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April 1, 2018

Malala is the message


April 1, 2018

Is Pakistan safe for Malala Yousafzai? We may pose this question also in a metaphorical sense because she represents a point of view and a set of values. Besides, her surprise arrival in the early hours of Thursday on a brief visit to her homeland has reminded us of the conflictive narrative that she has inspired.

It is a sad reflection on the state of our society that a young woman who is Pakistan’s pride and honour in a global context is despised by such a large number of people in her own country. This is a fact that we must contend with. In many ways, it has a bearing on our national sense of direction.

Yes, the divide that is manifested in Malala’s case is all-encompassing. But a number of reasons have made Malala’s arrival an opportune moment to decipher – or diagnose – this inner contradiction. We are talking about the doctrine to define the destiny of Pakistan. At the same time, we are witnessing the struggle of a leading political party to change its course.

Unfortunately, our politicians remain too obsessed with their partisan passions and greed for power. Consequently, fundamental issues of ideology and societal transformation have not come to the fore in our political discourse. This means that our leaders are not quite aware of the present crisis of Pakistan and the options that we have for a strategic planning for the future.

I am tempted, here, to invoke Thomas Paine: “These are times that try men’s souls”. The rest of the quotation is: “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country: but he that stands by it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman”. It is important to remember that these words were written during America’s revolutionary war.

I said that Malala’s visit, with its touching moments, provides an opportunity to explore why she is disliked and even hated in mostly the traditional and orthodox sections of our society. I have alluded to the winds of change rising across our political landscape. Malala herself, when she spoke at the PM House on Thursday, saw Pakistan on its way back to being a peaceful country.

But this is not all about law and order or how the war against terrorists has proceeded or, for that matter, about the joy of watching international cricket in Karachi. The seminal issue is the battle of ideas that is to be played in the arena of the Pakistani mind. It is important to see that Malala’s vindication in this contest is vital for a modern, progressive and democratic Pakistan.

What is our barrier in advancing towards this goal? To put it simply, it is religious extremism that resists modernity and looks at Malala as a Western conspiracy. In this respect, if I may say so, we have some divine intervention since those who hate Malala were largely nurtured by a certain kind of religious militancy and outlook.

Enter Mohammed bin Salman, the formidable Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. He was in the US last week and on the final day of his tour, he met the editors of The Washington Post for a long interview. In the course of that interaction, he confessed something that our religious bigots as well as our summer soldiers and sunshine patriots need to listen to and understand.

What did he actually say? This is how The Washington Post has put it: “Asked about the Saudi-funded spread of Wahhabism, the austere faith that is dominant in the kingdom and that some have accused of being a source of global terrorism, Mohammed said that investments in mosques and [madressahs] overseas were rooted in the cold war when allies asked Saudi Arabia to use its resources to prevent inroads in Muslim countries by the Soviet Union”.

Those of us who have a sense of history and are able to objectively examine national and global developments had known this all along. We could see where the jihadists recruited by Gen Ziaul Haq had come from. But the Pakistani society, because of its lack of democratic freedoms and social emancipation, fell prey to these devices and the consequences – as we can see – are horrendous. We have been brainwashed in the name of ideology and religion.

The point here is that those who consider Malala to be the product of a Western conspiracy are themselves the children of an illegitimate and sinister plan to subvert the thinking of entire societies. The pity of it is that our ruling ideas have been infiltrated by the orthodoxy generated during that phase in our history. This has occurred to such an extent that the powers that be are still seen to be flirting with patently retrogressive religious elements.

It is good that this government has invited and honoured Malala and I have hinted at what Nawaz Sharif is portraying as an ideological shift. But the overall situation is alarming, mainly because forces that are striving for liberal and enlightened causes are not coming together. It is also doubtful if these forces have the required strength to move forward with a progressive agenda.

I have a fair idea of how deeply entrenched the forces are that, for instance, oppose the ideas and purposes that Malala personifies – such as modern education, particularly for our girls. What a great irony it is that Saudi Arabia itself, after provoking us into another direction, wants to liberate its society in line with ideas that are labelled as ‘Western’.

We do not have any credible measure of how the public opinion is divided in terms of support for progress and enlightenment. The indications that exist are ominous. We cannot even trust the judgement of our rulers who are supposed to be knowledgeable and mature. Do you remember what happened during the sit-in on the Faizabad Interchange in Islamabad in autumn last year?

As for the strength of those who dislike Malala, let me only quote a tweet by Secunder Kirmani, BBC World’s Pakistan correspondent: “BBC Urdu Social Media editor Tahir Imran has the unenviable job of trawling through the abusive comments about Malala on their FB page…apparently around 60 [percent] against Malala, 40 [percent] supportive”.

You can imagine what this means. The task, then, is to change this equation in the interest of Pakistan’s survival. But do our rulers understand what this task entails? The battle lines are clearly drawn and it is for the leaders and the powers that be to choose their sides.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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