The recent speech given by Malala at the UN youth assembly has provoked opposing feelings, which reflect a disturbingly sharp divide in our society.
Malala’s supporters are proud of her bravery, her defiance of the Taliban, and they are impressed by her message of forgiveness, as well as the enormous reception she has got at the UN.
On the other hand, are the numerous denouncements of Malala. Many of those critical of Malala are not unlettered people given that much of this criticism has appeared on social media. Soon after Malala’s UN speech, a plethora of comments began appearing on Twitter and Facebook, calling her an American or a CIA agent. Others blamed the CIA for attacking her, or claimed that her wounds had been faked to tarnish the image of Pakistan. A Taliban leader has subsequently written Malala a letter claiming that the attack on her was provoked by her attempts to malign the Taliban and their cause, rather than her desire to get an education. The letter also suggested that Malala should return home and enrol in a madrassa.
This ongoing controversy surrounding Malala has been noticed abroad as well. For instance, a recent article in Time Magazine claims that there was widespread sympathy for Malala after she was shot, but since then, the mood has turned darker. The article cites a public opinion survey by the Washington-based International Republican Institute which found that a majority of Pakistanis do not blame the Taliban for the attack on Malala. It goes on to assert that conspiracy theories are rife in Pakistan, which are, in turn, blamed on years of dictatorship and suppression of press freedoms. While the article mentions the Raymond Davis incident and drone attacks lending some substance to conspiracy theories and anti-American feelings, it asserts that Pakistanis find it easier to cast blame on external factors and concludes that a major reason that Malala has been spurned as a local hero is her acceptance by the West.
Unfortunately, our own behaviour helps fuel the negative stereotypes about Pakistan abroad. While the UN was marking ‘Malala Day’, the Pakistani government didn’t do much to register the occasion. While some politicians praised her informally, others like the chief minister of Punjab considered her speech somewhat unconvincing by commenting that it was written for global consumption and tried to please everyone.
However, the fact that Malala referred to Buddha, Gandhi, Mandela, Badshah Khan and Mother Teresa was indeed appropriate given that she was speaking at a global forum. Claims that Malala is a secret agent of some sort, or she has defamed Pakistan to get a British passport (Mukhtaran Mai had also faced a similar accusation) are preposterous as well.
If there was anything unsettling about this entire event, it was seeing the UN’s blatant attempt to showcase and parade Malala in the effort to raise its own credibility. Seeing the UN endorsement of Malala’s heroism does seem a bit cringe-worthy given the impotency of the UN in challenging the US invasion of Iraq without a Security Council resolution, or doing much about the ensuing havoc unleashed in Muslim countries around the world since 9/11. Seeing Gordon Brown, the former prime minister of a country with a shameful colonial past, as the Special Envoy for Youth, benevolently praising Malala for her bravery, did not make one feel any better.
It was, however, great to see her back a petition calling for urgent global action to ensure the right of every child to safely attend school and to hear of her plans to devote her life for the education of girls. I am not sure who helped young Malala with her speech, but they could certainly have been a bit more reflexive. Instead of making her sound profusely grateful to the UN for supporting her, it would have been wise to also point out some of the broader global discords which compound problems confronted by ordinary citizens in countries like Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 26th, 2013.