We Are All Malala

Why can't Pakistanis condemn the Taliban for shooting a 14-year-old girl?


KARACHI — On Oct. 9, masked Taliban gunmen stopped Malala Yusufzai, a 14-year-old Pushtun girl from Pakistan’s scenic Swat area, identified her, and then shot her. A day later, the girl lies in a hospital bed, battling for life after doctors removed the bullet from her head. As Pakistanis, all of us, in some way, are fighting the same broader struggle with misogyny and ignorance. We are all Malala.

In the eyes of the Taliban, Malala’s crime was campaigning for the rights of women to get an education. She shot to fame by writing on the BBC’s website about the horrors of living amid a Taliban insurgency, and openly condemned the Taliban for prohibiting girls from going to school. She nearly paid for it with her life. A Taliban spokesman called her crusade an "obscenity," and said that if she survived, the Taliban would try to kill her again.

The Taliban blow up Sufi shrines; worshippers at mosques; and men, women, and children in markets. They go for maximum carnage, taking dozens of lives either with the help of remote-controlled bombs or by luring in dazed, brainwashed nutcases to commit suicide in public by detonating dynamite strapped around their waists. The Taliban have also targeted specific individuals: senior police officials, politicians, captured soldiers, journalists, and even some religious scholars belonging to Muslim sects and sub-sects that the Taliban consider heretical. Now, add to this list of victims a 14-year-old schoolgirl specifically targeted because the Taliban think she ridiculed and defied the dictates ordained by God and his scriptures.

Who is responsible for the Taliban’s murderous rage? A number of TV journalists, talk-show hosts, religious parties, and even some non-religious ones have continued to connect U.S. drone attacks in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan with the spree of death unleashed by the Taliban and the sectarian outfits allied to them. Fearing both the extremists and losing support from those swept up in the anti-American wave, they find it difficult to condemn Taliban atrocities without mentioning drones.

Pakistani moderates have accused Taliban supporters of being naive, or worse, of being apologists. The so-called apologists have retaliated by labeling their accusers "liberal fascists," or even "American-CIA agents." They complain that these "liberal fascists" are always quick to condemn attacks from the Taliban, but remain quiet when U.S. drone strikes kill innocent people.

This argument contains enough rhetorical power to win instant approval from a people squirming in a country ravaged by economic crises, crime waves, unabashed corruption, terrorism, a civil war in the north, a government and military dangerously ambiguous toward the Islamists and the Taliban — a society whose soul is being constantly pulled from all sides by the growing ranks of revivalists claiming that their understanding and interpretation of Islam is the most correct and accurate.

This argument starts to seem somewhat hollow when those claiming to fight a holy war against the United States and Pakistan are caught flogging women in public and blowing up schools. It starts to sound somewhat superficial when Taliban gunmen storm a schoolbus, shooting a 14-year-old girl in the head and neck amid the screams of terrified schoolchildren.

In the late 1960s, leftist intellectuals locked horns with right-wing Islamic ideologues to debate the ideology of their country and what it meant to be a Pakistani. The ideologues, with the help of mighty usurper Gen. Zia ul-Haq, won. Through textbooks, media, and politics, they advocated a Pakistan for which jihad was required.

But when such a jihad for a pious, powerful, and just Pakistan mutated into a mad grab for street and state power by violent sectarian organizations and outfits like the Taliban, the country plunged into an awkward existentialist and identity crisis.

Today, even the most educated Pakistani (especially if he or she is young), cannot differentiate between articles of faith ordained by God and the discourses of Islamic ideologues, who emerged at the end of the 19th century with the desire to Islamize society from below so that an Islamic state could be constructed from above. Secular or moderate Islamic scholars can distinguish between what the Prophet Mohammed taught, and the more modern laws that condemn blasphemers to death or the hudood laws that have imprisoned thousands of women in jails for rape. Their rape. But very few Pakistani Muslims are willing or able to make the same distinction.

At times, one can find a Pakistani hesitating to condemn a killer who murdered another person for suspected blasphemy. Though a tragically large number of people jumped with joy when a man assassinated the supposedly blasphemous governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, in January 2011 (he had spoken out against the country’s blasphemy laws), even more Pakistanis were thrown into a mental quagmire, trying to figure out if the killer did the right thing.

Forget about comprehending the matter through secular reasoning: A man who commits cold-blooded murder deserves to be tried. It was as if many felt that condemning the killer or his act amounted to condemning Islam itself.

In Malala’s case, thankfully, no one showered rose petals on the perpetrator, like some lawyers did after Taseer’s murder. A flood of statements condemning the young girl’s shooting came pouring in from politicians, military men, journalists, and common people. But only few were ready to explicitly mention, or even condemn, the perpetrator: the Taliban.

Some of Pakistan’s gallant politicians and wise ulema refused to speak out from fear. Others kept silent to safeguard their belief that the drones are bigger culprits than men who have thus far killed more than 36,000 civilians, soldiers, and police in our country.

I hope it is Malala’s fate to convince a confused population that the crisis facing Islam today results not from the intrigues of other faiths or different ways of life, but from those claiming to be its most vehement defenders.

<p> Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and a senior columnist at Dawn, Pakistan's largest English-language daily. </p>