In January 2009, Pakistan’s Swat valley was fully under the control of a Taliban affiliate, Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi(TNSM), and its leader Sufi Muhammad had issued a decree banning female education in the area. Only a handful of schools there had escaped the Taliban’s destructive wrath. While fear gripped the entire valley, Malala Yousafzai, an eleven years old girl from Swat’s Mingora town, began telling the world her innocent tales of surviving the Taliban’s ban on education. Using the pseudo name Gull Makee, she wrote a diary for the BBC Urdu Service blog, narrating how she and her classmates still managed to attend the school by wearing normal clothes instead of uniforms, how fearful she once felt upon overhearing a passerby’s threatening phone call, and how frustrating it was for her to learn about the school’s closure for winter vacations, with no announcement about its reopening date.
In February 2009, a youtube video showed TNSM members publicly lashing a 17-year old girl in Swat. It went viral, causing widespread public revulsion against the Taliban across Pakistan and forcing the government to order an army operation against TNSM. Malala sought refuge outside Swat along with her family, like thousands of other families who had fled the valley to escape the vengeance of the Taliban and collateral damage from the army operation. Local and foreign media soon traced this rare symbol of defiance against Taliban subjugation from amidst the Internally Displaced People of Swat. This is when Malala, with support from Ziauddin, her father and school headmaster, began a vibrant public campaign for girls’ education in Pakistan. Her courage won her several distinctions, including a National Peace Award that is now named after her. She was back in Swat after the Army operation — and back in her school, as it reopened after the vacations. She proclaimed Benazir Bhutto, Barack Obama and Ban-ki Moon as her role models. And she aspired to join politics to realize her dream project – equitable education in Pakistan.
On October 9, Malala, now 14, was fatally injured in an assassination attempt by Taliban gunmen while returning from school. She has been in a coma ever since. The attack sent shockwaves across Pakistan and the world, and drew widespread condemnation at home and abroad. Within a day, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan provided a chilling justification for the attack: “Malala Yousafzai was playing a vital role in bucking up the emotions of Murtad (apostate) and the army and Government of Pakistan, and was inviting Muslims to hate Mujahideen…Malala is targeted because of her pioneer role in preaching secularism and so-called enlightened moderation. And who so ever will commit so in future too will be targeted again by TTP.” Citing references from the Quran and Sharia, the TTP statement claimed that killing children and females engaged in rebellion against Islamic law was not just a right but “obligatory in Islam.”
The tragedy of this youthful victim of the Taliban’s brazen terrorism has, indeed, become a rallying point for Pakistanis from all walks of life and shades of thought. Expressions of rage against the Taliban and praise for Malala have gripped the mass media. Civil rights activists have held rallies and candlelight vigils across cities and towns – with Friday, October 12, officially observed as Condemnation Day, seeing massive turnout of people praying for her life. Politicians in government and in opposition have unanimously expressed anger over the incident, terming it a violation of Islamic teachings and Pashtun traditions. Army Chief General Kayani has also visited Malala in the hospital, while subsequently mincing no words in warning the Taliban with punitive action: “We refuse to bow before terror. We will fight, regardless of the cost, we will prevail, Insha-Allah.” The response of the country’s mainstream Islamic groups has been equally forthright: More than 50 clerics associated with the Sunni Ittehad Council, the largest representative group of Pakistan’s Brelvi Sunni majority, have issued a fatwa, which states: “Islam doesn’t prohibit women from getting education. The attackers transgressed the Islamic Hudood (principles).” Described the interpretation of Islam by the Taliban as “repugnant to the teachings of Islam,” the fatwa clarifies that Islam not only makes it obligatory on its followers to seek education, but also strictly forbids taking the life of any innocent person.
Perhaps except for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007, no single instance of Taliban barbarism in recent times has seen such emotive national reaction in Pakistan—one that cuts across its otherwise violent ethno-religious fissures, troubled political divides and complex geographical confines. This unique moment could become a turning point in the country’s sordid history. For it does provide ample opportunities to all those who wield power in Pakistan—security establishment and civilian rulers as well as assertive higher judiciary and vibrant mass media as emerging pillars of influence—to turn the tables against Taliban. With her courage and sacrifice, an innocent icon of liberation from religious suppression has now clearly established the distinction of what is good and bad for Pakistan’s future. Malala’s Pakistan is one where secular values flourish, people make progress and the nation becomes prosperous. Taliban’s aspirations for Pakistan are of a nation that is neither at peace with itself nor at peace with the world. The decision time for the country’s leadership has finally come.
But reversing religious extremism and its terrorist expression has been an uphill task before, and will be so in the months and perhaps years to come. The deadly phenomenon has complex dimensions and equally intricate manifestations. Even in Swat, where I reported the first uprising of TNSM in November 1995, the instigators of jihad were not indigenous and their demand for Sharia had criminal motivations. It has taken decades for the forces of regression, using Islamic faith as a cover for grabbing power over people, to establish their roots firmly in Pakistan’s national fabric. Consequently, a persistent sense of fear and insecurity grips the state and the society alike. The moral decline synchronising with extremist surge has produced layers of duplicity in the country, whose expression is not merely confined to its external conduct but also to its internal reality. While there may be double-dealings in Pakistan’s counter-terrorism policies towards in the region—some of which may be justifiable in pragmatic or relative terms—but the prevalence of the same within Pakistan’s domestic sphere is hardly acknowledged by outside observers. Even in Malala’s case, while politicians in general have shown unanimity in condemning the act of violent, but they have carefully chosen not to make a pinpointed reference to the perpetrator. They still resist calling a spade a spade.
Cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan, for instance, did not spare a moment to have a photo opportunity with the victim, even while sticking to his hypocritical stance against the use of American drones and for peace with the Taliban. Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam has sadistically linked his condemnation of the attack on Malala with the condemnation of drone attacks by others. However, known as Maulana Diesel for his opportunism and corruption, the JUI chief may be somewhat right in exposing the hypocrisy of rulers for seeking political mileage from the suffering of a legend girl while caring little about her security before the tragic incident. Others like former chief of Jamaat-e-Islami Qazi Hussain Ahmed have resorted to lies and deceits, saying the TTP has nothing to do with the assassination bid on Malala. In the words of this Mullah, the attack was actually conducted on the instigation of the US government to create justification for a military operation in North Waziristan. Politicians or religious figures may be ambivalent in identifying the terrorist perpetrators out of fear, which is quite understandable in Pakistan’s case. After all, every leader who recently spoke out fearlessly against these merchants of death—from Benazir Bhutto to former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti—met a tragic end!
But to argue Malala’s tragic case in conspiratorial terms – and deliberately so – amounts to adding insult to injury. There cannot be any greater injustice than this. Unfortunately, the proponents of the Taliban in Pakistan are too good at playing this devious game – as they have done it time and again. Since anti-Americanism sells, each time the chips are down for the jihadi forces, a well-planned mass media campaign begins to divert and distract public attention from the real issue towards an imagined one – a larger conspiracy motivated by a sinister design to destroy Islam, Islamic Pakistan and what not. The real enemy in the present case is doubtlessly TTP. However, slowly but surely, diversionary tactics have already started to come into action in mass media discourse on the Malala issue. For instance, a picture of Malala’s father Ziauddin with late Richard Holbrooke was posted on Facebook, on the very day when a TNSM spokesman in Swat issued a statement holding Ziauddin responsible for “brainwashing” his innocent daughter, thereby making her a tool in American hands. Likewise, an Urdu columnist, well known for sympathizing with the Taliban cause, wondered how President Obama and Hillary Clinton could sympathise with Muslim Malala when they had Muslim blood all over their hands. The likes of Jamaat-e-Islami’s ex-Emir even envy why so much attention is being paid to Malala and why nobody is bothered about Dr Afiya Siddique, the Pakistani origin girl serving prison term in the US on terrorist charges.
We can expect such conspiracy talk to gain momentum in the days to come. Arguably, therefore, the possibility of this little girl’s heroic cause to eventually lose the real value of reversing the process of Talibanization cannot be ruled out. Even otherwise, Pakistanis have of late become quite used to tragedies, and their memory span for national tragedies is quite limited. Despite this, as stated before, Pakistan’s power wielders can use this incident as a rare opportunity to put the country on a progressive and peaceful path. TTP has long emerged as the greatest threat to Pakistan’s security. Like al-Qaeda, it prefers unarmed civilians in large numbers as its primary target. Through wanton terrorism, the organization has claimed the lives of thousands of over 40,000 Pakistani civilians and security forces, as per official estimates, and forced the rest of Pakistanis to live in perpetual fear. Terrorists have ruined Pakistan’s economy, defamed its international image and damaged regional relationships. In Swat and South Waziristan, the army has already taught this terrorist outfit a lesson before. It can take the battle forward, even while practicing caution if the ground reality or regional situation requires so. This is the moment to finish the job, as there may never be another of such a paradigm shift occurring in Pakistani public opinion against Taliban. For their part, America and its Western allies, and India and Afghanistan as Pakistan’s principal neighbours, must understand Pakistan’s terrorism-laden internal security quagmire. Pakistan needs to be engaged or helped, rather than to be further isolated or pressured—as the latter course only serves to embolden TTP.
The success in the battle against religious extremism and terrorism is essential for Pakistan to reclaim the pacifist and progressive creed of its founder father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The primary responsibility of this state, as Jinnah had envisioned in his August 1947 speech, is to ensure due protection and rights to all of its citizens, irrespective of their religion, caste or creed. It is a shame that the state could not protect Malala, despite knowing she was no ordinary person and knowing the threats her family had been receiving for months. The governmental justification that her family did not want state security as it was against Pashtun traditions is simply preposterous. Even the primary blame for turning the Paradise of the East, as the former princely state is commonly known, into a virtual hell for its traditionally peaceful residents goes to the state. For letting the forces of jihad flourish under its watchful eyes, as did many others in the region and afar. In the end, it had to be a little Pashtun girl from a conservative Muslim family to lit the flame of freedom and expose the myth of Pashtun savagery and monolithic Islam as espoused by some circles in the West. The appeal of Malala’s revolutionary message is so far and wide that Obama, Clinton, Moon and leaders world over eulogised her bravery—and even Madonna couldn’t resist singing a song in her name at a concert in LA.
With her courage and sacrifice, Malala has proven that the possibility of change in Pakistan is in plenty. She alone can cause a hundred Arab Springs, and deserves to live a thousand lives. Her sacrifice cannot go in vain. With maturity thrice her age and foresight rare in a visionless state, she is the future for which every Pakistani must crave. She now lays at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, with her nation in constant prayers. And pray we must all!
The author is Quaid-i-Azam Fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University.