By Khaled Ahmed
October 14, 2014
A girl from picturesque Swat Valley — once visited by the Chinese traveller, Hsuan Tsang, in search of ancient Buddhist scriptures — has won the Nobel Peace Prize for 2014. At 15, Malala Yousafzai, who had openly objected to the Taliban’s policy of destroying girls’ schools, was shot in the head at close range by a Taliban terrorist. The Taliban’s psychopath chief, Mullah Fazlullah, had ordered her execution from his hideout in next-door Afghanistan. Unfortunately, a popular TV channel in Islamabad aired a “morning view” on October 13, saying Malala’s Nobel was a Great Game conspiracy aimed at Pakistan.
Pakistan has, by and large, welcomed the award but many who denounced her as an American agent are silent. For its part, the state has honoured her with all kinds of medals and awards, in the face of a rising storm of opinion which wanted Malala set aside in favour of Aafia Siddiqui, an al-Qaeda agent doing 86 years in an American prison, whose release has been demanded by the Islamic State. Pakistan’s then army chief, General Kayani, saved Malala from death by dispatching her post haste to the UK, where permanent damage to her brain could be prevented.
After her departure for the UK, a pro-Taliban Pakistan went crazy. Some expat Pakistanis in the UK announced that they had recognised Malala for what she was: a renegade from the Muslim cause. A Britain-based Islamic group decided to meet at the infamous Lal Masjid in Islamabad to issue a religious decree against her, accusing her of supporting the “occupying” US forces in Afghanistan. Most people in Pakistan did not believe she had been shot in the head.
“There will be a fatwa issued regarding Malala Yousafzai, taking into account the full story of her injury, including her public statements in support of the occupying US army in the region and mocking of key symbols of Islam such as Hijab and jihad,” said Abu Baraa, a senior member of Shariah4Pakistan.
You guessed it. This was a cell linked to Anjem Choudhary, a British-Pakistani currently in trouble for abetting terrorism, and with a reputation that stinks a mile, because of his association with Arab cleric Omar Bakri, now ousted from the UK, and the latter’s radical outfit, al-Muhajiroun, as well as for his links with the Britain-based al-Ghurabaa, whose leader has been hiding in Karachi, where Daniel Pearl was killed trying to meet him.
Abu Baraa had further stated: “Malala is one of the issues we are going to be addressing because she is being used as a propaganda tool by the enemies of Muslims”.
Malala was guilty of defying a warlord possessing unopposed power. Swat was at his feet, honourable men were humbled and women made to surrender their jewellery to the mullahs. The Taliban governed through the spectacle of death in a district known for its soft tribal identity, welcoming tourists as guests.
Swat suffered the destruction of schools but there was more that left a deep wound: floggings of alleged thieves and fornicators, beheadings, suicide attacks and target-killings while the local administration stood aside and watched. Objecting to this Islamic governance was akin to signing your own death warrant.
And the state of Pakistan was going through its rabidly anti-American phase, which looked like an abject surrender to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. An anti-Malala wave gripped the middle class and families were split over whether she was a good Pakistani or a renegade who deserved to be killed. Facebook was full of incredibly filthy charges against her and her father, a schoolteacher who had recognised the genius in her quite early.
Politician Imran Khan, leading his party Tehreek-e-Insaf, which rules in the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, did the right thing by welcoming the Nobel to Malala. It was understandable because he is also an educationist funding a university in his native city, Mianwali. But it should not be forgotten that his government has banned Malala’s book from the premises of Peshawar University. The director of the Area Study Centre at the university, Sarfraz Khan, was made to stop the book launch that he was organising. He told the press: “I have received a message from Imran Khan through someone that whatever happened should not have happened.”
People retreat in the face of threat of violence. Malala was the victim of this mass pathology. She is only the second Pakistani to have got the Nobel. The first was Abdus Salam, who got it for physics in 1979, for his work on characterising what is now known as “the Higgs boson particle”. American scholar Ziad Haider wrote: “For just as Malala’s mistake was being a girl, Salam’s was being a member of the Ahmadi sect — a religious group declared to be non-Muslims in a 1974 constitutional amendment.”
After Salam’s death, the word “Muslim” in the “first Muslim Nobel laureate” engraved on his tombstone was painted over by a posse of semi-literate policemen enforcing the law, rendering the inscription absurdly as “First Nobel Laureate”. Haider added: “To be sure, many Pakistanis are ambivalent about Yousafzai. In an environment rampant with anti-American sentiment and conspiracy theories, some view praise for her a way of shaming Pakistan”.
TV anchors scared of getting bumped off by terrorists if they praised Malala or supported the way the West was lionising her, staged discussions to find fault with her. One TV talk show trapped Pakistan’s nuclear physicist, Pervez Hoodbhoy, into praising her book and then attacked him for condoning her for not writing “Peace be Upon Him” after the name of the Holy Prophet. They called him “Jahil (illiterate)”.
Hoodbhoy got an MSc in solid-state physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1973 and a DPhil in nuclear physics in 1978 from the same institution. The discussants, primed with questions without reading Malala’s book, chided Hoodbhoy on two other scores that no Pakistani can forgive Malala for: she praised Salman Rushdie and favoured Ahmadis as Muslims. When Hoodbhoy told them they were lying he was called “Jahil” by a bearded guest who happens to be the chief reporter of a national daily.
Needless to say, the discussion was “staged” and no one had read the book except Hoodbhoy. At the official level, one detail went against Malala: the book was narrated to Christina Lamb, whose own book on Pakistan, Waiting for Allah, was not liked by the country’s costive bureaucrats. Lamb, a resident foreign correspondent in Pakistan, was made to leave the country.
Abdus Salam fled Pakistan and came back dead to be buried with a defaced tombstone. Malala, too, won’t be able to return to the country she wants to serve. She is far too mature for Pakistan to accept. She has asked Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to be present in Oslo in December, when she is to receive the medal, and requested Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be with him.
There is embarrassing symbolism in all this. There is this extraordinary little girl, who was almost killed by the Taliban, receiving the world’s highest peace award and bringing together two prime ministers who are busy hurling challenges at each other while their countries need peace to carry out their well-known “pro-business” agendas.
Khaled Ahmed is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’ firstname.lastname@example.org