As part of the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke with Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist based in Lahore. Mr. Rashid has covered Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia for over 25 years.

DEVIN STEWART: As we approach Carnegie Council's centennial anniversary in 2014, we are interviewing, hopefully, about 100 thought leaders around the world. Basically, the first question is: What is the thing that you find distinct about the age we live in today?

AHMED RASHID: I think the levels of violence have gotten much worse, and the types of violence that people do to one another—the kidnappings, the beheadings, the acid throwing, the executions, the throat slittings. All these things are not just violence from the Islamic world but are repeated around the world in many ways—the indiscriminate shooting of students in American universities, for example.

I think the violence is also linked to a continued intolerance of minorities in many countries, in many parts of the world. This is something we inherited from the twentieth century, with the purges of Stalin, the Holocaust of Hitler, the killings of Mao of the Chinese people. Mass killings and efforts to virtually commit a kind of genocide were very much part of 20th century history. We thought that after the end of the Cold War this would be relegated to history. But it hasn't been. We are seeing incredible amounts of intolerance shown towards religious minorities, ethnic minorities.

Anyone can become a minority now. Journalists are a beleaguered profession in some countries, and they too have become a minority to be attacked and kidnapped and harassed, rather than to be nurtured.

DEVIN STEWART: What is causing this violence and this intolerance? What is the cause of its being different from the past?

AHMED RASHID: I think multiple reasons:

  • There is the question of ideology and the battle for ideologies, which used to take place in a semi-peaceful environment, now takes place on the battlefield, whether you are an Islamic extremist belonging to al-Qaeda or a Christian evangelist.
  • The other thing, I think, is the increasing poverty of large numbers of people and the growing divide between those who have wealth and those who don't.
  • The lack of proper education in many countries of the world—not just literacy, but the really grounded frames of reference that teach students how to behave towards their fellow citizens. That is missing in a lot of education curricula around the world.
  • Lack of jobs and growing economic dislocation; the vast numbers of people who are forced to work outside their homes, outside their towns and cities, even outside their countries, and go to other countries to find work. This obviously has a hugely destructive role in family life and in other things. It obviously affects people's minds and mentalities.

DEVIN STEWART: What is causing the dislocation? Is it globalization, or do you blame something else?

AHMED RASHID: I think it is poverty basically. People are looking for the best possible alternatives for work and jobs, which are not available in their own countries.

We have countries, for example like Tajikistan, where 50 percent of the male working population is working in Russia or in some other former Soviet state. Now, can you imagine that 50 percent of the manpower of a country has left the country to work elsewhere, what that does to local family life, et cetera, if the state itself is so irresponsible that it doesn't really look towards bringing these people home?

DEVIN STEWART: Do you see things as getting worse or better generally?

AHMED RASHID: Things are getting much worse, I think. There are very little signs of anything getting better.

DEVIN STEWART: When you say the cause is poverty, is there something underlying that, or is it just a general lack of opportunity?

AHMED RASHID: I think all the figures are getting much worse. We know that. Incomes of families, all the indicators of poverty—health care, education, et cetera—are getting much worse all over the world. And the disparity in wealth is getting much worse between the rich and the poor. That is enormous. For example, even in the richest countries, like America, I think this has become a huge issue. We are not just talking about the third world or others, but even the United States.

DEVIN STEWART: Are there any other trends that you see as defining the time we live in, for example, anything positive or negative?

AHMED RASHID: I think what is positive is that there is a much greater effort by minorities, for example, women especially, to fight for their rights. I think this is being very positive and is happening around the world.

Resistance is everywhere. People are not prepared to take things lying down. I think that is helpful.

DEVIN STEWART: Have you thought about the concept of moral leadership? What does that mean to you?

AHMED RASHID: Yes, I think it is very important. When you have figures like, for example, the concept of the elders, people like Nelson Mandela and others, urging things; religious, spiritual, the Dalai Lama, for example; and even former political figures—I think it can play a very positive role.

There hasn't been enough of that for the time being. We've got this one experiment with the elders. I think you could do with moral leadership by well-known personalities who could actually try to set out and do some problem-solving and resolving conflicts and do mediation. You don't really have a world class group. The elders, frankly, are too old to be actively involved in mediation. But you do need a group of top people who have official sanction, perhaps from the United Nations, to try and attempt mediating conflicts.

DEVIN STEWART: So sanction by the United Nations would give them the gravitas to address these problems?

AHMED RASHID: Yes. I'm just talking off the top of my head. Maybe other things are needed to give them the gravitas. Maybe they need to be endorsed by other world organizations. But I think endorsement from the UN would be something very positive.

DEVIN STEWART: One of the projects that we are doing here is trying to illuminate an idea of a global ethic. It's somewhat ambitious. It has also been taken up by other philosophers in our time. What do you think of that idea?

AHMED RASHID: I think it's a very good idea. I don't think it will be much listened to in today's world. But, for example, a global ethic like tolerance of minorities of all kinds would be a very good thing to promote, or any other global ethic related to the escalation in violence and all the rest of it.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you see tolerance as being a unifying principle that many cultures could accept?

AHMED RASHID: Yes. I think the majority of people would like to accept it. I think very small minorities are carrying out intolerance. The question is: What are states and governments going to do with these minorities who are not accepting a broader tolerance?

DEVIN STEWART: Which idea—I think you have already answered this question—which problem or idea concerns you the most?

AHMED RASHID: I think the levels of violence and the lack of tolerance between all sorts of groups—ethnic, sectarian, political, whatever.

DEVIN STEWART: Is there another big ethical question that the world faces today?

AHMED RASHID: I think economic disparity. I think this has to be dealt with in the decades ahead. We have climate problems, we have the lack of water—there are going to be major fights over resources unless we first work out greater economic parity between people. We certainly want to avoid a fight over resources, which the rich will win—the rich not just meaning external rich countries, like America or China, but the rich within the country will win. The rich in a third-world country will have access to water; the poor will not. That is what I find very disturbing.

DEVIN STEWART: If we don't address these problems, what do we face?

AHMED RASHID: We face interminable conflicts, wars, tensions, the breakup of states, revolutions, failed states. We face a much worse situation than we have today.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you feel that these problems that you have talked about are being ignored?

AHMED RASHID: Yes, completely, by everyone. People speak up about them, but they don't really do anything about them.

DEVIN STEWART: Who is ultimately accountable for the problems you have talked about?

AHMED RASHID: I think governments are. Individual governments are not doing enough about intolerance and economic disparity. The global governments, when they come together in the UN, NATO, the European Union, all these blocs, they don't do enough either.

DEVIN STEWART: A final question: Are there structural roadblocks to addressing these problems?

AHMED RASHID: I'm sure there are, in the sense that parliaments and political parties all find these issues embarrassing or a slur on their own performance. Obviously, governments throw up a lot of objections to actually looking at this seriously. But I don't see these structural roadblocks as being a stoppage.

DEVIN STEWART: They're more psychological or they are sociological or political?

AHMED RASHID: I mean some people have passed laws about minorities and turning minorities as being unacceptable. So it's not just a question of—it's real roadblocks that people have set up.

DEVIN STEWART: Mr. Rashid, thank you so much.