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The Malala debate

The Malala debate

By: Owen Bennett-Jones

The Malala debate Malala’s Nobel peace prize has been celebrated all over the world. Both the simplicity of her message and her extraordinary poise at such a young age were on full display when she gave a short news conference the day it was announced. Magnificently, she said that while the prize was a great encouragement for her campaign she had not taken time off attending the day’s classes in her Birmingham school.

She must be the first ever Nobel winner who marked the moment of such great personal success by going to a chemistry class.

And it’s not only internationally that this remarkable young woman is appreciated. In Pakistan too there are many people who take pride in the fact that a daughter of Pakistani soil, from a remote region and with no great privilege in her family background, has emerged as such an admired global icon.

But others in Pakistan take a different view. After all, the reason that Malala is living in Birmingham is that were she to go back to Swat there is a significant chance she would be murdered. And while her book has been read all over the world it has been removed from some Pakistani school libraries on the grounds that its content is ‘controversial’.

Some of Malala’s critics make quite limited points. Yes, they argue, she is brave and has done a good job highlighting the need for education but she has made some mistakes. She should not have said in her book that Pakistan is centuries behind the UK. Pakistan is not that bad and anyway, it is demeaning and embarrassing for Pakistanis to have their relative lack of economic development paraded all over the world. Patriotic Pakistanis should talk the country up, not down.

Some in the army may share those views but they also have a slightly different objection: in her book, they argue, Malala is too critical of the extent of the army’s power and does not give enough recognition to the risks taken and sacrifices made by soldiers who have been away from their loved ones fighting the Taliban.

It’s an old story. While many soldiers mourn their comrades in arms who have given their lives fighting the Taliban and feel their efforts have gone largely unrecognised, many Pakistanis believe that the army is itself responsible for sponsoring some radical Islamist groups and the decision to tackle the Pakistan Taliban – for example in Swat – came far too late. Furthermore the army’s repeated interventions in politics has disrupted the democratic development of the country which offers the only long term hope of Pakistan emerging as a stable and more prosperous country.

While that debate rages on, another strand of Pakistani opinion has far stronger objections to Malala. The ideological right wing objects to her for a whole series of reasons. They dislike her gender and her understanding of Islam. They both distrust and resent her decision to live in the west. It’s difficult to know how many people think this way but reasonable observers might agree it’s not just a fringe point of view. Some in the mainstream, at least some of the time, are tempted to dismiss Malala with comments along these lines.

On the day Malala co-won the Nobel peace prize I did a BBC interview with someone who believed the award of the peace prize was a disgrace because both Malala and her father are no more than puppets of the west intent on establishing morally corrupting, western-inspired schools in Pakistan which will weaken the next generation.

The interview caused some upset. Why had the decision been taken to interview someone who gave such a bad impression of Pakistan? Why not reflect the pride many Pakistanis felt about Malala winning such a prestigious international award?

It’s a tricky issue for the foreign media covering Pakistan. For the most part liberals dominate western coverage of the country. There are many reasons for this. They tend to speak good English; they understand western media outlets and have the time and inclination to get on them; their opinions make sense to western journalists who find it difficult to comprehend the worldview of Pakistan’s nationalist and religious right wing.

But the result is that many western consumers of the news coming out of Pakistan can end up with a somewhat false impression of what the country is like and do not understand the strength of conservative forces in the country.

So for all the complaints that the foreign media concentrates on bad news (it does that everywhere and not just in Pakistan) and that it over-dramatises events, the fact remains that western audiences are generally presented with a disproportionate number of liberal Pakistani analysts.

Of course they speak for an important, progressive element in the country’s society. But as the liberals themselves know all too well, they are often fighting against the tide. Just consider for a moment the public reaction to the murder of Salmaan Taseer.

Pakistan’s mainstream religious leaders, despite their undeniable importance to the country’s politics and society, barely ever make it onto the western media. It’s a pity. They should be on more often. The same goes for political conservatives. More frequently broadcasting their views would give western news consumers a fuller and more nuanced understanding of what Pakistan is like and how its people think. The coverage, in short, should reflect the reality. Simple really.

The writer is a freelance British journalist, one of the hosts of BBC’s Newshour and the author of the new political thriller, Target Britain.

Twitter: @OwenBennettJone; Email: bennettjones@hotmail.com

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