Study Circles: Bringing Grass Roots Democracy to Pakistan

Posted on August 21, 2007
Filed Under >Athar Osama, Pakistanis Abroad, Politics, Society
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Guest Post by Athar Osama,

The idea of Study Circles to promote ‘informed’ community participation in decision-making originated in Sweden in the 19th Century. Today, study circles are used around the world in a host of different settings ranging from collaborative ‘self-education’ devices to motivate learning and learning from each other, to a to means for working on complex community projects in a participative manner, to creating grass-roots awareness of and practice deliberative democracy.

The concept of Study Circles is not new to Pakistan, or its politics either. While we’re not among the most intellectual-minded of the nations, study circles have been used in religious and political contexts before. There are instances where political parties in Pakistan have used study circles to educate and evolve collective understanding of different issues among their workers.

While we Pakistanis often gripe about the lack of well-informed and well-intentioned participation by all of us in our democracy, we hardly put our money where our mouth is. In our desperation to find an alternative to despotic military regimes or corrupt civilian rule, we often ask ourselves a question: Is there a third way? Can we create an alternate political force that can rise above the petty politics of the day to steer Pakistan towards its destiny.

I believe that there is an alternative – a third way. That third way is for all of us; Pakistanis in Pakistan and around the world; who have so far stayed on the sidelines of Pakistani politics and democracy–to educate ourselves and get involved into the politics of our country. I have often maintained that Pakistani politics–dirty as it may be–is what we have made it to be. If all good people would move away from active politics, the field will naturally be left open for self-serving opportunists and professional politicians who have only harmed our country thus far. There is no higher calling for a patriot–that all of us claim to be–but to educate ourselves and get involved with our country’s political future.

In an opinion poll currently being conducted by the Understanding Pakistan Project, two of the three most important things Pakistanis tend to believe that are absolutely necessary to bring genuine sustainable democracy to Pakistan are promoting politics of issues vs. politics of personalities and promoting democratic values within the society. Both of these are laudable goals and are likely to make an impact, yet all of us are suffering from a mental inertia as we wait for somebody else to do this for us.

While many of us take pleasure in discussing our country’s politics, how many of us have taken the time to do some research of own to better understand its issues, if only to back what are often rhetorical statements with rigorous facts? How many us have actually taken the time to prepare ourselves to speak to those around us not fortunate enough to be able to do this for themselves – our driver who takes us to work everyday, the maid who comes to clean the house, the chawkidar who works at the gate etc. Are we expecting our corrupt civilian governments or despotic military rulers to educate our masses about democratic values? Do we really believe they have an interest in doing so? Unfortunately, for all of us, and our country, we all know the solutions, but are unwilling to do what is needed to get there.

I am calling upon all educated Pakistanis to take on the mantle of leadership and help create an awareness about Pakistan’s history and politics amongst each other and its masses. Change happens one person at a time and we need to stop looking for short-cuts in changing our own lot. We’re hoping to launch Understanding Pakistan Study Circles over the next several months in major cities of the world to empower Pakistanis; and Friends of Pakistan; to educate and get to know each other and build a community committed to taking on the difficult task of engaging with, reforming, and rebuilding Pakistan through the underlying principles of the Understanding Pakistan Project. This, we believe, is the surest and perhaps the only way to creating decentralized and grass-roots democracy in Pakistan.

A Study Circle can be a group of 4-10 individuals, friends, acquaintences, or total strangers that meet on a regular basis to collectively learn and discuss Pakistan’s history and its future. These would be fairly decentralized entities with perhaps only a virtual link to the Understanding Pakistan Project and other study circles around the world. Any individual or group of individuals interested in forming a study circle may garner interest from others in their locality (city etc.) and begin the process. A Champion (or set of Champions) may create a study circle from amongst those who are already following the debate on Understanding Pakistan or recruit entirely new members for the circle. You may create one at your school, your university, your office, amongst your relatives, friends, or total strangers. You may form one with the people working at your home or in your office. You may have a women’s only circle or a men’s only circle.

Lets do this so that when we, the third generation of Pakistanis, hand over the reigns of this country to our children, we leave it as better, stronger, and more prosperous one than what our parents left to us. We may not be able to change everything in our lifetimes but atleast we would be able to hold our heads high, see them in the eye, and say, “I probably wasn’t able to solve all the problems, but I did the best I could”. Lets do the best that we can.

We strongly encourage you to consider creating or joining a study circle and take one more baby step forward towards creating a better, more democratic, and prosperous Pakistan.

About the Author: Dr. Athar Osama is a public policy analyst by profession, an amateur historian of Pakistan’s political and constitutional history by passion, and the Founder of the Understanding Pakistan Project.

14 responses to “Study Circles: Bringing Grass Roots Democracy to Pakistan”

  1. Athar Osama says:

    Adnan, and others:

    If you’re interested if being a part of this–infact help take initiative to jumpstart this process–please drop a comment on the’s page on study circles so that others in your area could discover you. The faster we build a community of interested people, the better it is. I’d like this to start with a couple of pilots probably and would like each of us individually be a champion. We have a lot of followers amongst us the so called “silent majority”–or lots of “zhombies” (if you pardon my comparison there)–and I think Pakistan needs us to stop thinking and start doing something about our affairs.

  2. Eidee Man says:

    I agree with Aqil, everyone should do what he/she thinks is best. There is no silver bullet for our problems; the different paths mentioned above are all steps in the right direction.

    I wish Athar good luck in this initiative.

  3. Athar Osama says:

    To answer Pervez’s question, I think there is a critical difference between the type of conversations I am proposing and the ones we usually do. I guess, will be that of attitude and perhaps some preparation. As long as you’re willing to learn from others–not just teach them–and are willing to put in sometime into this activity, it would be an improvement over our current state of affairs.

    My experience with “meetings” and “discussions” is that all of us people–vast majority, anyway–come with a preconceived idea of what they think is the issue, and what the solution is, they shut themselves off to everything else–no amount of argument can convince them otherwise — and data and evidence is hardly ever presented with the result that it is an exercise in “convincing the un-convincible”. There is hardly anything worthwhile comes out of it these meetings, I agree. We all go back knowing what already knew and believing what we already believed. Can we change this dynamic? I believe we can, provided we’re willing to change the format of these conversations.

    As for the broader point, I think a lot needs to be done. Study Circles are not a solution of all problems. But they might provide an alternative to doing nothing. We all agree that we need to educate ourselves and those around us. Nobody else is doing it so can we do it? Action is absolutely essential. Barring the danger of doing something that isn’t likely to work or doing without understanding the implications of it, by all means, “do, if you can, but atleast educate yourself, if you can’t”.

  4. Adnan Ali says:

    I find that as a nation, we have indeed become too cynical. It strikes me that sitting in a gathering, one can easily observer that every one considers every one else as basically “chawwal”.

    In my opinion, I find the society (including myself) in a state of inaction. Status quo reigns supreme even though every one has an opinion or two about how to fix the myriad of problems we face. The utility of the collective is lost on us. For many of us, the real solution is a bloody revolution, as long as it doesnt happen in their family or perhaps their city.

    If a good thing does not immediately solve the problem of a peasant, should it be shunned completely? Study circles is a good idea and I would be priviliged to be part of it and break the shackles on positive, goal oriented and no-bars-attached discussion.

    Please include me in this plan.

  5. Daktar says:

    I wonder if we have become too cynical. We all seem to specialize in telling others what they are wrong. Searching for ultimate solutions. Why go around doubting other people’s intentions. Let a thousand flowers bloom and different people can do differnet things. We dont have to agree on teh same priority. Usually people who want to search for the perfect priority are just making excuses for their own inaction. I agree with Aqil and the author on this, we have to start somewhere. Not even everyone but those who are ready to. The others can keep finding faults with everything.

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