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Shada Islam on telling the story of Europe and Asia with passion

10:45 18/12/2018

Living through two “useless, futile” wars between India and Pakistan helped shape Shada Islam’s long and passionate love affair with the ideals underlying the European project. In various influential capacities – as a journalist, commentator, lecturer and now Friends of Europe think tank policy director – she has championed it, specialising in Europe’s relations with Asia and pushing for a better understanding of what makes that continent tick. It would help if Europe got better at listening, she says.

She got her break in journalism when, as a graduate, she was headhunted by influential Asian news magazine the Far Eastern Economic Review and has been communicating the East-West dynamic since. Born in Lahore, she’s lived in Brussels for 35 years and, while always having a foot in Asia, has not a flicker of doubt about where home is now.

The family’s arrival from Islamabad on a grey, December day might have been enough to put her off, but when she went exploring and stepped into the Bois de la Cambre, she fell head over heels. “I thought ‘look at this paradise’. And I’ve never moved far from it.” Her apartment, a stone’s throw from the park, is filled with the Asian artefacts and fabrics she can’t resist amassing when she travels. ING’s Dave Deruytter meets her there to discuss Europe in tumultuous times.

Politico has called you the ‘ultimate insider outsider’. What did you make of that?

I was surprised and honoured. They got the essence of what I’m doing. Look at me – it’s clear that I don’t look like a traditional European. I was born outside, in Pakistan, and I’ve lived in the UK, the US and Bangladesh. Then I came to Brussels and studied journalism at ULB, and became a Belgian citizen. I guess I’m part of the mainstream, but have my feet in two worlds. I’m an insider because I know this place very well, having worked around the EU for 30 years, and I feel deeply committed to the European project.

But I can also bring my knowledge, experience and empathy from the other side of the world. I can be a channel for opinions and ideas that are outside the bubble, if people are willing to listen to it. I’m proud to be associated with Friends of Europe because we’re different. We talk truth to power and don’t just toe the line. We’re working on Europe, not on the EU.

You’re a policy director, commentator, conference moderator and university tutor. How do you juggle these roles?

It’s all one thing, really. They’re all about communication of ideas and thoughts, and connecting with people. It’s multi-tasking, but they are not in silos. Being a journalist equips you for many things in life – you have to write, read, express yourself, be confident to ask questions, be curious, and empathetic. You have to sometimes say the unsayable and think the unthinkable.

I also teach, at the College of Europe’s campus in Poland, and it’s an evolution into a new channel which I think is very important, because it’s engaging with young people. I find everywhere I go young people are really amazing, and they teach me a lot. I have had to learn to set aside time where you can prepare for tomorrow… and the day after tomorrow, and the day after that. It requires mental acrobatics.

You specialise in Asian relations with the EU. How would you characterise the relationship?

When I started out, not many people were interested in the things I was, which were Europe’s relations with Asia and Africa. Europe and Asia were trading with each other but there was no real political conversation. Everybody was focused on the US. With the rise of the ‘Asian tigers’, Europe started engaging with Asia, signing trade agreements and talking about development co-operation, but it was still very one-sided. I remember shouting very hard in the press room and making a nuisance of myself, talking all the time about Asia with EU officials.

In the last few years this relationship has really taken off. Now we have rising China, we have Japan and South Korea, and perhaps there will be peace in our times on the Korean peninsula. India is also very self-confident. You have some very strong countries and an enormously vibrant and dynamic population. Conversations are now a two-way street. It’s also about them coming here, investing here and I think it’s a little bit of a shock to Europe.

Is Europe having an identity crisis?

We’re using to being the centre of the world. We’re used to being, in a sense, in charge, but we no longer are. Donald Trump has disrupted the global landscape. America was the undisputed anchor for the liberal, rules-based, multilateral order. Now that way of doing things has been shattered by Trump, who enjoys being a disruptor. We have to live in a new world order and reconsider who we are.

The same reflection is going on in Asia. If it’s America first, then others have to rethink what they want. It’s a challenge but I think we’re only now beginning to realise that this is also an opportunity. Asia is getting on with it and this is what I tell Europeans. At the moment we’re heartbroken over what Trump is doing to us, whether it’s Iran, Jerusalem, tariffs, or the Paris climate agreement. To start rethinking, we first have to heal our own wounds. Europe is currently very divided. It’s not just Brexit – that’s a big blow, but there’s more that’s tearing us apart. The values I really feel are so important, of human rights, tolerance, democracy, openness, sharing the same space, are being attacked full frontal by many governments in Central and Eastern Europe.

What do you see developing in the near future?

As we head for the 2019 elections of the European Parliament, these are crucial months. It’s very important we get some of our priorities right. At the moment everyone’s going in different directions.

I think three things have to be noted that are very important. Firstly, politicians at the moment are very disappointing. It’s all about self-interest, and about parties, before nation. But strength is coming from people. We focus a lot on the people who are voting for the far right, the bigots, but there are so many people’s movements out there. The second thing that’s going to be quite important is women’s leadership. At the moment women are still on the margins of power. When they do get into power they still don’t actually allow themselves to be women, and that needs to change. Also, we need more ethnic diversity in EU institutions, more colour, so that the policymakers, parliament members and so on look like the people they represent.

Finally, what’s going to be very important, in the world of fake news and bots and trolling, is authentic journalism. I really believe a strong, credible, independent press is very important for democracy and to promote tolerance, human rights and values.

Are we losing the tolerance Europe has been known for?

I’m sure many refugees and migrants are happy to be in Europe because this place has given them succour and shelter. If you don’t divide people by saying you’re a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Hindu… then people feel part of Europe. But you can’t just talk of integrating and expect me to become like you. You have to accept my differences too. It’s a two-way street.

I think the story of Europe can still be told with passion, but this is the challenge that we have for the next 12 months. Can we do it? Can we connect with citizens? If not, the European Parliament elections are going to be full of fascists, of populists. So I think our societies are going to be tested. We have to be very adaptable. If we’re not, Europe may lose the race. We need young people – where are we going to get them? We must educate young people that we live in a society that’s going to become more and more diverse, and that it’s something to be celebrated, and not to be hostile to it. But our politicians are not saying that.

How do you stay positive?

We all have agency. I think this feeling of helplessness is something those guys on top want us to feel, that they run the show. I think actually we run the show in our own little ways, all of us. Somebody said to me, ‘you’re so optimistic. Don’t you see the bad?’ Of course I do, but you don’t want to amplify the pain and the brutality that exists. If we all keep saying the same thing, it gets a power of its own. We see things happening all the time that are good but don’t focus on it. I do feel overwhelmed sometimes. But then I’m lucky, I can channel it. I write my blog and my columns. I try and meditate as much as I can and do yoga. I go for long walks in my beloved Bois de la Cambre.

This article first appeared in ING Expat Time

Written by Paula Dear