Qasim Aslam – Reinventing History
Qasim Aslam, a graduate from Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), is the founder of The History Project, an initiative that primarily aims to look into how governments meddle with history in textbooks to breed a very specific brand of patriotism among the readers of those books. Qasim has also been working on with international organization Seeds of Peace for the last 14 years, and is also a member of British Counicl’s Global change makers’ network and he was recently selected for the Acumen Cohort of 2016. Professionally, Qasim is an IT industry entrepreneur and a parnter with one of the most established tech firms in Pakistan Arbisoft. Doing all of these things at once might sound almost impossible, but not for Qasim. His constant persistence and hard work has enabled him to become what he is today. And this is not where it ends.
His entire life, Qasim has lived in Lahore. He completed his A-levels from Cardinal school, Gulberg, Lahore and then did his Bachelors in Computer Science from LUMS. Since his elder brother had done Bachelors in CS, Qasim’s parents told him to do the same as is the case in almost every Pakistani family.
In his second year, he realized that CS wasn’t his piece of cake, but LUMS didn’t offer a Business degree back then. So he decided to complete his degree in CS, but pursue his real passions later. It is not that his intimation has always been towards business. His intimation is more towards solving problems and building sustainable systems around the solutions.
Towards the end of his second year in Bachelors, Qasim took up an internship which turned into a full time job with flexible hours by the time he reached his third year at university. Fluency in English proved to be a real plus for Qasim, because in the IT industry, most computer software engineers had to face a lot of problems related to speaking fluent English. Qasim worked throughout his third and fourth year at LUMS, but left the job six months after his graduation. This was when he turned towards business and his first initiative was related to software related services. Within eighteen months of starting his own business, Qasim was making good money but he didn’t really feel satisfied. He tried his hand at some other business related ventures, but things did not work out very well for him at the start.
‘If there is something I don’t really believe in, I probably can’t spend a minute on it.’
Finding solutions to problems is something that was always of interest to Qasim. Back in 2005, Qasim started working on a project regarding response to natural disasters, and he was occasionally invited to speak at various UN conferences. However, the project was terminated in 2008 due to several unforeseen circumstances. From 2009 to 2010, Qasim worked on another initiative, but that also did not work out very well. In 2011, one of Qasim’s very good friends, Ayyaz Ahmad, came back to Pakistan, and during one of their meet-ups they had a discussion on how textbook history has a very big contribution in aggravating the identity and tolerance related problems that are becoming increasingly common in Pakistan. The two of them decided to do something about it, but they did not have a solution to start off with right at that time.
He says that they had a fair understanding of the problem, but a definite personal experience related to the problem was necessary because a lot of what we believe in and who we are is actually shaped by textbooks. Meeting people from the other side has always made him somewhat realize the extent of the effect of our ecosystem and the media on us. The feeling of being played around made him want to do something about the situation, all the more.
Once Qasim and Ayyaz had decided that they did indeed want to do something about the situation, they started going around and talking to experts. Obviously, almost everyone they met had a different opinion and that made things a bit irritating at first. But the approach that they used was relatively unique. Qasim and Ayyaz started with doing some research on people who had tried to solve this problem in the past, and then worked on identifying the mistakes that these people had made.
‘One of the issues that kept surfacing was that every time something has been done, it has either been dismissed as a Pakistani initiative or an Indian initiative. So, we decided to have an equal number of Indians and Pakistanis working on this project. Seeds of Peace turned out to be a great platform for us to use for this purpose.’
Qasim and the other people working on this project ultimately realized that textbooks are indeed the main root cause of the problem. Every single day, billions of students are exposed to the material written in these textbooks. So, they decided to specifically target history textbooks. However, the next step was confusing for them. They soon realized that there was no such thing as perfectly balanced history.
‘History always has multiple perspectives and your understanding is always colored by what you have been exposed to, and your own personal identity.’
Sick and tired of the countless suggestions they were getting, Qasim and his team decided to put the Indian version of textbook history right next to the Pakistani version and present it to kids. However, it turned to be a huge amount of text, and the main problem was that kids would never find so much text interesting. Zoya Siddiqui then came up with the brilliant idea of simplifying the text and supplementing each chapter with illustrations of a faceless man who dons different symbols to represent different identities. They put all this together in a book form, and launched it in India in 2013 with cooperation from Seeds of Peace. The news of the book launch went viral and received a lot of support.
‘I guess we got lucky that we were able to keep just the right balance between controversy and diplomacy. We could always blame textbooks for any questions we were asked, and thus we could never really be attacked on the basis of who we were or what we were doing.’
The History project has been highly appreciated in the United States and other countries as well. Qasim and his team rightly believe that if different ideas and perspectives are put together and presented to kids, there turns out be an immediate impact that teaches a lesson and helps the kids become potentially more tolerant towards the reality that there is always another side to every story. They want to expose as many students as possible to the idea that the history they have always been taught might not be perfectly true.
Qasim updates that they are now trying to get schools to adopt their course as a supplement to existing history textbooks. The ultimate goal is to initiate critical thinking and tolerance among students. Other than his work, Qasim is really fond of visiting new places and meeting new people. He has been to about thirty countries by now, and has friends from over eighty countries.
‘I feel sad for people who live in the cities because there is so much happening in the world that they are missing out on.’
Qasim has never really considered setbacks to be anything major. He thinks that ‘damn!’ situations happen all the time, and should never have an effect on our efforts. He very rightly believes that we should always keep trying to go ahead, even if times are not very good.
‘I have a very twisted sense of setbacks. I just don’t see setbacks!’
When he started with his career, Qaim’s family wasn’t really supportive. Like any other conservative family, they also feared ‘humara bacha khraab na ho jaey!’ But once, they saw him on TV, all their apprehensions faded away!
When Qasim started The History Project, he only wanted to do something about solving a particular problem. He never wanted every single person to agree with him, however he did want his project to have some sort of impact. The impact did happen. It wasn’t huge, and did not happen all of a sudden. Today, many kids have started asking questions after knowing that their textbooks are not exactly perfect. Tomorrow, these same kids will possess the qualities of tolerance and critical thinking. All because two friends noticed a problem, and decided to do something about it.
‘Every subsection of any selection has more or less the same number of good and bad people, be it Pakistan or India or any other.’
Interview by Hammad Anwar & Anum Nawaz | Written by Fatima Arif