Transcending conventional thinking, or simply, challenging old ways and doing something different than what lays on the broad road ahead of us is a calling to each of us, especially if we want to help create peace, equality and development. If we want to do the most important work in our time, and at all times, become good educators and facilitators of understanding issues and gaining knowledge, of becoming better at doing things and working alone and in groups, and learning to care and share with others so that we can all live better. And indeed, if we want to contribute to analysing and understanding the causes of conflicts, disagreements, competition and elbowing our way through the world by not including everyone, even stepping on some.

How can we become the carriers and facilitators of peace, help search for peace, which we all want, if we have time and courage to do it, and we have learnt the tools and techniques to help us on the way? How can we make everyday become an Eid celebration, a time when we share and care for our family, neighbours, friends and the needy?

I came to think about this recently after attending a few seminars in Islamabad, and I will discuss a few aspects in my column today.

The first seminar was an annual convention in a large tent, with seminars in rooms and exhibitions outside, all organised by Potohar Organisation for Development Advocacy (PODA) at Lok Virsa Museum. It was a great event and I thought it was unusual, since it brought together rural women - not just well-to-do city women, who would speak on behalf of women from far-flung areas. These participants belonged to the reality they spoke about. About 1,000 women, and some men, came and they went back with exposure to the capital, including its ‘movers and shakers’, donors and diplomats, NGO leaders and sisters and brothers from other areas of the country. I thought such a gathering could inspire the participants to do things differently, and perhaps less conventional, in their home villages, and give them confidence so that they could know they are on the right track to change and improve the lives of rural women, the lives of all inhabitants, and the structures that exist and can be improved.

The other meeting I attended just a few days ago was about curriculum change in Pakistan so that our schools can become more relevant and better, more pleasant and peaceful. The latter was specifically the purpose of the meeting, which was organised by Peace Education and Development (PEAD). The foundation’s head had prepared a research report on the issue, entitled “Need for Change”, a review of curriculum and textbooks in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, often with focus in minority and gender issues. This work is certainly important and it requires a lot of patience from those who engage in it in Pakistan and any other country. It always takes time!

I would commend anyone working on curriculum change, with or without donor funds, even if changes are hardly seen and recommendations implemented. We must continue working, focusing on new aspect and change angles. The PEAD’s report only took up a few issues. In addition, I believe that we must not only look at the ‘open curriculum’, the books and exams, but also the ‘hidden curriculum’, the whole atmosphere and culture in our schools, the way we teach and learn, the way children work and play, and the way the school is or isn’t integrated in the local community. The first steps could be to ascertain that there are active parent-teacher associations, and that schools are maintained and practical subjects are included. It is wrong only to have bookish subjects in schools, as it shows little respect for manual work not to include practical and vocational subjects. Don’t you think we should reorient our thinking about what good education is?

We need a broad-based debate about the role and content of education in society, a movement where we all take part, under the leadership of the federal and provincial top politicians and experts. But we need participation from the bottom, too. That is the only way change will occur. And we must remember that we sometimes make issues too complicated; we academicians are particularly good at that! Muzaffar Mumtaz, a Pakistani-Norwegian lawyer and poet, mentioned this after the meeting. Yes, he is a poet, and perhaps that can also give a hint that a poet can have insight into education. It is not only for teachers and bureaucrats to have all answers.

A few days earlier, Muzaffar had spoken at a poetry and literature breakfast, organised by the Pakistan-Norway Association (PANA), and he had emphasised the importance of character building in education, or CB, as it was called in Sialkot, where he went to a Catholic school. He praised his first teacher unreservedly, a kind and wise Irish nun. “We all loved her,” he said, adding that “there was never a moment of preaching of one or the other religion.” He told us that one of the things she introduced from class four was a ‘session of silence’, some 15-20 minutes when the children just sat quietly together. Interestingly, in schools in Europe, where children are often stressed, they have begun introducing sessions of silence. Peace, tranquillity and spirituality come from within.

Eid-ul-Azha is an important religious holiday, and it emphasises some of the issues I have written about in this article, notably that we must all care for each other and share what we have. But religion is rarely a tool for change, for transcending conventional thinking. It is rather a conservative force in society. Yet, religion should be used for change, too, so that we can become more inclusive and better human beings. Jesus said that we should turn around and follow him. More directly can it not be said that we should change conventional thinking.

Often we listen to our preachers from a conventional and traditional point of view. We forget to sit and listen to our inner voice; we forget to ask ourselves what do the religious texts really say and what is their deeper meaning to us human beings, today and always. We should be less orthodox and conventional. We should not only listen to the standard interpretations of religious and other texts. We should transcend conventional thinking so as to enrich our daily life and our spiritual and religious life.

When we work for social and economic change, we should also seek inspiration and advice from our religion. Islam, Christianity and other religions teach us about equality, about caring and sharing. Class and other differences exist against the teachings of our religions, and against our better judgment of how society should be organised. Hence, we should change our conventional religious thinking.

Do you take time to follow the presidential election campaign in the US? I do, and what strikes me is how conventional both candidates are, and how one-sighted they are in looking only at what is good for their own country, not the rest of the world, while at the same time using rhetoric as if they cared about the Arab countries, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and so on. I even think they believe they care, but their concern may have other, imperial causes. How come they, said to be the leaders of the world, cannot transcend conventional thinking? How come they have so closed minds? I also wonder why so many countries just support them in economic, military and cultural thinking and action. How blind and brainwashed can we be?

Yesterday October 24, we marked the United Nations Day. I have worked for the UN for many years, and many of the organisations do good work in many fields. But should we not question them and make them accountable, too, so that we can transcend the conventional thinking about the way the world body operates, with its 200 country-members, not 2,000 nation-members, as might have been more democratic. Yes, perhaps, we must admit that the UN is an arm of the Anglo-American hegemony and status quo, and we just let them get away with it. The UN must work for change, empowerment of the powerless, greater equality, greater respect and understanding, and greater sustainable peace everywhere.

Let that be my last challenging statement in my article today, so that you and I can think more about it, and so that we can do what is right in sharing and caring for others - and so that we can all make everyday an Eid celebration. Dear reader, I wish you Eid-ul-Azha Mubarak.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.

Email: atlehetland@yahoo.com