By: Dr Adil Najam
By this time next week I hope the world will be celebrating the award of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize to Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan. The winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize is expected to be announced at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo, on Friday, October 11, at around 11.00 AM Central European Time (CET). Malala will remain a global hero and an inspiration for all even if she is not awarded the prize. If awarded to Malala, the Nobel prize would have fulfilled the mission and intent for which it was created.
If she is awarded the Nobel prize, it will come nearly exactly one year after the then 15-year old Malala was brutally singled out and shot in the head and neck, at close range, by Taliban gunmen, while on a school bus. The murderous attack by the Taliban was in ‘retaliation’ to her speaking out for education and women’s rights in the Swat Valley, particularly during the Taliban occupation of the region.
The attack left her paralysed and in critical danger. Despite a dwindling prognosis for survival in those early days, doctors in Pakistan worked feverishly to reverse course towards recovery and later she was moved to the United Kingdom for intensive treatment and rehabilitation. It was not till early February of 2013 that she was able to leave hospital in what CNN called “a stunning story of survival and recovery” having become what Deutsche Welle described as “the most famous teenager in the world.”
The Taliban had shot at her with bullets to silence her. They had threatened murder after that first attempt failed. Their apologists had tried to smear her name with a campaign too petty, too vile and, frankly, too insignificant to waste words on. She had shot back with words of conviction, nerves of steel, grace under pressure, and a generosity of heart that stunned even her admirers and shamed her antagonists. She emerged as the clear victor. Her 16th birthday was celebrated in the halls of the United Nations, a world day of celebration was named after her, and accolades deservedly continue to shower on her. Those who had wished to silence Malala Yousufzai, instead gave her a new, stronger, more vigorous voice.
Malala’s is clearly a story of courage and grace. But the Nobel Peace Prize is not an award for valour. Unlike all the other Nobel awards, it celebrates conviction much more than achievement. And, let us never forget that at its very core Malala Yousafzai’s story is not just a story of survival, it is a story of conviction. The Nobel award should be given to her not because of what happened to her on that cursed October day, but rather for what she stands for – what she stood for before that day, and what she continues to stand for today with every greater resolve.
The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded not to a person, per se, but to the idea that the person (or institution) comes to personify by their conviction and by their actions. An award for Malala would be a celebration of the idea that education is the best answer, maybe the only answer. That education is worth fighting for. That education is the only way to win.
Malala’s own words (in her speech at the UN) are worth quoting in full. This out of the mouth of a 16-year-old:
“On the 9th of October 2012, the Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead. They shot my friends too. They thought that the bullets would silence us. But they failed. And then, out of that silence, came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.
“I am the same Malala. My ambitions are the same. My hopes are the same. My dreams are the same…I am not against anyone. Neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban or any other terrorists group. I am here to speak up for the right of education of every child. I want education for the sons and the daughters of all the extremists especially the Taliban.”
The idea that Malala personifies – and which is deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize – is a simple one. And it is powerful precisely because it is simple. It is the idea that education matters, it matters in the most precise and pragmatic ways in which anything can matter, and it matters most in the context of girls’ education and women’s rights.
She understands why education is so important to those who seek it and also to those who seek to deny it: because education brings dignity. The power of Malala Yousafzai’s conviction shines through the dignity with which she carrier herself. That dignity is as endearing to those who seek peace, as it is threatening to those who seek to destroy it.
And it is here that this endearing teenager has discovered a tactical truth about extremists everywhere, and about the Taliban in particular, that was either missed or not fully understood by so many strategists who have been studying them: nothing scares the Taliban more than the idea of education, especially education for girls. The world may be shocked and surprised at why the Taliban have such animosity and loathing for this little girl. But Malala Yousafzai understands it exactly and clearly: They are afraid of her.
I remember tweeting soon after Malala was shot, “can someone please tell me how I explain to my 11-year-old daughter why anyone would try to kill a 15-year-old?” It was Malala herself who told me how to answer that most harrowing of questions. Here’s why: “The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them… Because they were and they are afraid of change, afraid of the equality that we will bring into our society.”
Much can be said about why extremists like the Taliban are against education. Malala explains it with a clarity that can come only from the young. She recounts (again, in her UN speech) how a boy in her school responded to that very question from a journalist by pointing towards a book and saying, “A Talib doesn’t know what is written inside this book.”
Simple. Elegant. Deep.
Nothing makes us more afraid than that which we do not know. Nothing is more disempowering than not knowing. Nothing more empowering than knowing. And therein lies the idea of the power of knowledge; the power of education. It is this idea that deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. It is the conviction in this idea as personified by Malala Yousafzai that deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.
We will know in less than a week whether Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan is awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize or not. Malala already has much of the stature, respect and influence that comes with the award. A Nobel Peace Prize will add relatively little to the recognition she already has. It will add much to the world’s recognition of the real power of education. If there is an idea deserving of a Nobel prize, this is it.
The writer has taught international relations and diplomacy at Boston University and at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and was the vice chancellor of LUMS. Twitter: @adilnajam