What Islamist extremists could not do with their brutality and bullets, the West seems to have managed with adulation and accolades.
On October 9, 2012, a gunman boarded a school bus in the Northwest Pakistan district of Swat, asked for a 15-year-old girl by name and shot her three times. The girl was Malala Yousafzai, whose family ran schools in the region. She had already blogged for BBC under a pseudonym about her life under Taliban occupation, and she had expressed herself publicly and with remarkable bravery to promote education for girls. We know the rest of the story—despite a fatwa by 50 Pakistani clerics condemning the attack on Malala, the Taliban reiterated its determination to murder her and her father. Sent to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham for intensive rehabilitation, Malala recovered and was given refuge in England. She also became a remarkable symbol of resistance to religious fundamentalism and of the right of children, especially girls, to be educated. The April 29, 2013 issue of Time magazine called her one of “The 100 Most Influential People in the World.” She was also the winner of Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize.
So far, so good. Last Friday, exactly two years after the dastardly and brutal attack on her, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. At 17, she became the youngest person to receive the prize. She shared it with Kailash Satyarthi, a children’s rights activist from India in his sixties who I first met, almost 20 years ago, when I started off as a journalist in Delhi.
I have only the greatest of respect for Malala as a person and an activist. And I feel that education for girls is not just a major cause to fight for, it is probably the most important cause for people like me, who come from a Muslim background. I believe that much of what is called retrograde Islamism is essentially a patriarchal backlash and the only real antidote to it is full and equal educational opportunities for every girl child in the world.
And yet, what is it that Malala can really do, from asylum in England, apart from be a symbol? How much has she achieved in the few years in which she had lived, courageously, and suffered in this world? There is no doubt that she is a person of great courage and integrity; there is no doubt that she is a necessary symbol. There might also be no doubting the noble intention of the Nobel committee, in this gestural award that highlights a vital need, a fight that has to be fought by every right-thinking human being.
As someone who grew up on the other side of the Pakistan-India border and in a Muslim family, some painful thoughts crossed my mind too. I wondered, for instance, if our cultures have nothing more extensive and enduring to offer as evidence of work toward peace than a courageous 17-year-old girl. If so, there is something seriously lacking in our nations and cultures. Could it be true? I do not know. But then I thought of some recent news from Pakistan: for instance, the dozens of health workers who have been attacked—and killed in some cases—by Taliban and assorted idiots for giving polio vaccinations to children. Evidently, admirable as Malala is as a person, there are many other brave persons in places like Pakistan fighting for necessary causes—people actually in the field, so to say. If such people are there, and if we fail to make them visible—concentrating instead on just one story of heroism—don’t we actually convey a contradictory message globally, the message of lack? As if all that Pakistan et al. can offer is one Malala. And if the Nobel committee can see only one Malala—for the fault is not Malala’s—then surely there is a remarkable lack of information and knowledge even in such rarefied circles of global opinion-making!
Chanelling Abdus Salam, the other Pakistani Nobel laureate, a journalist wrote a vigorous letter in a Pakistani paper pointing out the “bigotry” that “we” deny in our hearts. "Salam" warned Malala to be prepared for the hatred of her countrymen, and urged her to keep loving them nevertheless. I could hear this bigotry on Facebook. It came in two shades: anti-colonial and Islamist. The anti-colonial version dismissed Malala for selling out, for saying what the imperial powers want to hear. The Islamist version ridiculed Malala or painted her as a figure in a CIA conspiracy. Both were totally unjustified.
And yet, the more I thought, the more questions arose. On the one hand, we had loud acclamation, bordering on worship. On the other, we had rabid criticism, smelling of fire and brimstone. In between stood Malala, effectively silenced and isolated.
What kind of burden rests on her 17-year-old shoulders now, I wondered? Is it fair to put that sort of burden on such a young person? Is it fair to award the prize for what might be achieved, rather than what has been achieved—because, unlike Satyarthi, Malala has not had the time to organize anything of substance, despite her brave personal example and her visibility as a symbol. To date, Satyarthi and his organization are credited with rescuing and educating about 100,000 such child laborers in India. She has not had the time to rescue 100,000 children from the darkness of Taliban and its ilk.
Now she might never get that chance. The adulation of well-meaning but largely ignorant people has put her beyond the pale. One original reason why she became such a fresh and enabling symbol—unlike the thousands of men or women who share her opinions in Delhi or Karachi or New York—was that she was “in the field.” Real change—in Pakistan or elsewhere—will be brought by people in the field, as Malala was when she was shot, as the anti-polio workers and hundreds of educators continue to be. By shooting her, Taliban tried to remove her from the field. They failed, largely. The outpouring of support that she received in Pakistan—including a supportive fatwa by 50 Islamic clerics—was an index of the failure of Taliban. Even though she had to take refuge in England, she still remained present in Pakistan—she was a local Pakistani story of courage and change.
Now, I realize, Malala has been taken over by the superior circles. I won’t call it the West. I call it the superior circles—people with lots of good opinions, and the inability to operate in the field. Because the Malalas who work in the field are different: They can talk the language, work by a combination of persuasion and confrontation, take two steps forward and one backward, move when they can, withdraw when they have to. These Malalas are people who can sometimes be shot, but who are not out there asking to be shot because they know that the good fight is long and slow and it has to be fought not just against hostile strangers but also against cousins and nieces and uncles. They are very different in this from people like the members of the Nobel committee, even from people like me.
Once again, it is not Malala’s fault. I even hope that—given the remarkable integrity she has displayed until now—she might be able to evade this well-meaning conscription by the superior circles. But for the time being we have turned her into a symbol so heavy, so over-burdened with our intentions and meanings, that she is experienced as a burden by many Pakistanis who were, until lately, like her and for whom, until lately, she was an example from amongst them. In order to escape us and return herself as an example to the thousands of other Malalas still working in Pakistan and elsewhere, Malala will have to show even more courage and resilience than she showed when confronting the Islamist gunman. I can only hope for her.
An earlier version of this piece mispelled the name of Abdus Salam, and neglected to make it explicit that a column ostensibly offering advice to Malala was in fact written by a journalist.