Can Positive Storytelling Save Pakistan?

by Amna Khawar

The Tribeca Film Festival recently screened the world premiere of Among the Believers, a documentary exploring the ideological fight for Pakistan’s young minds in its schools. At the center of the film is religious cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz, the head of the Red Mosque in Islamabad who operates madrassas across the country that preach a conservative interpretation of Islam. These schools teach children a story of hate for those, Pakistani or non-Pakistani, who do not follow their strict version of the religion.

The discipline of storytelling has unfortunately proven very successful in indoctrinating young minds to become an instrument of violence. But what if those same storytelling tactics could be used to create a story of hope and peace?

Today, Pakistan’s national narrative is in crisis. Turn on any of the country’s local news channel or chat with any Pakistani and you will learn that citizens feel hopeless about the country’s current situation and its future direction. The collective outlook is one of fear, anger, and despair.

But storytelling techniques can be used to change the narrative from one of despair to one of hope. An empowering story where local heroes are celebrated, negative headlines are balanced out by positive news in the country and citizens see each challenge facing Pakistan as an opportunity to come together and solve it.

Studies have shown that good stories build empathy and help bring people together. There are numerous examples where companies have used storytelling to change mainstream conversations such as Dove’s Real Beauty campaign that challenges the public to rethink its definition of beauty. Even governments have leveraged storytelling in their ‘nation branding’ efforts as a way of promoting a positive country image internationally. One such example is the Incredible India campaign that utilized TV commercials and print ads to convey a story of the country’s diverse culture.

Besides advertising & marketing, it is well-known that stories through the arts such as books, poetry, and music have inspired social movements and led to large scale change. Take the example of the song “We Shall Overcome”, a protest song used in the 1960s Civil Rights movement in America. A story about hope and courage, the song went on to be used successfully by other protest movements in South Africa and Northern Ireland, inspiring optimism that change could be achieved.

For too long, Pakistan has been a nation of skeptics because citizens have focused on all that is going wrong in society without lauding the good.

Yes, real problems exist within Pakistan such as security concerns, rampant corruption, and a crippling energy crisis. But while these concerns are real, they shouldn’t define the entirety of the nation. Positive storytelling isn’t about glossing over these problems but shifting the narrative from one of hopelessness to one of empowerment where citizens feel they can make a difference in changing Pakistan’s trajectory.

Now, this wouldn’t be a national narrative that is focused on false beliefs – this isn’t fiction. Rather it is about utilising existing positive ideals in the story. Take for instance, Pakistan’s cultural concept of hamdardi, which means to share someone’s pain and struggle. This empathetic spirit can be observed through everyday acts of generosity such as alms to the poor, taking care of the elderly, or sharing food with neighbours. Building on existing values will resonate more strongly with the population and lend authenticity to the story.

Pakistani artists and citizens are already creating and telling positive stories whether it is Ali Zafar’s song Urain Ge (We Will Fly) that conveys a message of hope and resilience in the wake of the Peshawar attacks or the comic book Pakistan Man, a superhero that fights social problems such as corruption and serves as a local role model for Pakistani kids.

The best place to start with these positive stories are in our schools. Pakistani youth need a message of peace for their future and heroes they can look up to as how we talk about ourselves today will affect our future generations.

As the renowned writer and storyteller Robert McKee said, “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.” And that’s what good stories are, a core idea illustrated through a narrative that can resonate deeply and move us to action.

Let’s reclaim Pakistan’s national discourse by introducing positive stories today to spark change for the country’s tomorrow.

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post India on May 18, 2015.