By: Ishrat Saleem
All great leaders of the world stood for and practiced principles that transcend time and geographic boundaries. There are all indications that Malala Yousafzai is on her way to becoming a great leader
Among many bad news there was good news for Pakistanis last week. Watching Malala Yousafzai speak to the UN Youth Assembly on her 16th birthday and listening to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and UN Special Envoy for Global Education, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown shower praises on her was a proud moment for many of us. Shot in the head by the Taliban for her outspokenness and advocacy of girls’ education, Malala has inspired people around the world. Her speech was not just strongly worded and well delivered, Malala stood as an embodiment of the principles that she spoke of: love, compassion and forgiveness.
“I am not against anyone. Neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban or any other terrorist group. I am here to speak for the right of education for every child. I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all the terrorists and extremists. I do not even hate the Talib who shot me,” she said. The personal conduct of the Prophet (PBUH) inspired the Arab pagans to listen to his message. The love and compassion of Sufis of the subcontinent attracted people of all faiths to their dargahs and spread their message of peace. Indeed, religion is a matter of personal conduct, not public rhetoric as we have made it in Pakistan.
Malala’s reference to the children of the Taliban reminded me of a story of Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) visit to Ta’if to preach his message of compassion and mercy, and equality of all men. As the legend goes, when he invited the chiefs of three local tribes of Ta’if to accept Islam, they rejected his message and deputed mobs of young louts and idlers to mock and harass him out of Ta’if. Derided and hit by stones and clods of earth, the Prophet (PBUH) was soon covered in blood and stumbled down. He prayed to God for mercy, “You are the Most Merciful of the Merciful. You are the Helper of every weak one and every destitute one.” Soon Gabriel appeared with another angel and offered to raise the mountains and drop them over Ta’if. But the Prophet (PBUH) refused and said God would raise people from among the generation of Ta’ifites who would accept his message.
Malala’s bold ownership of her religion at the UN undid a great deal of harm that the violent extremists have done to Islam with their misdeeds. “They think that God is a tiny, little conservative being who would point guns at people’s heads just for going to school. These terrorists are misusing the name of Islam for their own personal benefit,” she said to a round of applause. Malala and her parents’ struggle is a positive story from Pakistan. They represent that part of Pakistan that believes in equality, tolerance, pluralism and secularism.
Did anybody notice how Malala built gigantic bridges with India by a small addition of ‘Gandhi’ in her speech? “This is the philosophy of nonviolence that I have learned from Gandhi, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa. And this is the forgiveness that I have learned from my father and from my mother. This is what my soul is telling me: be peaceful and love everyone,” she said while speaking about forgiving her attackers. Social media and comments section of newspapers are abuzz with praise by Indians who own Malala and are as proud of her as anybody else.
A comment by Rajesham goes, “Bravo Malala! We, Indians also stand by you. Malala’s speech gives to the people of the world and particularly the people of the sub-continent the courage to fight against all forms of religious bigotry and obscurantism. Like the people in Pakistan and Afghanistan, we in India also have to wage a struggle against our own variety of obscurantist forces. Malala’s bravery will surely instill confidence in us too.” Ranjit Singh Bhatt wrote, “In India we are so proud of Malala. She is a living legend and God send [sic]. She is the hope of all of South Asia. May Wahe Guru always protect her.” G Sahu wrote, “I am really very happy that someone from our neighbour [sic] has become the ambassador of peace and a symbol of woman empowerment for the world at the age of only 16 years. She is truly amazing and very bold in her speech. The world saluted Malala for her fight against terrorism with nonviolence. May god bless her…Belated happy birthday to you, Malala.”
There is also a sad part to this story. Malala did not receive as much love and recognition within Pakistan as in the rest of the world. After she was shot, a vicious campaign was launched to question the veracity of her injury and the sincerity of her cause. It is a moment for us to ponder why the nation is divided. A teenage girl that inspired the entire world failed to inspire those in Pakistan that have been fed too much on conspiracy theories and skewed narratives of hatred, exclusion, jihad and conquering the world to impose a particular brand of Islam on everyone else. These narratives come from madrassas and mosques, media and public leaders and, most dangerous of all, from the state education system. Each child that goes to school is taught that picking up arms is the duty of every Muslim, that Hindus, Jews and Christians are bad, that Gandhi, who is revered all over the world for his philosophy of non-violence, was a hypocrite and an astute bamboozler.
While the government deliberates on a counter-terrorism strategy, we see no indication there is even recognition of the role state curricula are playing in creating a support system for extremist causes. It is common to see people in Pakistan justifying the acts of the Taliban just because they profess to be against the United States. It is time we demystify the public and align our education system with the goals of enlightenment, progress and prosperity we have set for ourselves. Malala’s final message was simple: “So let us wage a glorious struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism, let us pick up our books and our pens, they are the most powerful weapons.”
The world cannot be won through the force of guns. Greatness comes with winning hearts and minds. All great leaders of the world stood for and practiced principles that transcend time and geographic boundaries. There are all indications that Malala Yousafzai is on her way to becoming a great leader. It seems the future belongs not to egotistical, revengeful, gun-toting men, but to pen-wielding, peace loving women.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. She tweets at @ishrats and can be reached at [email protected]