Let me start with my preferred version of the Malala narrative, just so that people know where I am coming from:
Malala Yusufzai is a 16 year old from Swat, the daughter of a left-leaning Pakhtoon educationist and activist named Ziauddin Yusufzai. During the Taliban’s reign of terror in Swat in 2009, BBC Urdu wanted to get a student inside Swat to blog about what life was really like under the Taliban. The initial plan may have been to find an older student, but when volunteers were lacking (or withdrew out of fear of the Taliban), Ziauddin volunteered his own daughter (or she volunteered on her own initiative; these details may be in her book, but I have not read the book as yet). Between January and March 2009, she wrote a series of blog posts for BBC Urdu, describing life under the shadow of the Taliban as well as her own feelings. These posts were popular and received notice from several quarters. The New York Times did a feature on her at some point and after the Taliban had been pushed back and her identity revealed, she was honored by the Pakistani government as a brave girl who took a stand against the medieval Taliban in Swat. Over time, her profile rose higher and she became internationally known as a symbol of resistance to the Taliban: a brave Pakhtoon girl who wrote about life in Swat under the Taliban and raised a voice against them (initially under a pseudonym, then openly once the Taliban had been pushed back by army action). This caused the Taliban a lot of heartburn and in October last year, they decided she should be shot to make an example of her. She and her family were still living in Swat and she was on her way back from school when they shot her (and two other girls in the bargain) and almost killed her, but she survived and thanks to excellent medical care in Great Britain, has now recovered and is able to continue her crusade on an international stage.
She is apparently interested in politics and she and her father obviously share an ideological dislike for the Taliban and their ideology. They are also brave enough to publicly take this stance (they are not alone in this; thousands of ANP activists in KPK have taken such a stand, and hundreds have been martyred for doing so). The core ideology underlying the personal politics of father and daughter appears to be left-leaning, liberal and Pakhtoon nationalist (though for good tactical reasons, both father and daughter had avoided projecting too much detail about their own political leanings until now; whether this has changed in the book, I do not yet know). But beyond their politics and its core ambitions there are obviously many other actors involved in this ongoing saga, and many of them have interests and aims that are not necessarily the ones Ziauddin or his daughter may have. There is nothing strange about this and nothing unexpected.
In war in particular, necessity can produce strange bedfellows. The Pakistani state, itself a patron of the Taliban at some point (and in other places, still a patron of some factions, if not of all) has got into a very vicious fight with the Swat Taliban and its relatively sane factions seem willing to promote Malala as an antidote to that especially vicious gang of Jihadists. Many in Western media outlets are obviously interested in promoting a liberal voice that makes them feel good about their own worldview. Liberals in general can find it in their heart to support and promote a girl who speaks for female education and emancipation in the face of extremely retrograde and thuggish opponents. Western powers eager to see action against the Taliban are happy to promote a young girl whose shooting embodies the clearest possible example of the ruthlessness and horrifying fanaticism of their opponents. All this has naturally led to a perfect storm of positive publicity and honors for Malala in the outside world, but with every honor and every bit of positive publicity, she has aroused more and more envy and hatred within Pakistan. Why is this so and who are these haters?
First and foremost of course are the Taliban. Their hatred of Malala is clear and rational, since she has become a symbol of resistance to their medieval ideology and its most fanatical aspects. First as a champion of female education and emancipation (itself bad enough in their eyes) and then as the victim of a particularly vicious and inhuman attack (it is hard to justify an ideology whose followers are willing to carry out the assassination of a 16 year old school girl in this manner). That they are upset and want to silence her or malign her is unsurprising. They are somewhat shaken by the publicity and are dimly aware that it is not reflecting to their credit, as is apparent from the letter written by Adnan Rashid in to Malala, explaining why she was shot. To their credit, they have not denied their attack or tried to blame in on RAW and Mossad. Instead, they have tried to justify it by appealing to the fact that she is being used against “Islamic forces” by Western powers. It is hard to imagine for many sheltered Westerners, but that justification carries weight in their own constituency and they are not doing too badly in justifying their action to their own followers.
The second group opposing her consists of Taliban apologists and fellow travelers in Pakistani society at large (Jamat e Islami, Islamists in general, factions of the PTI, etc.); their job is a bit harder because some in the audience they are aiming at are not fanatical enough to think that just speaking out against the Talibs (or even being honored by Western powers) is enough reason to execute a young unarmed girl. So this group relies on a mix of justification (she is an agent of Western powers) and evasion (the Taliban didn’t even do it, the CIA did it). It is an unstable (and illogical) mix, but never mind that, the ground has been well prepared for unstable and irrational propaganda mixes in Pakistan. Thanks to years of army psyops that have promoted exactly such a mix (the Taliban are bad/the Taliban didn’t do it/ RAW-CIA is responsible) thousands of educated Pakistanis can now successfully hold at least three contradictory theories in their head and vigorously support all three. Thus we find thousands of PTI supporters and other middle class Pakistanis happily maligning Malala for being a CIA agent and simultaneously claiming that the CIA arranged her shooting and that the Taliban were well justified in targeting her.
The third highly visible (though practically less consequential) group of Malala haters is a subset of elite Pakistani (and presumably Indian, Bangladeshi, etc.) leftists who live in a Eurocentric world with only two poles: Western imperialists (bad) and their opponents (good). This highly educated (and mostly Western employed, frequently richly capitalist) group has a Pavlovian response to anyone and anything that they feel is being honored by Western imperialists (aka their employers and business partners) in any shape or form. Once Malala moved beyond Bishop Tutu and started getting honors from Queen Elizabeth and Barack Obama, her goose was cooked in this well-appointed kitchen. She was now an imperialist pawn and they were not going to take it anymore. With their envy and mean-spiritedness set free by this ideological “axiom of choice” (“liked by Obama, must be hated by me”) they have wasted no time. Unlike the PTI’s nearly illiterate support base (educated, but not too literate), these people know the best postmodern lingo and phrases like “white savior complex” have flown off the keyboards and on to the hallowed pages of the Guardian and Huffpo in less time than it takes to say “metropolitan gaze”. Alhamdulillah.
Last, but not the least, there is the matter of straightforward envy. Malala, a lower-middle class girl from Swat, is now living in Birmingham and traveling the world. She has a book deal worth X and prizes worth Y under her belt and more are likely to come her way very soon. Sure, she had to get shot for the privilege, but she survived and there she is. And we are not. The same ugly well from which Musharraf drew his famous line about “women in Pakistan are getting raped in order to get foreign visas” has been visited by many to draw out taunts about Malala, and the results are not pretty. That this is human nature and we are all humans and so on does not make it any less nauseating.
As with any write-up, some people are going to be unhappy with this one. I don’t particularly care about some groups (super-elite leftists, for example, can take a hike) but I feel the need to add these parting thoughts:
- No liberal can prefer the people who sat down, planned and then carried out an assassination attempt on a schoolgirl in her school van, against the schoolgirl herself (no matter how prominent now and how honored by whom). At least this much we can agree on.
- Anyone who is in some sense a partisan in the ongoing strife in Pakistan has to know what side they are on (for whatever reason), and what sides there are to choose from. From a profoundly Leninist position, Malala should yet find support from most of Pakistan’s 3242 Leninists.
- Her “over-exposure” may really be unhelpful to your cause (whatever you imagine it to be), but in the name of God and common sense, please step away from that ZaidHamid level conspiracy theory with your pens in the air. Take a deep breath. Relax.
- There, feel better?