By S Iftikhar Murshed
October 13, 2013
Pakistan, and to a lesser extent, the international community waited with bated breath in the hope that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize would be awarded to Malala Yousafzai. Had this happened the 16-year-old would have become the youngest ever recipient of the honour. The person who comes anywhere close to this is Sir William Lawrence Bragg who won the coveted prize for physics in 1915 at the age of 25. In 1907 Rudyard Kipling became the youngest Nobel laureate for literature even though he was 42 at the time.
In a sense, it is just as well that the prize was conferred on the Hague-based Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons. It would not have been entirely fair to burden so young a person with a Nobel award. The child could neither have responded adequately to the demands of universities, think tanks and international organisations nor to the probing questions of the sensation-hungry media. Even an innocent remark could have had disastrous consequences.
Yet the teenager has acquired more wisdom than the middle-aged mediocrities who typify the political leadership of Pakistan. They love to be admired for things they have never done or promises they do not intend to keep. It was such people that Lord Byron (1788-1824) must have had in mind when he said that, were things called by their right names, even Caesar would be ashamed of unmerited fame and glory.
But Malala lives in an entirely different world where idealism is synonymous with honesty. In a recent radio interview she did not have any hesitation in admitting: “There are many more people who deserve the Nobel Peace Prize and I think I still need to work a lot. In my opinion I have not done that much to win the award...my goal is to see the education of every child.”
Words such as these bring to mind the Biblical pronouncement, “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh” (Matthew 12:34). Malala’s strength is founded on her commitment – commitment to the belief that the unrestrained flow of knowledge is the birthright of the human race. This was the crime for which she was shot in the head and neck by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan on October 9 last year while returning home from her school in Mingora, Swat.
The attack was planned three months earlier during a meeting of a TTP Shura at a remote mountain hideout in Waziristan where a unanimous decision was taken to kill Malala. This was justified by the former spokesman of the outlawed group, Ehsanullah Ehsan, who said, “Malala is the symbol of the infidels and obscenity” and swore that the TTP would target her again if she survived the attack. In a sickening distortion of Islamic beliefs he then lied, “the Quran says that people propagating against Islam and Islamic forces should be killed. The Shariah enjoins that even a child can be killed if he is propagating against Islam.”
Nothing has changed in the one year since then. Ehsanullah’s successor, Shahidullah Shahid, recently told a group of journalists during a rare interview at an undisclosed location in Waziristan that Malala was not attacked for pursuing education but for going against Islam. He then vowed that another assassination attempt would be made the moment an opportunity presented itself.
Earlier, the TTP spokesman informed the world through the BBC that the September 22 suicide bombing of the All Saints Church in Peshawar, in which nearly a hundred worshippers were killed, was entirely in accordance with the Shariah. There cannot be a more hypocritical assault on the ramparts of a religion that is entirely based on compassion and reason.
Yet, without exception, the leaders of the political parties represented in parliament have described the TTP and its factions as stakeholders who must have a say in the future of the country. Pakistan has, therefore, effortlessly achieved the distinction of becoming the only country in the world to have accorded respectability to a terrorist group which it has, of its own volition, outlawed.
This is the difference between Malala and the assortment of politicians who fancy themselves as men on horseback out to rescue the country from its present and future perils. Yet they cower like terrified sheep before the TTP and its affiliates. In contrast, as early as September 2008, when Malala had just turned eleven, she accompanied her father, Ziauddin Yousufzai, to Peshawar where she addressed the press club and fearlessly said, “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education.”
The speech was the curtain-raiser to hideous events that would irreversibly transform Malala’s life. Three months later, her father, an educationist, was asked by Abdul Hai Kakar, a BBC reporter, whether any girl from his school would be willing to write about life in TTP-controlled Swat. The first volunteer, Aisha, was stopped by her parents who dreaded reprisals by the Taliban.
Malala, who was named after Malalai of Maiwand – a famous Pakhtun poet and a woman warrior from southern Afghanistan, took on the challenge. The first entry into her dairy was carried by the BBC’s Urdu blog on January 3, 2009. The notes were handwritten and published under the pseudonym ‘Gul Makai’ which translates as ‘corn flower’ – a name taken from Pakhtun folklore.
Each entry is a powerful portrayal of the TTP atrocities in the simplest possible language that only a child is capable of using. The risk this entailed was enormous but Malala was undeterred as though driven on by Voltaire’s timeless words: “Stand upright, declare the truth thou hast, that all may share; be bold, proclaim it everywhere: They only live who dare.”
After her miraculous recovery from last year’s assassination attempt, Malala has been the recipient of a record-breaking 21 international awards, honours and citations. These include the Mother Teresa Memorial Award (November 2012), Rome Prize for Peace and Humanitarian Action (December 2012), Simone de Beauvoir Prize (January 2013), Tipperary International Peace Award (August 2013), and her portrait by Jonathan Yeo was displayed at London’s National Gallery.
The last eight days have been no less remarkable. “You’re an amazing young lady, a very special young lady, and your story has moved millions of people around the world”, said the legendary former footballer and a Unicef goodwill ambassador, David Beckham, as he presented the Pride of Britain Teenager of Courage award to Malala in a star-studded event in London last week. The child could barely conceal her excitement but quickly regained her composure, and, amid thunderous applause, told the audience: “It is such an honour to receive a Pride of Britain Award as it will help me continue my campaign and speak up for the rights of every child.”
On Thursday the president of the 750-member European Parliament, Martin Schultz, announced that the 2013 Sakharov Human Rights Prize would be conferred on Malala. The spontaneous reaction of the leader of the centre-right European People’s Party was: “She is an icon of courage for all teenagers who dare to pursue their aspirations and, like a candle, she lights a path out of darkness.”
The prestigious prize, which commemorates the legendary Soviet scientist and dissident, Andrei Sakharov, has been awarded every year since 1988. Its recipients include such towering world figures as Nelson Mandela, former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and, now, Malala Yousufzai of Pakistan.
Within hours the TTP’s Shahidullah Shahid swore that Malala would be killed “even in America or the UK. She has done nothing. She is getting awards because she is working against Islam.” This was to be expected.
S Iftikhar Murshed is the publisher of Criterion Quarterly.