April 1, 2018: Malala-hating and our xenophobia-radicalisation complex

The return of the Nobel Laureate and brave Pakistani icon Malala Yousafzai to her homeland is a matter of pride. The Pakistani state can rightfully take the credit that successful counter-terror operations in places like Swat have reduced the threat of violence by militias linked to the Pakistani Taliban. It was encouraging that the Prime Minister and his colleagues in the federal cabinet celebrated the event and honoured the young woman who, in real terms, has been Pakistan’s best global ambassador — courageous, resilient and focused on education.

The opposition leader Imran Khan, however, has been silent about Malala’s visit. Nevertheless, one of his celebrity allies Hamza Ali Abbasi tweeted about her return: “#MalalaYousafzai came bk,schools in Swat, APS Peshawar operating normally! Its a testament that terrorists have been defeated. Those suspicious of Malala, I dont blame them as many among us have always been suspicious of any1 west celebrates & history tells us that maybe rightly so!” The aforementioned actor has been pretty active in praising the head of now defunct Jamaat ud Dawa, Hafiz Saeed, and his patriotic credentials. Yet when it comes to Malala, she is a ‘stooge’ of the West and ‘suspicious’. In a way, he summarised the problems of the Malala-hating business in Pakistan.

But Abbasi is not the misogynist. Countless other social media users are peddling the same half-truths that were aired when Malala was shot by the Taliban. In many cases, the social media users who abuse her have something in common: most identify themselves as supporters of Imran Khan’s party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). The others include the usual right-wing suspects who are always keen to find fault with a woman’s voice.

There is widespread brutalisation of the mind that finds it ‘normal’ to attack and depreciate a victim of horrendous violence. And sadly many young Pakistanis display this tendency when they regurgitate lies and disinformation about Malala on social media

In a nutshell, Malala haters promote the following critique: she has not achieved anything significant to earn the global acclaim; and her international promotion as a symbol of resistance for girls’ education and rights is a ‘conspiracy’ to defame Pakistan and Islam which in the popular conservative opinion — set no less by the state itself for decades — are interchangeable. The attack on Malala has also been subtly justified as a reaction against the US occupation of Afghanistan and the drone strikes that take place. Even Imran Khan said something to this effect back in 2013.

Critics also hold that Malala ran away from Pakistan while other victims of terrorism are still in the country. The most oft-cited comparison is with some of the survivors of 2014 attack on an Army public school (APS) in Peshawar. This misplaced critique also echoes what the state has been doing since the attack. First, the narrative that those who die in cold-blooded murderous offensives are somehow giving ‘sacrifices’ for the country. This is why parents of the APS were awarded medals; as if they had sent their children to war. Somehow facing bullets at the hands of terrorists — and if you are lucky to survive, risking your life again — is akin to nationalism. This is as warped as celebrating victims of murder as patriotic heroes.

I have been trying to grapple with this. In the past years, I have been attacked by a variety of people for living abroad without an iota of sensitivity as to why I had to leave in the first place!

And then there is the phenomenon of fake news. Some in our media industry are experts on this subject. When Malala was shot, it was debated for days, if not weeks, that her shooting was nothing but drama. Factually inaccurate commentaries on prime time TV were aired and the unfiltered information on social media continues to circulate. When she wrote her global bestselling books, right-wingers on national TV attacked her for denigrating Islam and much more. Perhaps the best example is an image of Malala with a bearded German politician who is depicted on countless Facebook pages as Salman Rushdie. A clear endorsement of the mindset that equates girls’ education, global advocacy and opposing the Taliban with what ‘anti-Islam’ Rushdie does.

One can give some margin to the young who have been reared on such an anti-West diet of xenophobia masked as ‘honour’ and Islamic nationalism. But those who teach Pakistan’s children, such as private schools’ networks, have been busy orchestrating vicious campaigns such as “anti-Malala Day” with posters yelling ‘I am not Malala’. This slogan is inspired by a popular book called I Am not Malala: I Am MuslimI Am PakistaniA Story of a Nation, which was published in response to the self-told memoir, I am MalalaThe Girl Who Stood for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.

While it is true that the West may have its own purposes to find poster icons for its security projects across the world, the larger problem of Islamic extremism is a demon that we have to face and exorcise ourselves.

At the heart of this problem remains the ongoing ideological battle within Pakistan. Even though the military has changed its line in recent years and the politicians are more circumspect about glorifying militants, decades of propaganda about jihad has influenced millions. As Malala’s diaries as a teenager in Swat show: her activism even before she was shot was clearly anti-Taliban. The progressive Pashtuns, unlike rest of the country, do not distinguish between the good and the bad Taliban — a distinction that much of the rest of Pakistan has accepted. In fact, for those who identify with this latter view, the Afghan Taliban are resistance fighters and, not to forget, valuable for Pakistan’s strategic influence in Western and Southern Asia.

This is why the ones who try to kill a schoolgirl may not be as bad as someone who gets shot and tries to rebuild her life in a most constructive and glorious manner. There is widespread brutalisation of the mind that finds it ‘normal’ to attack and depreciate a victim of horrendous violence. And sadly, many young Pakistanis display this tendency when they regurgitate lies and disinformation about Malala on social media.

We have to radically transform our education system, as well as the curriculum that is shaping xenophobic minds, which, more importantly robs young people of compassion — a tenet of humanism that was central to our folk cultures. Ultimately, it is the state that has to change its direction and delink Pakistani nationalism from jihadism and fear of everyone out to destroy and defame the country. Those who argue that Malala and her advocacy have hurt Pakistan’s ‘image’ need to ponder this: how is their slander and abuse against her improving it?