A year ago in September 2013, the teenage Pakistani education advocacy activist Malala Yousefzai opened a £188 million library in the British city of Birmingham.
Having spent the previous eleven months recovering from a shot in the head inflicted by Pakistani Taleban terrorists in retaliation for her activism, Malala had become the most commemorated teenage girl since Anne Frank. Honors from three continents were awarded to her, as were numerous media awards and distinctions.
By the time of her 16th birthday, a day the UN commemorated as “Malala Day”, Malala came to symbolize the struggle against Islamic militant extremism.
A struggle which her home country of Pakistan and much of the Islamic world today have clearly lost or are in advanced stages of losing. While Malala’s courage and resolve are without question, the dismal reality is that for all her activism and accolades abroad, her work has done next to nothing to challenge the trajectory and momentum of the Taleban in her home community.
Sadly, Malala epitomizes the dismal state of numerous Muslim activists, too many of whom eventually end up dead or pleading for asylum in the West. Prominent Muslim activists end up continuing their work from within the very societies that have none of the problems or issues those activists are seeking to fix.
Muslim communities themselves, the very places where the efforts of reformers are needed the most, are woefully incapable of providing the protection and space necessary for reformist activism in the face of religious extremism. The personal bravery of isolated individuals counts for little when society in general is too intimidated or cowed to stand up to the extremists.
In the face of the rise of savage extremist groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda affiliates, the world has waited on the “moderate Muslim majority” to assert itself. And yet to date, most Muslim societies have proven utterly incapable of rallying around even their own social reformers and activists.
A multi-million pound library in Birmingham? It would have been better had the Pakistani state been strong enough to enable Malala to open a modest thousand pound library in her home town of Mingora.
When Rosa Parks in 1955 famously refused to give up her bus seat to a white guy, she found herself arrested for her defiance. But Parks had a civil rights movement ready to take up her cause. The NAACP organized a boycott of the city’s buses, and the issue of racial segregation of public transport eventually went all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
Likewise, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. often risked his own life by personally taking his activism into the deep South, into the heart of communities most hostile to desegregation and the notion of civil rights. Mahatma Ghandi went eyeball to eyeball with soldiers of the British Empire and its institutions in India.
In contrast, Pakistan couldn’t rid itself of Malala fast enough. Her life saved by British doctors in a British hospital, Malala found herself widely reviled in her home country. Instead of standing up to the Taleban’s barbarity, many Pakistanis chose to indulge in absurd conspiracy theories and accusations against the teenage girl, of being a “Western pawn”, “Western spy”, “Western media tool”.
And yet the sad fact is that it is only in the West that Malala has found the protection and environment necessary for her to continue with her advocacy. No Arab or Muslim country has laid out the red carpet for the teenage girl from the Swat District. Unlike Rosa Parks, Malala’s community did not rally around her. Indeed, even her autobiography has been banned in her home country.
King’s “I have a dream” speeches were backed up by marches and rallies into the heart of the segregated South. Malala could make a hundred speeches at the UN which will win many plaudits in the West, but which are unlikely to trouble the Taleban.
The attack on Malala was as much an attack on the state as it was an attempt to silence an activist. And yet like so many other Muslim countries, the Pakistani state caved in.
Savagery such as the kind exhibited by the Taleban should not have gone unanswered. Instead of deploying a platoon of the country’s famed Army Rangers to make sure Malala never missed a single day of school, instead of daring the Taleban to make an attempt on her life while protected by the full resources of the state, instead of turning Malala into an icon of defiance just as Rosa Parks had been 57 years before her…Pakistan instead shipped her off to Britain, never to return. And banned her book.
It is a lesson that will not have been lost on Malala’s fellow school mates. Who in their right mind could possibly take inspiration from the fact that only in the West has Malala been able to continue her education.
As a Syrian activist who left his own country in late 2013, I have no illusions as to the limits of my own effectiveness while outside of Syria. Just because Bashar Assad doesn’t sport a beard, doesn’t make him any less of an extremist than the worst Al-Qaeda or Taleban fanatic, and the last few years have been a stark personal lesson in the importance of safe havens.
People need safe havens to work within. ISIS got a safe haven in Raqqa and went on to conquer the East of Syria and Northern Iraq. The Syrian political opposition tried to set one up in Aleppo, and the city got barrel bombed by the Syrian regime and attacked by its then ISIS-allies. Malala Yousefzai has a safe haven in the West, and can continue her work after a fashion.
If only the Pakistani state was strong enough to provide her and her like minded activists with a safe space within their own country, no matter how modest.
Malala’s story is the story of far too many Muslim activists. Moderates may very well be the majority of Muslims worldwide, but moderation that is cowed, intimidated and silenced counts for little in practical terms. The world has yet to see the influence of moderate Muslims, or any proof of their ability and willingness to reign in the more extreme elements in Muslim societies.
The world has to deal with the very real effects of Islamist extremism, it cannot wait forever for the “moderate silent majority” to start asserting itself. Canada bestowed honorary citizenship on Malala, and yet the Muslim mayor of one of Canada’s major cities can’t even find it within himself to condemn blatant antisemitism on the streets of his own town.
Someday Malala will undoubtedly win the Nobel Peace Prize for her work. It will have been well earned. But while she has been lavishly celebrated world wide, her own society let her down. Pakistan and the Islamic world’s failure to support the Malalas within them have rendered activists like Malala ineffectual in practical terms.
Today, ISIS and the Taleban are infinitely closer to achieving their ambitions of strict Islamist societies on Earth than Malala is in realizing her simple dream of equal education for all.
In her speech commemorating the Birmingham Library opening, Malala declared that “pens and books are the weapons that will defeat terrorism.” Sadly though, only if said books aren’t banned by one’s own country. Malala will serve as an inspiration to many school children in Birmingham, a city that has the least need of any in the world for such inspiration.
But the savagery of religious extremists and the timidness of the Muslim societies they have successfully intimidated will ensure that Malala’s message will be ineffectual in the towns and villages where it is needed the most.