Through her courage, the 16-year-old exposes our inadequacies.
The nomination of Malala Yousafzai for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize produced a storm of emotions within Pakistan. Most people were—and are—enormously proud of her. But many people also responded with hate and anger. The pride is understandable. Unfortunately, so is the anger as is the hate.
But the fact that an emotion is understandable does not make that emotion justifiable. The hate comes from people who don’t know any better. It comes from those who have been carefully brainwashed into believing that the state of Pakistan is evil and that all those who stand in the way of the spread of Islam—as understood by the Taliban—are also evil.
In a recent interview with The New York Times, a former assassin for the Irish Republican Army described the mindset of a killer. “What you’re seeing in that moment,” he said, “is not a human being.” He then talks about how, in August 1974, he walked into a bar in Northern Ireland and shot a man at close range. Fine, you may say. We can understand the mindset of a young boy indoctrinated into becoming a suicide bomber. But what about the anger among even non-Taliban types? What can account for their vehement distaste for a girl who, as Dawn’s Cyril Almeida wrote, is evidently the proud possessor of a beautiful mind and a beautiful soul? Almeida’s explanation for anti-Malala sentiment was that it stems from the collapse of the state. I beg to differ. I think it comes from shame.
Over the past six decades, Pakistan has collapsed not just in terms of state institutions but also in terms of basic liberties. We have all witnessed the gradual closing of the Pakistani mind. It started first with the demonization of Ahmadis, whose victimization was then given official cover by the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto through a Constitutional amendment. Then came the Zia years in which the boundaries of acceptable debate were narrowed further so as to institutionalize a narrow-minded and mean interpretation of Islam. The following decade of democracy gave us the gift of sectarianism. Those seeds of hate were then further nurtured by the Musharraf regime through a misguided belief that preserving our strategic depth in Afghanistan was more important than preserving human rights.
The end result today is a Pakistan that would cause Jinnah to vomit if only he was unlucky enough to see the extent to which his creation has officially embraced politics of prejudice. There is a genocide going on against the Shia and the Hazara and the state yawns. Our official opposition—the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan—informs us that bombing churches is a religious obligation and no one blinks. Our media is free. But it believes this freedom is best used to harass people holding hands in parks or to castigate those who have the temerity to teach our children about the existence of other religions.
My thesis is that most of us know this is wrong. But unlike Malala we do not have the courage to speak out. We do not have the courage to put our lives, our families, and our jobs on the line. On an everyday basis, this cowardice gets hidden. We are too busy going to work and making enough to survive. But when someone like Malala comes along, that cowardice has no place to hide. We are forced to ask ourselves why we don’t have the courage to stand with her. And we are ashamed.
Shame is a powerful emotion and very few people like being made to feel it. So when someone illuminates the poverty of our minds, it is but a natural reaction to point fingers back at the person doing the shaming. And so people claim that Malala is a CIA agent, a Zionist stooge or an agent of imperialist oppression. Pointing fingers at her allows us to forget her bravery. And it lets us get on with our lives—falsely believing that we are adequate.
Naqvi is a senior lawyer based in Lahore. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely his in his individual capacity.