By Syed Kamran Hashmi
July 31, 2015
Impressed by her passion for the education of women, the west lionises Malala Yousafzai. They believe the courage and perseverance she demonstrated against the Taliban even after she was shot in the head, demand worldwide recognition. Her struggle is so compelling to them that it has become a part of the curriculum in some middle schools across the US.
On the contrary, she does not enjoy the same celebrity status back home where she stays controversial on most social, moral and ethical issues. In fact, it will not be too wrong to say that she has become more of a divisive figure in Pakistan than a uniting one, and carries the impression of an insincere Pakistani who is more loyal to the west and their values than her birthplace. So polarising is her personality now that if you talked to people on the streets you would realise that either they support her all the way, promoting her like their own sister, or resent her as if she was their personal enemy, a ‘foreign agent’, a thief who has taken something out of their pockets. Simply put, she is not Abdul Sattar Edhi or Dr Adeeb Rizvi for Pakistanis who are cherished across the nation irrespective of one’s faith, gender, political affiliation or educational status. Knowing that, I am confident that Pakistanis would have been a lot happier if either one of them had gotten the Nobel Prize instead of Malala as these humanists have so thoroughly devoted their lives to the well being of the people who have been ill served and deserted by their ruling middle and upper classes.
Before moving any further, I want to mention that Malala is not alone in being controversial in the country of her origin. There are many renowned figures who are well recognised in Europe but fail to inspire their compatriots. Dr Abdul Salam, I believe, would sit on top of that list, followed by the Oscar prize-winner Sharmeen Obaid Chenoy. With these people in mind, the question is if there is a pattern on display of neglecting all our national heroes. I do not think so. For instance, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a world-renowned musician and singer, was revered in Hollywood and considered a legend back home. To be honest, he may have been more popular than Sharmeen Chenoy as he worked with the most acclaimed directors of all time like Martin Scorcese and Oliver Stone. Imran Khan, too, falls into the same category. Irrespective of his political ideology, he was considered a national hero even for his opponents while he stayed equally popular in Europe. What is the reason for this discrepancy?
Let me start by saying that even if Pakistanis do not agree with Malala Yousafzai’s ideology, most Pakistanis, at least, now agree that the perpetrators of her attack should be punished for their cowardly act. If they doubted the news about her injury in the beginning or sympathised with the Taliban before, it has changed altogether after the Peshawar massacre. The nation, today, stands behind their armed forces to eradicate terrorism altogether against the people who cannot differentiate between political ideology, religious beliefs and pure savagery. With that U-turn in their approach on tackling violence in the name of religion, the realistic expectation was that the favourable ratings of Malala Yousafzai would also rise. But that did not happen. What happened was that, as the popularity of extremist sympathisers dropped to almost zero, Malala’s ranking slid as well. The question is why.
I think it is not what Malala or Sharmeen have achieved on a personal level that matters to them; instead it is how their work represents Pakistan that matters. Their personal achievement could be as honourable as getting a Noble Prize but if that honour is obtained by putting forward a ‘negative’ view of their country, it will not go down well with the general population. With apologies to Dr Salam, I will have to take his out of this list because his work was purely scientific and had very little or no contribution on social issues; he just got penalised for being an Ahmadi at a time when emotions were running high in 1979.
The problem with both Sharmeen and Malala is that they show or represent the picture of Pakistan that, even though is true, is not pretty. Either it depicts a society that throws acid on the faces of helpless women, rendering them handicapped for the rest of their lives if they survive such an attack, or shoots them in the head when they want to study and be independent. The response of the people to that negative publicity is, hence, also negative. Wondering why they cannot find anything good in us, they think of the youngest Noble Laureate and the sole Oscar winner as either being unduly influenced by the west, dissatisfied by their own culture or, in the last case scenario, being paid by ‘enemies’ to demoralise Pakistanis. I do not agree with their assumptions though. I think that if, by bringing up a hard truth about society, one’s reputation gets tarnished, then that must be taken as an acknowledgment of one’s work not as criticism. If one’s work sparks controversy then it, too, must be embraced as an honour instead of humiliation. How can one improve if one refuses to introspect and identify their own problem? There is honestly no other way. Somebody from within has to do the dirty job.
Having said that, I also understand the feelings of the people. I know they would like to be respected and recognised as normal individuals without having the stigma of being a supporter of Taliban ideology or a typical Muslim male chauvinist. They want the rest of the world to look at them and know that most Pakistanis do not support either of these ideologies. However, they just do not know how to achieve that objective. They are hankering to get some recognition from the west on these endeavours too.
Syed Kamran Hashmi is a US-based freelance columnist.