Individuals Creating Peaceful & Harmonious Societies

Individuals Creating Peaceful & Harmonious Societies

The quiet leaders working in Dunedin

Leadership. Ingrained in the minds of young people, is a concept and a characteristic reserved to describe those who are the subject of daily media attention. These are the heads of governments and the representatives of nations, the innovators of business and economy, the spiritual guides of religious communities, and the trailblazers of everyone’s favourite social causes. As I write this, I, myself become overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by my inability to ever reach such standards or ever be a leader who can create any surmountable change. Overwhelmed by a world in disarray. Overwhelmed by the lies, the greed, and shear propensity of human kind to commit heinous acts of violence. Overwhelmed because no matter how much good we experience it is always overshadowed with what can be crudely surmised as ‘evil.’ No, not the kind that Plankton regularly proclaims against his arch nemesis Mr. Krabs, but the real kind that is etched into our psyche every day.

Perhaps it is easier to just stop there. To accept the reality of the repulsive world which we have inherited. To sit on our couches, drink our beers, smoke our dope, blast our music, and scroll through our newsfeeds. To create for ourselves a little pool, not too hot and not too cold, but just right. Where thinking about the issues of our time cannot take hold, where Pokémon Go becomes our obsession, where silence and contemplation are not welcome, and all negativity is drowned out by the constant necessity of noise. 

However, the reality of human nature exposes a sour truth. No matter how hard we run, the real world will eventually catch up to us. So then the inquiry of reason becomes ‘how do we respond?’ 

It is clear to me that young people in New Zealand are facing a challenge unlike any other generation that has come before it. We are, as a generation, facing a crisis that prizes us with the second highest rates of youth suicide in the OECD. Along with a drinking, smoking, and shooting up culture unlike any other. In the midst of some of the highest standards of living in one of the most beautiful places on earth, young people in this country are in the proverbial tunnel with not even a glimmer of light.

Perhaps my assertions are simplistic, but they are supposed to be. These assertions are made to impress upon us, young people who are reading it, that the issues we face and the problems that evoke in us powerful emotional responses are not entirely independent of each other. While solutions to these problems may seem entirely inconceivable, there exists a growing group of leaders, adhering to less publicised and politicised forms of leadership, who seek to create sustainable change one problem at a time, one person at a time. 

It is these leaders who work in the shadows of the public eye, who are the cornerstones of our communities, who identify, address, and resolve the minutest issues before they become large scale problems. It is these leaders who are, not only able to grasp the negative aspects of reality, but able to mould it into something positive.

One of these leaders is our very own Reverend Greg Hughson. When he isn’t treading the cold streets of Dunedin, you can find this thin framed, white haired man of God sipping on a hot drink, counselling students in the chaplaincy lounge overlooking the Link Centre. His walk is as gentle as his demeanour. A kind and caring individual gifted with a streak of absolute brilliance. He is a leader in every sense of the term, a man of immense faith and wisdom. In his calculated brilliance he became the driving force behind the most effective interfaith project seen in Dunedin, if not New Zealand. In the aftermath of the despicable actions of 9/11 he reconfigured the hate-filled opinions of many by creating, along with others, the Abrahamic Interfaith Group. A group whose activities have become of such value that even our public leader, the Vice-Chancellor, is in regular attendance.  

Quite often, alongside the good Reverend stands another leader who graces our magnificent university. He is the quick witted, silver tonged, and extremely unpolished Paul McDonald Gourlie. It is as though he has teleported from an alternate dimension and has never been able, or really willing for that matter, to return to a place that could handle and understand his dynamic, energetic, and extremely vibrant personality. He walks around seemingly aimlessly, introducing himself as the ‘President Governor,’ who is a Bedouin from the deserts of Saudi Arabia but who looks like an Irish man who can’t speak anything but English and the occasional word in Te Reo. To the untrained eye, he looks like a Koro who consumes a little too much caffeine and who may be experiencing residual effects from his (alleged) participation in the ‘dak’ culture of the ‘80s. To people who know him well, however, his seemingly aimless conversations with complete strangers are his own unique way of understanding the issues that people are facing at “his university” and in “his town.” He is the president of the Dunedin Multi-Ethnic Council, the president of the World Peace Bell Association – New Zealand Chapter, the founder of the New Zealand Education Foundation, and a very vocal advocate of a zero fees scheme for tertiary students. With all this on his plate, what fills up his days and most of his nights is his determination to work to resolve any problem that comes his way from whomever and wherever.

There are, however, those even less known than he. I once had the pleasure of being in the company of, what seemed to me at the time, just another Muslim aunty. She looked humble, she acted humble, and she even ate humble. Yet when she spoke, her simple words would move me to tears as she stocked the most latent fires within me. Her name is Rehanna Ali. Unbeknown to me at the time, she turned out to be quite a lot more than merely ordinary. She is a lawyer who has the capacity to make big bucks at a corporate law firm. Instead she runs an organisation which, at the time, provided families in Bangladesh with food supplies in exchange for them allowing their daughters to receive an education. She makes the occasional appearance at government events and the occasional Muslim gathering, but I am truly in awe of her relative obscurity. I challenge the best of you, who have perfected your craft of online espionage through Facebook stalking, to find online even a mention of the work she does or who she really is.

Finally, I present to you a lady no taller than 5 foot 4 inches (even that might be pushing it) who is as shy as she is brilliant. . For every inch that she has in height she packs a giant’s weight worth of leadership. Her name is Danah Toubat. This year she is the president of Muslim University Students’ Association (MUSA) the first time a woman has been elected to that role. Under her leadership, the organisation has moved mountains changing the perception of Muslims in Dunedin. It has become an active participant of interfaith and intercultural projects in order to reinforce the notion of Dunedin as a city of peace and harmony. Although her presence in the community remains in its infantile stages, she will soon present the exemplary model for an entire generation of young women in New Zealand.

Hamza Yusuf Hanson, an American Islamic scholar, once remarked that every person that has existed or will ever exist is a follower. That all leaders, be they those glorified by their respective societies or those who walk the streets like any other Tom, Dick, and Aisha, are indeed the followers of someone. It is this insight into the laws governing human nature, no matter how hard we try to alter it, which provides the first flicker of light in our proverbial tunnel. In understanding that all humans are followers, we must also understand that everybody is a leader. It is unimportant to single-mindedly focus on the size of one’s audience. Instead, it is important to recognise that one can be the leader of an entire nation or a leader to their younger siblings. 

In understanding this, we become empowered. We no longer have to be overwhelmed by our inability to live up to the ‘leaders’ we see on TV. Instead, we are empowered to shape the world little by little as we are able. We are empowered to respond proactively, instead of hiding from the reality of what is around us. We are empowered to be comfortable in feeling our emotions. To be happy. To be sad. To be frustrated and angry. To be depressed. Yes, to be depressed. Because, understanding the true nature of leadership also means that we are empowered in knowing that there are people who we can turn to, and who we can look up to, within our own communities. That although we might not know who they are, they do exist, and help and hope is not far away.

Understanding this and changing our thinking to have a more hopeful outlook on existence, transforms the little flicker in our tunnel into a beam so powerful that it guides our path out of darkness and hopelessness. We must change the way we think. We must change the way we perceive. We must change the way we analyse. We must change the way we treat the ‘other.’ We must change the way we treat animals and the environment. We must change what we consume. We must change what we desire. We must change our materialistic and finite ambitions and delve into the Infinite. 

All the obscure leaders that have been discussed and the many millions of others who create real change do so by starting with themselves. They are not people whose egos and self-interest consume them. They are people who transformed their own individual negative characteristic into positive attributes. As such when they are faced with a negative reality they are able to transform it into positive action.

I leave you with the story of Abdul Raheem Rasheed, a pioneer of the Fijian and Muslim Communities in New Zealand whose name has faded into obscurity. He was a lawyer by profession and a great one at that. His greatness and leadership did not spur from his receiving royal accolades or being recognised by the ‘leaders’ of his time. Rather, it was derived from his pure motivation of spreading a message of peace and harmony between Muslims and Christians. He was a leader who foresaw. He foresaw that without dialogue, a day might come where tensions would be reach such a boiling point that the ability of trying to understand the ‘other’ would not be one’s first objective. Thus, he begun a dialogue. A dialogue with himself, first and foremost. He became the first Muslim in Aotearoa to gain a degree in Christian Theology.

In order to change our families, communities, cities, and societies for the better. We must first, as leaders, change ourselves.

This article first appeared in Issue 21, 2016.
Posted 11:27am Sunday 21st August 2016 by Hashmat Lafraie.