November 16, 2018

Malala and 2 Pakistans

Cartoon: Satish Acharya

Everyone – well almost everyone – was rooting for her; but Malala Yousafzai has not won the Nobel Prize. It seemed, to me, at bit far-fetched in the first case. She herself had repeatedly said in the past that she had not “done enough” to merit such an honour. Sensible girl. Her case of being nominated by many has, however, served to demonstrate just how polarised Pakistani society has been on her versus the Taliban. That is the most important dilemma we face, challenge we face. Because it will ultimately determine if we emerge from and defeat terrorism.

Many Pakistanis are, of course, disappointed. It would have been really great if she had won. Shortly before the Nobel announcement was made at 2pm Pakistan time, the assassinated Pakistani PM Benazir Bhutto's son Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari had tweeted: #Malala4Nobel pretty please. He lost his mother to terrorism.

I spoke to a few people, journalists in her province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the photocopy wallah, secretary and students at my school. So much surrounds Malala but what is clearly emerging is: two Pakistans.

There is a Pakistan that supports Malala – venerates her and her cause.

There is a Pakistan that doesn't.

BBC's Aamer Ahmed Khan very pointedly just tweeted: “Of mainstream leaders, I've only seen Bilawal [Benazir's son] and Imran [Khan] wishing for #Malala so far. Why are the Sharifs [PM Nawaz Sharif and CM Shahbaz Sharif] so quiet?”

You'd think our prime minister and president would have something to say? Does that give you a picture? A senior minister told BBC that Malala was giving a bad impression of Pakistan – that we were not educating girls. Her message is good for the areas where it is a problem but there are many places where girls go to school unhindered. This kind of stupid thinking was spawned by former military dictator Pervez Musharraf who came to power post-9/11 and hung around like a bad smell till very recently. He chastised Mukhtaran Mai for bringing a bad name to Pakistan internationally. What was she doing? Well, she was gang raped, did not get justice, and went on to talk about women's rights on the international stage. Musharraf came up with the phrase “enlightened moderation”. Orwell is turning in his grave.

The two Pakistans exist and their reaction to Malala is just a symptom of a malaise that runs much deeper and is the reason why we have tolerated terrorism for so long in our midst.

A journalist in Peshawar, who I cannot name, explained that the attack and subsequent story has divided or polarised people, which in his mind is not a good thing. It complicates reporting on the issue as well; you are either with her or against her. 

[INSPIRING VIDEO: A journalist in Karachi added that one would have thought that the attack would have been the last straw for Pakistanis – but it wasn't. It did not turn the tide. In fact, just a day ago bombs went off in all provincial capitals.

“At least she's still standing,” debated one of my students in English General A' Level class this morning. A girl of 16 or 17 herself.

“Standing in America – not in Pakistan!” hit back another student. A boy. (It was perhaps lost on him that she is not based in the US; his comment so indicative of a camp that is 'anti-America' or at least largely sceptical of American foreign policy and applies it to everything American to justify hatred).

“At least it's symbolic,” replied the young girl.

At the photocopy booth at school, I asked the young man behind the counter what he thought of Malala. “Miss,” he replied, after a few seconds. “This whole attack – did it even really happen or was it orchestrated?”

And so, as you can see, some people doubt the entire thing even happened. Just like people who still ask me, when they find I blog for the Jewish Journal, if the Holocaust even happened. Somehow they assume I am an expert and the two are linked. I say, yes, six million Jews were killed. There are survivors and documentary evidence etc etc. They go on to quote Ahmadinajad. The same thing happens with 9/11.

This is the kind of thinking that makes me sad. This is the reason why the Taliban are still around. The spin machine or conservative media that is pro-jihadi and pro-Taliban create it. I don't want to give them space here. But needless to say, they have long been confusing the Pakistani public about the Taliban agenda and its effects. One of the biggest problems we ignore is that when a bomb goes off in Peshawar Muslims are killed. Taliban violence (and sectarian) is Muslims killing Muslims. But no one talks about this. It's our dirty secret. 

I was until very recently confused about how one emerges from this kind of thinking. And while this may seem like an aside, it was a very powerful lesson for me. One of our reporters went on a fellowship to Belfast. He returned with an incredible The question we often ask ourselves in the newsroom is WHEN will the Pakistani people withdraw their entire support for the Taliban and extremists, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the Sipah-e-Sahaba, al Qaeda, Jundullah – all those hate-mongering outfits with double-barrelled names. When will they stop being apologists for violence? 

Unfortunately, we seem not to have reached that point. I have been reading Steven Pinker and his study of violence. He has shown how it has gone down over the centuries. Sometimes people argue that we are (at least the Taliban are) in the equivalent of the Middle Ages. In fact, Gordon Brown, the former British PM, commented in the BBC documentary that is seems as if the fight for education that Malala has espoused, the civil rights movement, is like what the US saw in the 1960s. It is a non-violent movement. I know that Pinker is right in that we are not living in a world that is violent if compared to the centuries before. I know that Pinker argues that violence goes down with 'englightenment' and changes in human psychology. But I fear that we still have a long way to go. And spin tends to obfuscate the debate. All of this is complicated by something I need to explore more: violence fatigue. I liken it to reader fatigue or donor fatigue. But that is a topic for another blog. 

Suffice it to say now though that education is one of the most powerful tools to combat terrorism in Pakistan. And our biggest challenge is to convince people. So let me return to the 2 Pakistans.

Scepticism and clarity, celebrities and causes

Many Pakistanis are wondering how the Malala machine works. There is the book, the movie, the tea with the Queen. AFP hit the nail on the spot by doing this I was thinking about this myself – but then I stopped. Why is it so alien for us for a Pakistani to get so big. I guess we aren't really used to it. This is the international stage. Of course people are needed to surround her to help her manage her money and the mechanics of her foundation etc.

The only other people with “swollen bureaucracies” surrounding them, to use a phrase from Camille Paglia, are people in the Pakistani government. We are used to seeing them surrounded by such entourages, experts, PR managers, etc etc. It is sort of new, at least for me, to see a teenager from Swat fitting into this picture.

“>piece 'The Malala Moment' in my newspaper today, addressing this phenomenon. “Yes, she is in danger of being over-packaged and objectified,” Rehman wrote.

“[B]ut so what? At this level of global stardom, some PR-cum-development-world machinery has got to grind its mills. That’s not the point. Yes, there are hundreds of brave young Pakistanis being egged on to ask why their own trauma didn’t propel them to fame, but that’s not the point either. At all.

“This is the postmodern leftist, who hand-wrings at the poor young girl’s commodification by the ‘west’. Mostly, this is not a Malala-phobe per se, who resents her identity as a poster child for resistance to coercion, but quibbles because she has become a brand bigger than her authentic, grassroots self. But their reductive, often well-meaning, criticism misses the simple point that even Brand Malala fills a deep vacuum in Pakistan. It also ignores the volume of damage their objecting voices do in a polarized, fraught environment where the air is taut with the gun-smoke of terror and the wild-eyed certainties of suicide missions.  They ignore the need for clarity against an enemy which is contemptuous of doubt, or its philosophical groundings.”

Rehman has summed up who the two Pakistans are:

The Pakistan that supports Malala's CAUSE, which Rehman describes as “glittering core of unyielding resilience which has become the backbone of every citizen’s daily challenge in going to school, office or the marketplace in contemporary Pakistan.” 

Malala herself said to BBC that it didn't matter who she was, what she looked like, or perhaps even whether X, Y, Z supported her; what was important was the cause of education. 

The other Pakistan is the Pakistan that says Malala is the work of the devil. I take the liberty of quoting Rehman here at length because of the beauty of her summation:

“One is the rightist that conflates Islam with the worst excesses of millenarian militancy and misogyny, demonising Malala as a handmaiden of satanic coalitions. This protagonist is no longer a marginal voice, lurking in the shadowed, layered protections of guns, cash and sweaty muscle. This is the barbarian now at our gates. This is the extremist who spews hate on the internet, manufacturing cyber shrouds on women’s bodies, which they fetishize. This is the militant who threatens people at mosques if they question sermons that valourize violence, in the name of religion that privileges peace above all. This is the terrorist that bears arms with the intent to kill, maim, kidnap and steal. They all hate Malala for fighting back, and what she stands for.”

I have always wondered why for many people in Pakistan it is difficult to handle celebrity. Someone else's success. Someone like Malala. I thought about it again when the whole country was waiting to hear who would get the Nobel prize. We are familiar with celebrity figures in the sense that we admire many people beyond our borders such as Madonna, Bill Clinton, Edward Said, Yasser Arafat, Mother Teresa, Angelina Jolie, Che Guevara, Steve Jobs. The cult of celebrity exists for many people at home too. Our cricketers especially can be said to have achieved that kind of fame. They have espoused causes in their own time. We have artists, singers, painters. But the more I tried to come up with a name for a woman, the more I drew a blank. Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy came to mind in the sense that she and stellar filmmaker Sabhia Sumar (of Khamosh Pani or Silent Waters) won an Oscar for the documentary, Saving Face. But the magnitude of their celebrity status comes nowhere near Malalas.

Perhaps you have heard of Mukhtaran Mai? She was gang raped many years ago and her case became known in the West as well. She now pursues the agenda of education for girls as well. But even she is not as big as Malala. This is not to belittle any of their achievements but to just coldly measure.

There is little point in such objective metrics but I went in this direction because I wanted to articulate to myself somehow that we have never seen something like Malala. This is the first time something this big has happened to us in recent memory.

In the West or even the Far East – K-pop is big – we are used to seeing celebrities and the news around them. We are used to seeing people get that big. Achieve big things. It is normal for me, for example, to read Pulitzer Prize winning non-fiction or Booker prize-winning fiction. I listen to music by artists like Justin Timberlake who are surrounded by entire media empires.

Perhaps America is used to this kind of bigness. Perhaps we are not. Benazir Bhutto was a celebrity for sure. But her record wasn't entirely clean at home. I am talking about the kind of celebrity that is above reproach. We have seen this rarely.

So, I thought yesterday that it would take some getting used to. But this is good for us. We need a Malala; we need to be players on the international stage as well for important causes like education.

In order for anyone to understand the negative reaction Malala gets from within the country, perhaps it could help to look at our general perception of celebrities. I am convinced there is a link. All of this is perhaps really new to us in a country where we don't have a lot of people we can look up to on a national stage or international stage. I'd just like to throw that out there; of course I'd like to be wrong about it.

While watching the BBC documentary on Malala this morning, I realised that this girl intends to be in this for the long haul. We have to stand firmly behind her and wherever possible try to debunk or deconstruct useless conspiracy theories to undermine her cause.

Pakistan's only Nobel prize winner
Then there is the fact that we are talking about the Nobel. Pakistan has not been in this league for a long time. But if you want to consider it, take a look at how we treated the last, and only, Pakistani who won a Nobel Prize: Dr Abdus Salam.

He was born in Jhang, Pakistan in 1926. After much academic success, he went on to do a PhD in theoretical physics at Cambridge. He returned to Pakistan and after working there, went back abroad. In 1979 he won the How did Pakistan treat him? Well, as Dr Salam was an Ahmadi, who are considered non-Muslims here, the epitaph on his tomb which initially read “First Muslim Nobel Laureate”, the word “Muslim” was erased on the orders of a local magistrate, leaving the nonsensical “First Nobel Laureate”. There is a comprehensive piece on this and his links to Higgs Boson Dr Abdus Salam – Pakistan's first Nobel Prize winner (1979), linked to the Higgs Boson. His grave's epitaph was desecrated as he was an adherent of the Ahmaddiya sect, who are considered non-Muslims in Pakistan.

As we wait, I'd like to share our reporter Fazal Khaliq's Unlike the rest of the world where it was fervently celebrated, the first anniversary of the attack on Malala Yousafzai, the child-education activist who spoke against destruction of schools in Swat, went quietly in her hometown. The Khushal School and College, where Malala got her early education, remained sadly closed for security reasons.

The silver lining in a solemn Swat district is that enrolment in the girls’ education institutes throughout the valley has substantially increased – a fact which seems like fulfilment of Malala’s dream.

“We have 14,022 new admissions in the girls’ schools just this year, while a total 30,000 enrolments have been recorded since we returned to Swat after normalcy,” disclosed Dilshad Begam, a female officer in the district education department.

“Irrespective of regional boundaries, people today want education, and the proof that came out loudly was that the world raised voice together for Malala as she raised hers for uplift of education. And now she is the strongest candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize,” Azmat Ali, a social activist in Mingora told The Express Tribune.

According to analysts, even the anti-Malala campaign, which has deep roots in the valley, has borne a positive fruit.

“A change of mindset is being observed as more and more girls want to express their abilities on higher platforms to prove that Malala was not the only brilliant and outstanding girl on the Pakhtoon soil,” Gulalai Rahim, a graduate student in Mingora, said. Where many think ill of Malala and consider her an agent of the West, there are many others who miss her in Swat valley.

“We, her friends, feel proud that we have had the company of such a bright icon who attained international fame,” Noorul Kainat, her  former classmate said to The Express Tribune.