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Malala of Pakistan

By: S Iftikhar Murshed

Malala Yousufzai told her transfixed audience at the UN on July 12, “The extremists are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them. One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first!” These were the words with which the 16-year-old child concluded her speech and was given a standing ovation – an honour no other person from her country has ever received.

She informed the world that her miraculous recovery after being shot in the head last October by the Taliban had reinforced her belief in the righteousness of her cause, “…nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage were born. I am the same Malala. My hopes are the same. My dreams are the same.”

Her crime had been that she had sought education which, she was convinced, was much more than merely her birthright – it was a sacred duty because the commandment of God was “Read – for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One who has taught man the use of the pen – taught man what he did not know.” These were the first verses of the Quran that were revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in a remote mountain cave near Mecca more than 1400 years ago.

The significance of the revelation is that of all the living beings it is only the human race that is gifted with the ability to read and write. This has enabled man to preserve his experiences, observations, thoughts and insights as written records that are transmitted from individual to individual, from civilisation to civilisation, and from generation to generation. It is knowledge thus acquired that is the driving force in the story of the ascent of man and is encapsulated in the Latin phrase quo non ascendam – ‘to what heights can we not ascend’.

But Muslims have not heeded the injunctions of their religion and have been left far behind. A recent survey shows that in the entire Islamic world there are only 57 universities of international standing while India alone has as many as 8,460. In Pakistan the startling reality is that 25 million children are out of school, 12 million have been compelled by circumstances to join the labour force and no less than 618 infants die every single day. These gruesome statistics were confirmed in the report ‘The State of Pakistan’s Children 2012’, released by the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child.

An overwhelming majority of Pakistanis live in the voiceless world of pain. Their sunless existence is spent in fetid hovels as they struggle to put bread on the table for their families. Many take their own lives, others become vulnerable to the poisonous extremist ideology and join violent outfits such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

It was this ideology – based as it is on distortions of Islamic tenets – that Malala was targeting when she said “the power of education frightens them.” The implication was that the extremist mindset can only be overcome through the acquisition of knowledge. Millions worldwide listened with rapt attention to the youngest nominee ever for the Nobel Peace Prize and enthusiastically endorsed all that she had to say. Her only critics were in her own country.

On social media she was referred to as ‘Malala Dramazai’ and the assassination attempt on her was brushed aside as contrived and orchestrated by the west. On Facebook and Twitter the 16-year-old child was pilloried for not condemning drone strikes. Posters of Malala and Mukhtaran Mai with crosses on their faces were circulated and both were accused of publicising their hideous ordeals for no higher a motive than to acquire vast fortunes, fame and asylum abroad.

Malala’s critics may only be an insignificant segment of society consisting of those in the habit of uttering inane moral platitudes, but the damage they have done to the image of the country is huge. Such people are the unwitting ideologues of violent extremist outfits. The problem, however, is much deeper because several mainstream political parties either want to placate the TTP and its affiliates or, even worse, are sympathetic to their cause.

In the context of Malala’s UN address, the best that the chief minister of Punjab Mian Shahbaz Sharif could do was to grudgingly concede on Twitter, “Good speech by Malala! Could have been better – seemed to be written for global consumption.” But the chief minister’s own statement a few months back was neither fit for domestic nor “global consumption” when he publicly appealed to the TTP to spare Punjab from suicide bombings and other forms of terrorist violence because the basic objectives of the PML-N and the outlawed group were one and the same.

Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which has now formed government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is even more marred by false ideals. On June 21 when a suicide bomber killed 14 people at a Shia imambargah in Peshawar, the PTI provincial information minister callously described the carnage as “just a bomb blast and not the end of the world”. His colleague, the finance minister, chimed in that everyone between the ages of 18 and 35 should undergo military training for jihad. The entire party seems to have been infected by the virus of extremist ideology and this was again on display last month when a PTI member of the National Assembly, called for the “immediate” release of Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer.

After Malala was shot, Imran Khan repeated his usual refrain that all such acts of violence were prompted by drone strikes. This is not corroborated by verifiable evidence. The drone operations began in June 2004 but there were only ten attacks till 2007. It was in 2008 that the number of Predator missions increased significantly, whereas terrorist outrages commenced more than two decades earlier. Some of the major incidents include the devastating bomb explosion in Karachi’s Bohri Bazaar in 1987 which killed more than 200 people; the FIA Centre in the same city was blasted in 1991, the US Consulate was bombed in February 2002 followed by the Karachi Sheraton a month later.

In the north, Maulana Sufi Mohammad started his attacks in Swat way back in 1994 and by 2003 the district was occupied by his son-in-law Mullah Fazlullah, which triggered military action the following year. But “the Taliban came right back in Swat, after one of the many misconceived ‘peace’ deals”, said an analyst who writes a weekly column for a Lahore-based newspaper. The situation was no different in the tribal areas where Mangal Bagh overran the Khyber Agency and then launched a spate of vicious attacks on Peshawar in early 2004 – months before the first drone strike.

In the 43 days from June 5 when Nawaz Sharif was sworn in as prime minister till July 18 there have been 39 terrorist incidents. June was a particularly blood-drenched month. It ended with the ruthless massacre of 28 Shia men, women and children in Quetta accompanied by the slaughter of 18 people near Peshawar. The dreadful tempo of violence has continued unabated.

Despite this, Nawaz Sharif is determined to initiate talks with the TTP and will soon convene an all-parties conference which is expected to establish a working group for this purpose. Such APCs have been held before and the recommendations of these high-profile events have invariably been built around initiatives aimed at reconciliation with those who refused to be reconciled.

A Russian friend phoned from Moscow and said that in the global fight against terrorism “Malala of Pakistan represents the inimitable power of the human spirit to overcome the forces of nihilism and darkness.” He explained that these were not his own words but were taken from an article that had appeared in one of the Pakistani newspapers earlier in the week.

The writer is the publisher of Criterion Quarterly: Email: iftimurshed @gmail.com

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