The South Asia Channel
Pakistan’s Curious History of Disavowing its International Honorees
Nobel Prize and Academy Award winners find little love in their homeland.
A sad irony of the Pakistani state is that when one of its citizens is awarded an international prize, he or she is often dubbed a part of some larger conspiracy against the state: from Faiz Ahmad Faiz, who won the Lenin Peace Prize in 1962; to Abdus Salam, who was awarded the Noble Prize for Physics in 1979; and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who received the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2012. Now, Malala Yousafzai, Pakistan’s most recent Noble prize winner, is being castigated on the same charges.
This curious pastime of disavowing countrymen and women once they are recognized by the international community seems to have begun with Faiz, the legendary Pakistani poet who was given the Lenin Peace Prize by the Soviet Union for his life-long struggle to achieve world peace and universal brotherhood. He was an influential left-wing intellectual, and one of the most regarded poets to write in Urdu. As Pakistani journalist Mushir Anwar put it in a 2011 piece for the Express Tribune: “Faiz was not a just a poet, however, he had a multi-faceted personality. He was a world class journalist and editor, a trade unionist, a thinker and most important of all, a teacher.”
Yet Pakistan’s political leadership and military establishment sensed a deep conspiracy lay within Faiz’s honor. After all, it was the height of the Cold War, Pakistan was aligned with the United States, and they presumed the Soviet Union did not believe in God, making the prize an attack on Pakistan’s Islamic ideology. As Faiz’s niece recalled to two students at the American University in Cairo in 1998: “The government was cognizant of the honor awarded [to] Faiz, [and] it was reluctant to allow him to visit the Soviet Union in order to receive the award,” though eventually he was allowed to travel to receive it.
Then, in 1979, the Noble Prize for Physics was awarded to Salam — a noted Pakistani physicist who shared the prize with two American scholars — for his scientific achievements on the theory of unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles; in essence, he predicted the existence of the ‘God particle.’ It was Pakistan’s first Nobel Prize in any category. But once again the state did not welcome this distinction because Salam belonged to an Ahmadi sect, a branch of Islam which had been declared ‘non-Muslim’ by Pakistan’s parliament in 1974. (Interestingly, Salam had actually left Pakistan in protest prior to receiving the award, and was living in Europe at the time.)
Pervez Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani physicist who once worked with Salam, told England’s Daily Mail in 2012 that: “[T]he way his colleague had been treated was a tragedy…He went from [being] someone who was revered in Pakistan, a national celebrity, to someone who could not set foot in Pakistan. If he came, he would be insulted and could be hurt or even killed.”
When Salam died in 1996 and his body was repatriated to Pakistan, he did not receive a state funeral and the media largely ignored his death. Nor did society spare him the indignity of having the word “Muslim” removed from his grave. The epitaph originally read “First Muslim Nobel Laureate,” but was changed upon the orders of a magistrate.
Decades later, in 2012, Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary Saving Face, which highlighted the plight of girls who were the victims of acid attacks, won an Oscar — Pakistan’s first — for best short documentary. But while then-President Asif Ali Zardari conferred Pakistan’s highest national award, the “Hilal-i-Imtiaz” (Crescent of Excellence) upon Obaid-Chinoy and much of the state honored her, she was also the target of widespread criticism.
According to Bina Shah, a Pakistani novelist and commentator, “conservatives [blamed] Obaid-Chinoy for making Pakistan ‘look bad’ in the eyes of world. Well-known Urdu columnist Orya Maqbool Jan, for example, criticized Obaid-Chinoy, arguing that she should have refused to accept the award in protest of a U.S. bombing which killed more than 15 innocent Iraqi and Afghani citizens. Two years on, her motives are still being questioned: Prominent television journalist Talat Hussain asked Obaid-Chinoy why she had chosen such a subject, which presented a dark side of Pakistani culture, when she visited his talk show in April of last year.
This curious cycle repeated itself with Yousafzai, after it was announced that she had won the 2014 Nobel Peace prize. While Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif welcomed the award, many others took to social media to criticize the choice. “Malala Yousafzai may have won the Nobel Peace Prize, but she remains an object of hate for many Pakistanis who view her as a Western agent on a mission to shame her country,” the French wire service Agence France Presse reported. Novelist Shah noted that: “Another popular refrain was ‘drone attacks.’ Why had Malala not spoken out about drones at the U.N.? Why did everyone care so much about Malala and not the other girls murdered by drones? Why did America kill innocent children with drones and then lionize the young Malala to make themselves feel good that they actually cared about the children of Pakistan and Afghanistan?”
While Faiz may have been seen as a Russian agent for his peace prize, Yousafzai was accused of being Western one. Jan, the Urdu columnist, commented: “U.S. President George Bush’s tongue has been put into this girl’s mouth.” Some even suggested that she was simply trying to gain popularity and asylum in the West. The BBC reported that: “‘The Americans and Malala’s father conspired to get her shot so she can become a hero,’ was the somewhat surprising conclusion of one editor of a Mingora-based newspaper some months ago.”
After the announcement of the Nobel award, an association of privately-run schools in Pakistan celebrated an “I Am Not Malala Day” — a play on the title of Yousafzai’s 2013 book — after previously banning its members from buying the biography as it was too sympathetic to British Indian writer, Salman Rushdie. Yet even before she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Yousafzai was viewed with derision in her native land.
When Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province’s government changed the name of the Government Girls College in Swat — Yousafzai’s hometown — to the Government Malala College for Girls in honor of her struggle for education, around 150 students attended a protest where they tore up and stoned photos of the well-known schoolgirl. The protesting students cited a fear that the school would be targeted by militants for its new name, revealing the power of the opposition to Yousafzai within parts of Pakistani society. One student stated: “I joined others who chanted slogans against Malala and pelted stones on her picture because she had left the country to settle abroad. We are poor, we cannot afford it and we will suffer because she has fled to Britain.” Yousafzai herself reportedly ended up supporting the move to reverse the name change on the basis that it could endanger the students.
In some countries, peace prize-winners and Oscar recipients are seen as some of the brightest stars in their respective fields and worthy of respect and admiration. But Pakistan, as one commentator put it, seems to be a nation of “confused priorities.” While some quarters call Yousafzai ‘the future of Pakistan,’ many others condemn her, as they did those who came before. In fact, a large number of Pakistanis has argued that Aafia Siddiqi, a Pakistani neuroscientist who is imprisoned in the United States on terrorism charges, is the nation’s real hero.
CORNELIUS POPPE/AFP/Getty Images