By: M Saeed Khalid
Malala and modernity Render unto Thor what is due to him. The chairman of the five- member Nobel Peace Prize Committee in Norway, Thorbjorn Jagland refuses to be led by public opinion or the media. He thinks it is the committee’s vocation to lead, by sharing its own vision with humanity at large. He also loves to confound the self-styled pundits who have started betting on the peace prize winner.
One night in October 2009, Jagland went to bed thinking Obama should get the prize. He arose the next morning, convinced more than ever that he was on the right path. All he needed to do later that day was persuade the equally drunk four other committee members that the peace-mongering freshman US president deserved the honour and he would have at least three more years to earn it.
Did Jagland play a practical joke on the world? Two years later, all five committee members proposed (in jest?) to Obama to return the prize for not fulfilling their expectations!
The guessing game for the Nobel Peace Prize 2013 was special for more than one reason. The media went into unabashed hype over 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai’s prospects as the favourite. The fact that the media considered Malala and only two others among over two hundred nominees, a Russian democracy activist and a Congolese surgeon helping war rape victims, practically sealed their chances for the simple reason that the grey heads of the Peace Prize committee in Oslo do not brook interference in their work. The higher a nominee goes up in the media’s estimation, the less his or her chances of emerging a winner.
The committee’s selection of the Hague-based OPCW as the winner has one thing common with Malala. It is also 16 years old. The young age that was considered a handicap in the case of a woman was not viewed in the same light when it came to an organisation. There can be many ways of consoling the youngest nominee for not being conferred the world’s most prestigious award.
Jagland said that Malala was still young and could be nominated again. But rather than looking ahead, one is tempted to look back and remind the readers of two other Subcontinental celebrities who were passed over: Mahatma Gandhi and Abdul Sattar Edhi. Both were repeatedly nominated but could not win the honour.
The Nobel prize carries a fairytale aura about it, making people little known outside their milieu, household names worldwide. But Malala has already earned that kind of fame thanks in no small measure to a globalised media. So the actual conferment of the prize could only bring an incremental raise in her popularity. Malala tried to explain that actually winning the prize was less important as the people across the world had favoured her nomination and she had a lot of work ahead of her.
The universal spotlight on Malala has led many Pakistanis to raise their finger at the lack of unanimous acclaim that has been denied to the brave youngster in her own country. But when thinking of that, it becomes evident that we have yet to fully honour the pioneer of modern education for the Muslims of India. Or for that matter, the man who lifted the cause of modernist education.
I am referring to the two visionaries, Sir Syed Ahmad and Sir Muhammad Iqbal. For a timely explanation of their role, readers can see the thought provoking article by Prof Tahir Kamran in The News on Sunday of October 13, titled ‘An ideological vision’. The article succinctly shows how Muslim writers of the 18th and 19th centuries evoked the melancholy that had set among Indian Muslims. The ‘low’ feelings were to lead to more affirmative thinking by people like Sir Syed and Allama Iqbal with amazing success.
As I write these lines, memory flashes back almost forty years when a young Nigerian surprised me by saying that Khan had played a great role in the progress of Indian Muslims. “Khan”? I replied, realising at the same moment that he meant Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. You have to travel to nations like Iran and Egypt to be reminded that the message of Iqbal was for all those under western imperialism or physical occupation.
Today, as we debate the tremendous psychological boost that Malala has given the cause of modern education for every girl in the world and more so in her own country, let us remember those two great minds that brought Muslim consciousness in South Asia and beyond towards modern instruction and renaissance.
This is an appropriate moment to decide ways to honour Muhammad Iqbal, Syed Ahmad Khan and Malala Yousafzai for their contribution in Muslim awakening. At a time when obscurantists are hitting at the very foundations of the edifice built on the basis of progress, the state must find ways of reconnecting with modern thinking. Our media too should organise events to support the freedom of thought that is the fruit of modernist thought.
Popular symbols like public parks, avenues and squares should be renamed after them. And why not their pictures on currency notes? There is no law that says there should be only one face, even that of the country’s founder, on every denomination of currency.