The Issue of Malala & Pakistanis

In the beginning it would have been inaccurate to state that the Pakistani people hate Malala. A more accurate statement would’ve been that Pakistanis hate what Malala had become, or rather “been made”, a symbol of; which got ascribed as “hate for Malala”, both by Westerners and Pakistanis alike.

In the present scenario, especially after the publication of her book, this evolved to what has been put the most succinctly by the following comment: Malala “has become a battleground on which an ideological battle is being fought by conservative-fundamentalist and liberal-secular forces.”

An Anomaly

From the very beginning, the unprecedented promptness and efficacy with which this story developed is enough reason for any Pakistani to become suspicious. Generally speaking, there is no doubt in the mind of an average Pakistani that what happened to Malala was used by the West, mostly America and Britain to further their own agendas, probably with some help from the Pakistani government, to gain political points, legitimize the American invasion, its continued presence in the region, rationalize drone strikes (or its civilian casualties) etc. The Western media’s unique and persistent focus on the issue lends support to this argument. Many children have died during this conflict, probably more as a direct result of NATO’s military action than the Taliban’s; but even a fraction of this much effort and importance was never provided to those cases. A recent (October, 2015) example to this point is the NATO bombing of a Doctors without Borders’ hospital in Afghanistan. Similarly, just 4-5 days after the Malala incident a US airstrike killed three children with little mention in the media. This argument is further supported by the fact that when, through the efforts of some human rights activists, children from the tribal areas of Pakistan who had been directly affected by the American Drone program, the children who had lost their loved ones during those strikes on “terrorists”, were finally given the opportunity to address the US Congress, a grand total of 5 members attended that meeting. Compare this to the full-houses Malala has been fortunate enough to address. Like many other people, Aitzaz Hassan who gave his life protecting the students of his school from a suicide bomber also remained largely unknown.

There are many other instances which go on to show that Malala Yousafzai is an anomaly by far.

Malala going on to win the Nobel Prize further exasperates the situation by putting a direct question mark on her reliability in Pakistani minds, especially considering the fact of how Obama also got one for, it can easily be argued, just making promises and not really actually accomplishing anything; at-least some of which he has yet (December, 2015) to fulfil like the closing of Guantanamo Bay prison. Furthermore, the fact that the PR company of corporate giants like Microsoft and Starbucks, Edelman, is also working for Malala’s family pro bono doesn’t help to dispel any suspicions. As one commentator put it: “Malala took a good stand but then her reputation was tarnished with with [sic] book deals and PR/propaganda opportunities.”

Guilt by Association

Another reason is the “Guilt by Association” concept. Because of a confusing myriad of factors, Pakistanis are among the top three countries in the world for the most “unfavourable view of the U.S.”; the other two being Russia and Jordan. This unfavourable view is higher than even in the Palestinian territories. So, naturally, people and ideas which have American support, are viewed by much scepticism, especially when it comes to American political support. On its own, this is a pretty fallacious reason, but in any case it has pretty valid motivations at its foundation. Additionally, this thinking also gives rise to the conspiracy theorists who in this context have been, adequately or inadequately, termed as “Malala Truthers” going as far as to claim that she was never actually shot.

While the association with Western governments may have been exaggerated, there is little doubt that Malala has had close associations with individuals who are, to say the least, disliked in Pakistan. Malala co-authored her book with Christina Lamb who was deported from Pakistan “for being involved in undesirable activities” which in this instance, apparently, was “for planting a story that Osama Bin Laden was travelling from Queeta by air to Islamabad”. She also spoke against the ban on the commonly regarded as blasphemous book of Salman Rushdie, who in-turn is, amongst Muslims, arguably the most hated person on the planet.

Continued Silence

In my opinion the most significant factor for Malala’s continued dislike by the Pakistani people is her apparent silence on the matter of drone strikes. These strikes have been looked upon with special scepticism, or to be more accurate, hostility, by the Pakistani people. A matter made more muddled due to the existence of several reports which, for one reason or another, end up having to include fluctuating estimates of innocents killed in those strikes. A relevant example is the article written in 2009 by Daniel L. Byman, which said “for every militant killed, 10 or so civilians also died”. Pakistanis because of their already unfavourable view of American policies, naturally gravitate towards the higher numbers for these innocent deaths. Malala for her part has spoken against them on at-least one occasion, however, from what I gather, most Pakistanis are unaware of this fact. Still, the argument remains, Malala hasn’t been nearly as vocal as she could, or rather as some would argue, should have been. She has had the opportunity to address from platforms and to audiences larger than any other Pakistani has been able to, perhaps in the entire 68-year history of the country; but the only instance, that I have been able to find evidence for, she does speak against the strikes, happens to be in a private meeting, granted the meeting was with the US president, but still, not nearly as public as it should’ve been.

Cognitive Biases

Another reason is the inherent, usually unrealized, involuntary response that, generally speaking, every human feels whenever anything that he/she is inwardly or outwardly loyal to, becomes attached to some form of negativity. People usually have to overcome some form of cognitive bias before they are able to objectively process such undesirable information; the most probable reason why Iqbal Masih is not well known in his own country. Malala has inadvertently become the reason for exactly that. Pakistan has become a symbol of female oppression in the 21st century and how “girls are not allowed to obtain education in that country”. I have personally come across a few posts on social media written by Pakistani female students who while studying in some Western country, recounted their encounters with people who were surprised by their nationalities and believed that they must have belonged to “really liberal families”. More importantly, whether such an idea is true or not, in the minds of most Pakistanis, Malala has done very little, if anything, to dispel that notion.

Additionally, although there is evidence to show that Malala has respect for Islam, she nevertheless has through her books criticised particular Pakistani Islamic laws and to some small extent shown a disdain for people having religious authority.

Malignant Lies

The situation becomes worse by badly researched, hugely ignorant if not deliberately malicious half-truths or blatant lies spread on social media. I came up with the following while researching for this article:

The Issue of Malala & Pakistanis (WordPress Article Graphic)

The Urdu text describes Malala standing beside blasphemers Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen
(Abusive Urdu caption in the above graphic has been cropped off)

This was taken at Sakharov prize ceremony of its laureates. First of all, the man beside Malala is not Salman Rushdie but Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament who actually spoke against the hugely controversial anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims”. He because of his position and European background was criticised and shamed for this action.

Regarding Taslima Nasreen, she actually criticized Malala for, what can be described as, being too Islamic. She wrote in a blog:

“I congratulated Malala for the prize. She shook my hand with expressionless face. …I requested the European Parliament to arrange for my meeting with Malala when we both would be at the parliament. But I was told that no bilateral meeting would be possible for Malala. … I did not expect but was not shocked either when Malala started her official speech in the name of Allah. She said, Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim while she was giving a speech at the secular European Parliament. Malala believes in Allah and Islam. She often praises Islam and talks about women’s freedom. I wish she knew ‘religion is not compatible with women’s rights’ … Everybody loves Malala. I am afraid she will be able to convince young Muslim girls that Islam is a good religion that respects women and it is good to wear Islamic veils.”

The really unfortunate thing is that among Muslims, especially Pakistani Muslims, this graphic is probably the most compelling and definitive evidence to hate Malala but in reality its meaning is a complete falsehood.

An interesting article in this context is one by Mehwish Ali who attempts to refute some allegations against Malala. The comments on this article provides a curious window into the difference of opinion common Pakistanis have on this issue.

Lack of Popularity for Positive Endeavours

With the negative information regarding Malala, being popular in Pakistan the positive information is equally unpopular. In addition to speaking out against the drone strikes as mentioned before, Malala also donated her $50,000 Nobel Prize money for the rebuilding of a damaged school in Gaza. “This funding will help rebuild the 83 schools damaged during the recent conflict. Innocent Palestinian children have suffered terribly and for too long”, she remarked. News about her helping the “Muslims of Palestine oppressed by Western powers” would go a long way in distancing her from the concept of Western interests associated with her.

Additionally, it can be argued that opportunities like these are possible  motivations for Malala’s lack of critique of the West. Any person who dabs into a political scenario becomes controversial and in this particular case, political statements against the West, in all likelihood, would have made her “forgotten” rather than just controversial. Malala may very well have be walking the path which is the most beneficial.

Internal Misogynistic Attitudes?

One reason for the distrust, propagated by people who are usually termed, by themselves or by others, as liberals, count internal archaic misogynist attitudes apparently inherent in the Pakistani people, which in turn, is sometimes blamed on religious fundamentalism. I personally don’t believe that this argument holds against criticism. Sure, there would be groups of people who might share similar opinions, but these are aberrant opinions and not a representation of the norm. Atypical ideas, virtuous or wicked, in one form or another exist in all societies. If this was indeed the case, then similar negativity would have surrounded both Arfa Abdul Karim Randhawa or Naseem Hameed (Pakistani sprinter). Although I wasn’t able to find any evidence for it, Ms. Hameed might have gotten some flak for not following the Islamic dress code to its entirety, on the track. If in fact this was the case, judging from what I have read and heard, the gratification she received, short lived as it might have been, far outstripped any negativity.

“I Am Malala”

And then there is the matter of Malala’s book: “I Am Malala”. I didn’t go through the entire book, but judging by the few portions that I did go through, it seems that the author, in at-least a few places, is trying to ascribe excessive blame on Pakistanis who attempted to mould the country’s law into an Islamic one. In the pursuit of this goal the writer, whether knowingly or unknowingly, ignores vital details in order to keep the narrative intact.

In one such case, she writes: “But General Zia brought in Islamic laws which reduced a woman’s evidence in court to count for only half that of a man’s.”

But the author ignores the vital restriction. According to the paper, Gender and Access to Justice: Pakistan Case:

“Further Section 17 qualifies half status for women witnesses and restricts it to financial matters … in all other matters, the Court may accept, or act on the testimony of one man or one woman…”

This might not have been a significant enough omission if it were not so reminiscent of the distortions and half-truths anti-Islamists are known to use frequently. However, the probable motivation for Malala here is her aversion for the country’s religious authorities than the religion itself.

Another snippet conservative Pakistani Muslim society will find hard to swallow is the following critique: “…but Zia made our female hockey players wear baggy trousers instead of shorts…”

Following the Evidence

One of the primary reasons that conspiracy theories, distortions, half-truths and blatant lies become so popular is because, as Brian Dunning puts it: “The truth is less incisive, it’s less inflammatory, it raises no ire, and it draws no audience.” Humans, by nature, look for validation of their beliefs and paranoias. For this purpose a myriad of involuntary cognitive biases come into play. A basic understanding of critical thinking and metacognition here, cannot be valued enough. It helps to break down the arguments into their basic components. Is the information reliable? Is their enough evidence to reach this particular conclusion? etc. In the absence of sufficient evidence, any conclusion no matter how much satisfactory it “feels”, is nothing more than mere conjecture and speculation; and furthermore, to chastise someone for it is a misconduct. The unfortunate thing is that this procedure, this formula, is something that is ingrained inside the Muslim religion itself.

Therefore, was the “Malala event” effectively used by the West to further its narrative? – Little doubt about it. Is Malala against Islam? – Available evidence appears to suggest otherwise. Is Malala against Pakistani laws deemed to be Islamic in nature? – No more than any other secular entity of Pakistan. Is Malala being brought up to carry out and implement the Western model of a productive secular society to conservative Pakistan? – Only time will tell!

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