Malala: The teenage heroine
When Malala Yousafzai published her autobiography ‘I am Malala’ in October 2013, written with the British journalist Christina Lamb, it caused an international sensation.
Hundreds and thousands of copies of the book were instantly sold out; many favourable reviews appeared in the global press. She was hosted to a dozen of talk shows, interviews and discussions, including the one she had at the John F Kennedy Library in USA. Wherever she went, she was hailed as a young heroine. She had rare audiences with US President Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain.
For every teenage girl across the globe, she was the perfect role-model. She was awarded Andrei Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought by European Parliament at this young age of 16.To her credit, at every public forum in which she participated, she spoke fluent English, clearly, confidently and authoritatively, without the help of a notebook or a prompter. That was Malala’s ingenuity which the world admired so much.
The mixed feelingsabout Malala by Pakistanis
But that was not the case back at home in Pakistan, her native land. There, the feelings of people about Malala were mixed. Some admired her as well as the cause she valiantly stood for: First a girl’s right to education and now a child’s right to education. There were politicians who appreciated her work even before she was shot by Taliban in October 2012. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani himself awarded her the National Peace Prize in 2011 when she was just 14 years. State Governments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sind chose to bestow her with handsome cash prizes. She was even invited to address the Sind State Assembly.
But after she became popular globally, things at home were not to her favour at all times. There were many who did not agree with her. There were some who even subjected her to scathing criticisms. When she started to receive accolades from the US and organisations in the West, many back at home started to link her to the drone attacks on Pakistani citizens by the US military forces. There were many conspiracy theories that had been created to slander her reputation. One was that it was a fake attack created by her to seek asylum in a Western country. Some others had branded her a ‘CIA Agent’ and a stooge of the Imperialists.
But at her meeting with President Obama just after her book was published, she did not mince her words about her opinion on US drone attacks. She told him in plain language that if the US wanted to eliminate terrorism, it should stop drone attacks. Instead, she stressed that the US should promote education among the young. This advice has been in accord with her public pronouncement that ‘Pens and books are more powerful weapons than guns’.
In this background, her autobiography ‘I am Malala’ deserves an objective and fair assessment. It has valuable lessons for Sri Lanka which in many respects has now been similar to Malala’s Pakistan.
Malala’s maturity in reading Pakistan’s socio-political history
‘I am Malala’ is not only the story of a teenage girl shot by the Taliban for campaigning for the rights of girls to education. It is also a fine account of the socio-political developments in Pakistan since independence in 1947.
The maturity she has shown in explaining the latter has made some critics of her work doubt about its authenticity. Some reviewers had even hinted at the possibility of a ‘ghost writer’ writing it on her behalf. The suspicion in this connection is invariably directed toward her co-writer Christina Lamb. There is no doubt that Lamb should get credit for the rich English in the book. However, the analysis, in the view of this writer, has been Malala’s own.
It would have been developed through a lifetime with the support of her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, an educationist himself. From a very early age, Malala had been used to questioning her father on numerous matters, specifically religion, politics and world affairs. Malala, the above average intelligent girl, would have certainly picked up more than what her father would have imparted to her in those regular discussions.
This has been amply demonstrated by her in the television discussions she had had with veterans in the industry. The articulation she has shown in answering the questions
they had put to her has even stunned some of them. Her interviews with Daily Show host Jon Stewart and CNN’s Christiane Amanpour are cases in point.
Advice from the father:
Don’t depend on extremists to interpret Koran
Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, has been a faithful follower of Islam. But his view of Islam was different from what was popularly believed in Pakistan. Ziauddin being a free-thinking erudite did not have to learn religion from others. He had the capacity to master Koran and other scripts by himself and understand their true meanings. His advice to Malala was not to rely on Imams – local preachers – to interpret the Koran. She should learn the Koran by herself and come up with her own interpretations.
After studying the Koran carefully, Malala says that she found a vast difference in what it said and what was preached by Imams. The free-thinking approach to studies which her father had taught her has converted Malala to a moderate, tolerant and faithful Islamist. That was how she started to despise the extremism in religion which Taliban wanted to establish in Pakistan.
Islamisation of Pakistan by General Zia
Malala’s account of socio-political development of Pakistan since independence is well revealing. Pakistan was an Islamic state with Islam as the state religion. But it constitutionally protected the rights of citizens to profess, practice and propagate religions of theirs. According to Malala, that has been the guiding principle of the state as pronounced by Pakistan’s founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
In fact, the Islamic state adhered to this principle in running its affairs in the first three decades since independence. But things started to change, notes Malala, after General Zia ul-Haq took power in a military coup in 1977. General Zia was isolated from the rest of the world after he hanged Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Prime Minister he deposed in the coup. Like all dictators who have lost recognition in the rest of the world, Zia too sought to establish legitimacy at home by moving into extremism.
Malala says that he openly supported the extreme groups that tried to take Pakistan back to a fundamental Islamic state. The result was the ‘Islamisation’ of the otherwise free thinking and modernising Pakistan. Once extreme groups are allowed to raise their ugly heads, it is impossible for subsequent leaders to reverse the course even if they do not support it. Thus, the Pakistani political leaders after Zia – Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Shariff and Pervez Musharraf – had to sail with the rising tides despite the chaos and instability it had brought to the country.
Pakistan is what it is today because of the open advocacy of extremism by Zia and the failure of its subsequent leaders in arresting it. This is an eye-opener for Sri Lanka which of late has tolerated and nurtured similar extremist Buddhist groups under various names. If one goes by what Pakistan reaped after promoting extremism, one could say that the output which Sri Lanka would also reap will not be that different.
"What does ‘I am Malala’ mean? This writer feels that it has many meanings. It means that one should fight for one’s rights even in the midst of mortal threat to one’s life. It means that one should not sponsor or tolerate extremism propagated by crafty groups in the name of religion, whether it is Islam, Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism, to fulfil their own self-objectives. It means that one should keep on doing one’s good work irrespective of the obstacles one faces. It means that one should speak out against injustice in society. This is Malala, that little girl in Pakistan, embodied in many meanings. In that sense, aren’t we all Malalas today who have to fight for our own rights, against injustice and against extremism all around?"
Nurture a terrorist; he will turn his gun against you one day
Malala notes that the Taliban was the logical outcome of this inactivity on the part of Pakistani leaders. In fact, the Taliban was created, says Malala, by the US in its war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Like any extremist group, Taliban too turned its guns against its sponsors subsequently. History has ample evidence to substantiate such betrayals.
Take the case of Sri Lanka’s LTTE. It was nurtured and sponsored by the Indira Gandhi Government of India. But the LTTE subsequently turned its guns against the very same Gandhi dynasty. So, if one promotes extremism, one should be prepared to harvest its ugly output as well. This is a lesson which Sri Lanka should learn from a book by a little girl in Pakistan.
Misinterpretation of Islam by Taliban
The Taliban is projected to outside world as a body of extremist Islamic beliefs. But Malala says that is not the case in Pakistan. Malala reports a discussion which her father had with one of his friends on the subject. According to them, the Taliban mentality is everywhere in Pakistan. The main ingredients of that mentality are anti-Americanism, anti-Pakistani establishment and anti-English laws.
What the Taliban has done is exploit the people whose minds have been infected by these viral feelings. So, it is a case of some smart groups with vicious objectives exploiting the already mentally sick masses. Religion is brought as the justification of their violent actions. The Taliban has advocated Jihad – a term with many meanings from duty to struggle to good society – in the sense struggling against those who do not believe in Allah. But Malala says Jihad is not the cornerstone of Islam. That cornerstone is peace, humbleness and living according to God’s dictates. As such, a misinterpretation of a term has been used by the Taliban and other Islamic extreme groups to promote violence in society.
First, the violence is directed against those perceived enemies outside the country. Then, it is directed against their own kinds who they believe do not follow the God’s way according to their interpretations. Thus, violence is propagated and everyone becomes a victim of violence. It is needless to say that a violence-infected society cannot progress as a ‘civilisation’.
Taliban gradually replaces the government
Malala says that the Taliban are smart marketers. They use the best entry-points to muster public support. They first appear as heroes to deliver helpless people from oppression and injustice. Pakistan is notorious for corruption in every sphere of public life, especially in the administration of justice. There are not only delays in due judicial processes but also wide-spread instances of travesty of justice.
Since the country follows English laws, the Taliban can direct the public’s wrath against the former colonial masters. They therefore come forward in establishing unofficially Sharia Laws and Sharia Courts to adjudicate justice. People become impressed because cases which had earlier taken 30 years or longer are now being heard within a day. Then, they start public punishments for social evils like drinking, prostitution, adultery and gambling. People not only see that cases are heard swiftly but also that culprits are punished promptly. Slowly, the Taliban starts invading all aspects of civilian life. At that time, they are so strong that no one dares to protest or fight against their tyranny. Those who do so will soon fall victim to Taliban terror.
Destruction of ancient Buddha statues and stupas in Swat Valley while Police look away
Malala says because of the apathy of those right-thinking people, the Taliban becomes all powerful in the Swat Valley where she lives. There have been ruins of thousands of Buddha statues and stupas in the Valley, indicating the signs of the rich civilisation it had long time ago. Malala says that the people of the Valley have always been proud of that rich civilisation though they practice a different religion now.
It is these statues and stupas which the Taliban started destroying first, claiming that they are not permitted in Islam – ‘haram’ in their view. Malala says that they had dynamited the famous Jehanabad Buddha which had been carved into the rock like the famous Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. The police simply looked the other way and Pakistan’s Archaeology Department could not protect the rich heritage coming from the ancient Kushan kings of the valley. Nobody protested because they belonged to some other civilisation.
Malala reminds herself of the famous poem written by Pastor Martin Niemöller about not speaking up against the Nazi terror in Germany and finally becoming a victim of that terror himself. At that late stage, there is no one to speak for his rights.
Taliban prohibits schooling by girls
Then, the Taliban started issuing various prohibitions. They included the prohibition of computers, DVDs, videos, Bollywood movies and music, bangles, women going to the market and finally girls attending schools.
Malala’s father had built, through sweat and labour, a girls’ school in his village. That was the target of attack by the Taliban. They first conduct a vicious campaign against Malala’s father. They call it NGO-funded because in Pakistan, as a result of propaganda by short-sighted politicians, NGOs are hated by all. They have been projected as outfits used by the Western world to destroy Islam and Pakistani nation. Then they say that the school uses girls in immoral practices.
Her father is ordered to close the school for otherwise the Taliban will mete out the severest punishment on him. It is important how Malala and her father responded to this threat. Since they are engaged in a righteous activity and they do nothing against the principles of Islam, they decide to continue with the school despite the mortal threat to their lives. The helplessness in them is that the Police turn a blind eye to Taliban activity and they have no protection from the legal government in the country. Thus, it becomes a single girl’s and a single man’s fight against injustice. They conclude that death comes only once and that death is a justifiable reason for them to stand tall against the Taliban when the whole Valley is driven for cover under fear the Taliban has orchestrated.
Taliban assassin: Who is Malala?
Taliban finally attacks not the father but the daughter. The assassin jumps onto the bus which has been transporting the girls from school to their homes and asks for Malala. Then he shoots Malala and two others at point blank range and disappears. The Taliban issue a statement justifying the attack. It said that Malala was attacked because she had defied the Taliban prohibition by campaigning for the girls’ right to education, engaging herself in anti-Islam activities by spreading secularism and naming Barack Obama as one of her heroes.
The last sin is alleged to have been committed by her in one of the public discussions. When asked to name her heroes, she had said that Obama was one of them because he came from an underclass black family and struggled to become the top man in the country.
However, the Taliban failed to kill Malala. She survived thanks to the superb treatment she receives from the Peshawar Combined Military Hospital first and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham in the UK later. In her new incarnation, she is now stronger both physically and mentally than before. She is now determined to continue her struggle against ignorance and children’s right to education throughout the globe. She asks for books and pens for children. That is because in her conviction, they are more powerful weapons than guns.
Malala: I am Malala fighting for our rights, against injustice and against irrational extremism
What does ‘I am Malala’ mean? This writer feels that it has many meanings. It means that one should fight for one’s rights even in the midst of mortal threat to one’s life. It means that one should not sponsor or tolerate extremism propagated by crafty groups in the name of religion, whether it is Islam, Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism, to fulfil their own self-objectives. It means that one should keep on doing one’s good work irrespective of the obstacles one faces. It means that one should speak out against injustice in society.
This is Malala, that little girl in Pakistan, embodied in many meanings. In that sense, aren’t we all Malalas today who have to fight for our own rights, against injustice and against extremism all around?
(W.A. Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)