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The two faces of innocence

By: Ayaz Amir

Islamabad diary – If only things were in black and white, with no need for shades of grey.

Malala shot at by a Taliban hit man and much of Pakistan erupts in an outpouring of anger and raw emotion, so fierce the reaction that it is considered a tipping point, swinging public opinion in favour of drastic action against the Taliban. That was then.

Malala addresses a gathering at the United Nations, at only 16 her poise, confidence and eloquence far beyond her years. Her audience is transfixed, the world is moved. But across much of Pakistan there is the silence of the mountains…no rapture, no exultation, only stony silence. This is now.

Why? It’s the same country, the same people, the same beautiful girl. Just bring out the newspapers of that earlier event and the livid anger is palpable. See today’s newspapers and it is as if we are looking at a mighty conversion, an altered landscape. Have the people of Pakistan become more insensitive, the young girl a lesser vessel of symbolism than when she was attacked by the Swat Taliban?

No, Malala is the same – if anything more beautiful – and the people of Pakistan are the same. It is the message which has altered. When she lay betwixt life and death she represented courage and the spirit of fortitude…and Pakistan, except for the usual clerics and holy fathers, rallied to her side, and felt proud that amidst all the bigotry and intolerance to be found in our midst here was a symbol of hope, of a better tomorrow.

At the UN the message was a bit clouded. For one, Malala was being shepherded by that unconvincing US Global Envoy for Education, former British prime minister Gordon Brown. With Tony Blair, he was one of the principals who took his country into a false and unjust war against Iraq, laying that country to waste, displacing two million people, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands (the definitive tally still to be determined), and, among other consequences, turning a largely secular country into a breeding ground of sectarian violence. There was no Al-Qaeda in Iraq before. Thanks to the Iraq war, there now is.

To see this figure not taken seriously by even his countrymen anymore, championing Malala’s cause, even if Malala and her father can do with all the help they can get, it grates. If Tony Blair, Dick Cheney, and Gordon Brown were the only ones at the gates of heaven selling entry tickets, they would still invite questioning glances.

Malala when she was shot at didn’t have to say anything. She was her own message, the experience she had gone through enough to rock the whole of Pakistan, and the world besides. But at the UN what she said, eloquent though it was, touched only one aspect of the truth.

“Thousands of people have been killed by the terrorists and millions have been injured”, she said. But who are the terrorists? If we accept the American definition of terrorism, that Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are terrorists, is it all that irrelevant to ask as to who’s killed more people since the September 11 attacks, the ‘terrorists’ or the apostles of right, the Americans? Who’s responsible for the horrors of Iraq? And what was the connection between the 9/11 attacks and Iraq?

Malala is not to be blamed. Even if we take her words as her own, it is not for her to write a PhD dissertation on terrorism and its various permutations. That is the business of others. Even so, the choreography of her UN appearance sends across a clear political message: that there is a body of men who are terrorists, who are responsible for the violence plaguing the world, and that we – Gordon Brown and his armies – are the purveyors of light, prophets of virtue, including education for girls and equal opportunities for women…in short, the torchbearers of civilisation.

Malala is not the issue here. This message is the issue, for it is as distorted and indeed as perverted as the grounds made out for the twin occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.

There is so much literature, western literature, that has come out about Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. There are so many books, some of them fascinating and revealing, about the Bush White House and the shenanigans of Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld. The Al-Qaeda guys may sound bigoted and misguided, with a one-dimensional view of the world. They don’t come across as criminals. But the key figures of the Bush administration with their lies and manipulations, manipulating not just the world but their own institutions, they really come across as a bunch of outright criminals. Even the CIA was telling them, ever so timorously, about judiciousness and restraint. But these cowboys rode roughshod even over those weak caveats.

The same thing was happening in the UK, Blair and Brown but principally Blair, manufacturing a tissue of lies and half-truths to support the case for going to war, and after the event twisting and shuffling to evade historic responsibility for what they had done. Brown was a forgotten figure after losing office, no one paying much attention to him. Far from helping Malala, it is Malala who has helped him by making him look useful and relevant. And this is just the beginning. There is a book to be written and a Hollywood documentary to be made. So my guess is that escaping Brown won’t be that easy.

“I raise up my voice”, said Malala, “not so that I can shout but so that those without a voice can be heard.” The US army used depleted uranium shells to wreak havoc on the Iraqi town of Fallujah. America’s role in the ‘war on terror’ could fill a new set of Nuremburg diaries. But the chances are remote of any child victim of the Fallujah bombing, or a child victim of drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, being given a hearing at the UN. To the victors not only the spoils, but also the interpretation of history.

Trust the Taliban, however, to be their own worst enemies. Adnan Rasheed is the ex-PAF person who had a hand in the attempt on Musharraf’s life. It was to spring him that the Taliban carried out their daring attack on Bannu jail. His letter to the media about Malala reveals once again the surreal world he and his companions inhabit. He accuses Malala of promoting an education system begun by the British colonialists to produce “Asians in blood but English in taste…” He advises her to return to madressah education. And Adnan would perhaps be passing as an intellectual amongst the Taliban.

The Taliban are not going away anywhere. They or their forebears have defeated one superpower. They are now in the process of humbling another. The Americans won’t come to our rescue. They are running away. We’ll have to fend for ourselves. Our problems are two-fold: (1) putting our own house in order and making Pakistan a better-functioning enterprise than it is at present; and (2) helping to open the Taliban mind so that they can leave some of their facile theories behind. But before we go about opening the Taliban mind, we’ll have to do some mind-widening of our own. If the glorification of the likes of Mumtaz Qadri is the best we can attain to, then we have a problem.

But we have to get one thing straight. The Taliban are not just about women’s education and female segregation, or the promotion of virtue and the suppression of vice. They are freedom fighters hardened by a combination of American folly and Afghan geography…and their own tenacity. When the Americans are gone they will be there still and we will have to live with them.

Tailpiece: Visiting Guangzhou, Nawaz Sharif sought suggestions from Zhao Jianguo, president of the China Southern Power Grid, about line losses and power theft. Mr Jianguo said, “…proper management and supervision coupled with application of stringent laws could be of help in this regard.” This is taking education seriously: going all the way to China to hear such precious advice.

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