Hassaan bin Shaheen: "Europe could definitely step it up a bit"

Article published on May 4, 2014
Article published on May 4, 2014

The pan­elists at the "Dis­pute over Eu­rope" event on May 2, 2014 weren't only big Eu­ro­pean names. The first panel "The Idea of Eu­rope - Next Gen­er­a­tion" saw five young stu­dents, jour­nal­ists and philoso­phers de­bate what Eu­rope is or should be today. One of them was Pak­istani ac­tivist and legal ad­viser Has­saan bin Sha­heen 

What does it mean to have free­dom of ex­pres­sion, to be un­en­cum­bered by visa re­stric­tions and to have the right to live whichever life one chooses? As a Pak­istani at the Uni­ver­sity of Lon­don, Has­saan Bin Sha­heen can teach Eu­ro­peans some­thing about the in­cred­i­ble free­dom they have – al­though they often tend to for­get it. Has­saan, who is work­ing as a legal and po­lit­i­cal ad­viser, is in­volved in var­i­ous po­lit­i­cal re­search pro­jects and has founded a youth de­bat­ing so­ci­ety in Karachi.  

Cafébabel: Has­san, you claim that Eu­ro­peans are sit­ting on a gold mine with­out re­al­is­ing. What do you mean?

Has­saan Bin Sha­heen: I am from Pak­istan which means that there are only six coun­tries in the world I can visit with­out a visa. Even if I stay within the con­fines of these six coun­tries, I will get asked a lot of ques­tions. The mo­bil­ity that Eu­rope al­lows you to enjoy, along with the abil­ity to meet dif­fer­ent peo­ple and not be re­stricted in the op­por­tu­ni­ties you can cre­ate for your­self, is ex­cep­tional. Eu­ro­peans have the power to cre­ate their iden­tity and fu­ture in whichever way they want. Still, there are so many peo­ple who crit­i­cise and com­plain. That might be im­por­tant for the de­vel­op­ment of Eu­rope, but you shouldn’t ig­nore the fact that there are peo­ple, like my­self, who don’t enjoy the same free­dom.

Cafébabel: Why do you think young Eu­ro­peans are so rarely aware of their free­dom?

Has­saan bin Sha­heen: I think it’s the ab­sence of a point of com­par­i­son. I want Eu­ro­peans to have it easy, but com­pared to the strug­gles of the youth in coun­tries like Pak­istan or India, the strug­gle of Eu­ro­pean youth is a lot less up­hill. Eu­ro­peans don’t seem to re­alise that that peo­ple in other parts of the world would strug­gle and fight and even die for this free­dom.

Cafébabel: Re­gard­ing these strug­gles, do you think Eu­rope should take on a role model func­tion and be more ac­tively en­gaged?

Has­saan bin Sha­heen: Per­son­ally speak­ing, I’m to­tally up for it. But my views are very dif­fer­ent from the av­er­age Pak­istani who might con­sider this to be a form of im­pe­ri­al­ism. But there are other, non-im­pe­ri­al­ist ways to go about it. You don’t have to ac­tively in­ter­vene, you can also cre­ate part­ner­ships or syn­er­gies with local gov­ern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tions or di­rect aid or for­eign in­vest­ment to spe­cific coun­tries. In that re­spect, I think Eu­rope could def­i­nitely step it up a bit. You have been fight­ing long enough for what you have, so if the forces of evil come right into your face, there is no rea­son to stay in the back seat.

Cafébabel: As a founder of the “De­bat­ing Cir­cuit”, do you think that the po­lit­i­cal ap­a­thy and un­will­ing­ness to en­gage you see in Eu­rope is also ail­ing Pak­istani youth?

Has­saan bin Sha­heen: I think youth all over the world are fairly ap­a­thetic. Dur­ing my stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of Lon­don for ex­am­ple, I met great peo­ple who worked very hard for the causes they be­lieved in, but quite nat­u­rally there were also lots of peo­ple who just wanted to have a good time. The same is true for Pak­istan. How­ever, change is eas­ier to bring about in Eu­rope where you can quickly see its im­me­di­ate ef­fects. In Pak­istan every­thing takes a lot more ef­fort and a lot longer to be im­ple­mented.

Cafébabel: How did you come up with the idea of found­ing a de­bat­ing so­ci­ety?

Has­saan bin Sha­heen: The idea came from the tra­di­tion of British par­lia­men­tary de­bat­ing which is quite pop­u­lar in Pak­istan. When I got in­volved in this, I was very bad at it, but my friend Ehab Ansari was doing much bet­ter. Our uni­ver­si­ties weren’t very sup­port­ive of the scheme, so we de­cided to make this up on our own. First we found a space in the Sec­ond Floor Café (t2f) thanks to Sabeen Mah­mud, then I called a lot of peo­ple in Karachi and did the sales­man thing, so we ended up get­ting a lot of peo­ple on board. Since the foun­da­tion of the De­bat­ing Cir­cuit in Sep­tem­ber 2012, we have done over 35 train­ing ses­sions and con­ducted work­shops in com­mu­ni­ties that are tar­geted by ex­trem­ists. In this con­text, we used de­bat­ing as a tool to teach them crit­i­cal think­ing. My per­sonal aim is to do this full-time.

Cafébabel: The “Dis­pute over Eu­rope” pan­els were all dom­i­nated by men. How many girls are in­volved in the "De­bat­ing Cir­cuit"?

Has­saan bin Sha­heen: The ratio is fairly low, but women are def­i­nitely ris­ing up. Per­son­ally, I would like there to be more women, but Pak­istan is still fairly pa­tri­ar­chal. To be hon­est, in the West we al­ways talk about fem­i­nism hav­ing hit its peak and pa­tri­archy being dead, but I think that pa­tri­archy is still very much alive. In Pak­istan a lot more so, of course! But we con­sume your lit­er­a­ture, your movies, your val­ues, so change is hap­pen­ing al­beit slowly. Again, the West needs to as­sume a more ac­tive role and de­fend those val­ues.

Cafébabel: You claim that talk is cheap and needs to be backed up by ac­tions. Do you think that in Eu­rope we just talk a lot?

Has­saan bin Sha­heen: I think that is true for any coun­try in the world, so Eu­rope is not a spe­cial place in that re­spect. One of the biggest prob­lems that Pak­istan is fac­ing is that every­one is very good at talk­ing. But in the West, there is this ac­tive ob­ses­sion with cre­at­ing a pub­lic sphere and the idea that there needs to be more dis­course. I think that dis­cus­sion is im­por­tant, but it also needs to lead to some­thing. Eu­rope is leaps and bounds ahead when it comes to hav­ing those dis­cus­sions, but it also needs to as­sume an ac­tive role in fur­ther­ing these dis­cus­sions by ac­tions. I al­most sound like a Marx­ist when I say we need to change the world! (laughs) But the point is that we re­ally need to change the world and that, at the end of the day, talk re­ally is cheap.  

CAFÉBABEL BERLIN DIS­PUTES ABOUT EU­ROPE

Cafébabel Berlin is an of­fi­cial media part­ner of A Dis­pute over Eu­rope. Fol­low­ing May 2, 2014, you will be able to read ar­ti­cles cen­tered on the con­gress as well as in­ter­views with the panel mem­bers. More up­dates can be found on Face­book and Twit­ter.