with magic words, a man who spent time in prison for his leftist views. Asma Jehangir, who founded Pakistan’s first legal aid centre, a human rights activist and lawyer who worked on behalf of the poor and most defenseless. Her life was threatened, she was assaulted and also placed under house arrest for her protests when General Musharraf proclaimed a State of Emergency. There was Abdus Sattar Edhi whose services to the poor and needy can never be praised enough. He was opposed throughout his life by conservative religious groups for his work for all who needed help, regardless of their faith.

There was Akhtar Hameed Khan, whose model of community participation in development has been studied around the world. He set up the Orangi Pilot Project in Karachi, and earlier a similar project in Comilla in what is now Bangladesh. He was severely criticised here for his liberal views and was even charged with blasphemy. Parveen Rahman, his pupil and colleague, was similarly criticised and eventually shot dead.

Malala Yousafzai, an excellent role model for young people. She defied the Taliban when they imposed a ban on women’s education in Swat, and was shot because of it. She survived and went on to win a Nobel Prize and continues to work for women and children’s right to education.

And Ghamidi, the scholar of religion and the man who right wing scholars such as Mufti Muneeb ur Rehman love to hate for his rational understanding of Islam. Ghamidi has moved from Pakistan saying he would like to return when things change.

Last, but definitely not least, is Muhammad the man (peace be upon him) who belongs to all of us and can rightfully be claimed by the people of all and any country as their hero and role model. In discussing and understanding whom we are unfortunately as hampered as we are in our understanding of all of the above.

What all these figures share strikingly in common is a brush with violence, in the case of some such as Parveen Rahman and Malala, much more than a brush. They also share the fact that their work has led to the uplift of society, contributed to its knowledge, well-being and happiness. Their sufferings tell us a great deal about our flawed understanding of heroism and idols, greatly because of the curbs placed on our study of their contributions and personalities.

It is suffocating to live in an unventilated society. Minds function better in an open atmosphere, not to mention the fact that fewer people suffer. Pakistan has made many mistakes, but it also has a lot to be proud of, something that its people will discover if they are permitted to study and understand both.

Rabia Ahmed

The writer is a freelance columnist. Read more by her at