January 19, 2019

Good Malala, bad Malala

We are giving a famous and well-respected foreign journalist a tour of the newsroom’s art department. He stares at the screen where one of our guys is working on art for our BIG MALALA LEDE.

“‘Gee, getting shot was the best thing that ever happened to me’… you guys should put that in an editorial cartoon,” he says. He is not serious or being mean—we are talking about the polarizing storm of opinion that has erupted over Malala’s shared Nobel Peace Prize with India’s Kailash Satyarthi. The foreign journalist is mentioning one irreverent take on the situation. He is making fun of the person who would say something like that. He is pointing out just how dumb some of the comments have been. We agree. Ever since she was shot in the head for speaking up against the Taliban two years ago in Swat, we have suffered a bilious stream of ire against her.

But it has also prompted a reaction, from Pakistanis who support her and her cause. Malala has made us talk about the effect the Taliban has had on Pakistan, especially when it comes to their anti-education agenda. A rough gauge says that a lot of debate has taken place on the internet, through Twitter, on newspaper sites, and on Facebook.

The problem with people who denigrate her prize is that their views are often extremely fixed. No matter what argument I present to them, they remained firmly rooted to their stance and suspicions. I have come to realize that they cannot be won over—at least not immediately. I feel frustrated when trying to counter their ‘logic’ and form of argument. I realize that I need to be armed with enough facts and positions. (I can’t forget the day in one newsroom when a Hizbut Tahrir member creamed us all over some point in Islam about women. Now I see he was bulldozing us, and not debating, but it felt terrible nonetheless.)

As I swept through the internet on major sites counter-debating the Malala win, I was happy to see many people talk back to the naysayers and their vitriol. I see this trend growing. Malala is just one entry point into THE debate in Pakistan: what is extremist, and how does Islam fit into statehood/nationhood and Pakistan’s identity?
These questions are ones we keep coming back to. And the more I read around the Malala debate the more I am convinced that her cause is one to be backed.

Let me tell you why. I used to teach A’ Level English General essay writing here in Karachi for many years. In one of our classes, a 17-year-old student took a hardline stance on Malala, arguing that she was a CIA agent. It was that day that I realized the weight of the responsibility to try and teach respect, formation of opinion based on information and facts and tolerance for an opposing point of view.

Rhetoric and logic, postcolonial theory, religious studies, the law, philosophy, history and literature must ALL be taught in our schools. We need to teach Derrida and Deconstruction for starters. We need to get kids reading. In the elevator down to the ground floor at my new workplace, I traveled with a six-year-old child who was accompanying his mother for a doctor’s appointment. In his hand was an Enid Blyton book. He must have been reading it while he waited outside. I touched his shoulder. “I’m so happy to see a book in your hand,” I said. He looked up at me startled at first but then he smiled. Malala is making us all learn.

Some arguments and counter-arguments I have learnt a good deal from are:

One journalist and a friend said this:

“Regarding Malala and the Nobel peace prize, I've heard all the weak criticisms about her winning and the pseudo-intellectual questions about the relevance of the award itself. To all the critics, I remain deeply unimpressed. Malala deserved to win. She deserves nothing but our support and admiration.

1. She stood in opposition to the Taliban, speaking openly against them, never leaving Swat. She did so from the middle of an active war zone during a Taliban insurgency. Grown men were blowing up schools and cutting heads off of other human beings in the middle of her home town when she was doing interviews about the importance of education. But maybe I'm overstating her bravery. Ok, I'm open to being wrong. Consider this instead. The Taliban certainly saw her as enough of a threat to want to kill her.

2. She survived a bullet to the head!!! TO THE HEAD!!! Have you guys ever stubbed a toe?! It's horrible!!! I've never been shot but I'm sure it hurts a lot more than stubbing a toe! And then she got better and started saying the same stuff all over again. When I get a cold for a week, I start buying hand-sanitiser in bulk! This young woman took a bullet to the head and got right back up and did it all over again.

3. And finally, Malala didn't win the award, the award won her. Both winners of this year's peace prize have lifted it back to a position of prestige. A few of the previous winners were less than deserving.”

One journalist privately wrote this insight:

“I am tired of seeing posts about Malala's symbolic role in supporting the US War on Terror (or worse posts that promote Edhi as a reaction). Celebrating Malala does not mean supporting the US's agenda. We must resist these oppressive and simplistic binaries and insist that she continue to symbolise gender equality, education, peace, and social justice—the issues she herself highlights again and again in her speeches. These issues are too important to allow them to be silenced by the (sometimes well-intentioned) critique. It is imperative that we continue to celebrate Malala and what she herself stands for loudly and proudly!”

Another journalist said:   

“[J]ust wondering. If the Nobel prize is the ultimate recognition of a talent, it's a Norwegian who set it up. If Malala has been awarded a Nobel prize, it's the trust fund set up by that Norwegian that rewards her for her merits. If the money doesn't go out of Pakistani taxpayers' pockets, why are so many Pakistanis pissed off over why Malala got the prize? Set up your own award; then don't give it to Malala. If you can't do that, then just piss off.”

And for those who like to say that Malala got the prize for being an American tout, here is a response from someone on a newspaper site:

“Allow me to present a list of these ‘American gringo touts’:

Mother Teresa: Founded the charity where they run hospices and homes for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis; soup kitchens; dispensaries and mobile clinics; children's and family counselling programmes; orphanages; and schools.

International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) is a non-partisan federation of national medical groups in 63 countries, representing tens of thousands of doctors, medical students, other health workers, and concerned citizens who share the common goal of creating a more peaceful and secure world freed from the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Desmond Mpilo Tutu (born 7 October 1931) is a South African social rights activist and retired Anglican bishop who rose to worldwide fame during the 1980s as an opponent of apartheid.

Peacekeeping by the United Nations is a role held by the Department of Peacekeeping Operations as “a unique and dynamic instrument developed by the Organization as a way to help countries torn by conflict to create the conditions for lasting peace”.

Aung San Suu Kyi, kept under house arrest but did not give in to her opponents who, surprise, surprise, were backed by western money.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who OPPOSED the apartheid system in South Africa.

Yasser Arafat, who spent much of his life fighting against Israel in the name of Palestinian self-determination.

Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi who wanted to DRIVE OUT western economic influence from his country through microfinance.

Yeah you are absolutely right: all of these guys are AMERICAN TOUTS.”