Beyond all belief; beyond the limits of credulity; beyond reason -- beyond all that could be called rational or even human, conspiracy theories turned Malala into a hated icon of anti-Muslim prejudice
When Malala was shot by the Taliban in October 2012, I immediately wrote an article entitled ‘How many Malalas will it take?’ which I sent to several newspapers since I was not a regular columnist in any of them at that time. Surprisingly, it was published by them (The News being one). And then, wonder of wonders, it was carried by other publications.
I expected that the tide would turn against the militants but that was not to be.
Beyond all belief; beyond the limits of credulity; beyond reason -- beyond all that could be called rational or even human, conspiracy theories turned Malala into a hated icon of anti-Muslim prejudice. The most outrageous theory was that she, or her father, had orchestrated the shooting. A certain military officer I met casually told me that the Taliban never miss so the marksmen could not be from their ranks. Later I discovered that the gentleman, though in uniform, was not from the fighting arms so obviously he did not know that even trained marksmen miss specially if there is no time to take aim and the weapons they are using are not made for exact aiming.
She did not die, but her autobiography (I am Malala) reveals that she almost did and even now her mouth has a sideways twist. Who would take such risks and for what?
Of course, there is the view that the whole thing was pure drama. This is so absurd that it boggles the imagination. It also implicates General Kayani and Imran Khan as well as all the doctors in Pakistan and the UK who went to see her or treated her.
The next version of conspiracy theory is that the young girl, barely fifteen when shot at and seventeen now when she has got the Nobel Peace Prize, is a tool of the ‘West’. That she is being decorated in order to damage Islam and Pakistan. In 2012-13 people equated the Taliban with Islam but now that the army has taken action against them, the very thing which the conspiracy-theorists used to oppose in 2012, nobody mentions them any more.
People still mention Islam and Pakistan. The usual argument they make is that Malala makes Pakistan look bad. This argument is also used against Sharmeen Chinoy.
The fact is that Malala makes Pakistan look good. Here is a girl from a backward area ruled by the Taliban who wanted to study and wrote a blog about the way the Taliban were preventing girls from going to school. She exposes them better than her elders and with more real courage than the government of the day and everything she says is true and she articulates it without shrill abuse or histrionics. So who comes out as the voice of courage and sanity in Pakistan -- Malala or her detractors?
And have you seen a face ravaged by acid? If you have and feel a film ought not to be made of this you have not developed empathy. You need to be corrected not by the Chinoys and Malalas of this world. People in the HRCP bravely keep recording how many terrible things we do every year. Anyone who thinks that the truth itself should be censored ‘in the national interest’ knows nothing about how the world operates nowadays. You may go black in the face telling lies but everybody knows the truth so it is the truth-tellers who win respect for a country not the liars.
Malala has been honoured with about 30 plus awards and has now won the Nobel prize. If we had any sense, or even national wellbeing in mind, we should have celebrated it. She is an icon for standing up against cruelty and oppression and for female education. This is enough to make her an icon. If we are foolish enough not to celebrate her others will. We did not celebrate Dr Abdus Salam too but Indira Gandhi is said to have actually sat on the carpet i.e symbolically at his feet. So who got a better image in the world, our fanatical narrow-mindedness or Indira’s wisdom. I can think of many other people who have got other awards which Pakistan never celebrated.
Only a few days back Asma Jahangir got what is called the alternative Nobel. This was mentioned in three lines in a newspaper but otherwise there was a deafening silence. Indeed, soon after that the HRCP was lambasted although it has done very brave and pioneering work for several decades. In the academic field also there are several people who have won honours from Pakistan and abroad but they have never been celebrated. Even Dr Atta ur Rahman, once head of HEC, has many academic awards but they are not known to anybody. But Dr Atta ur Rahman was lucky since he was entrusted with the HEC once at least. Other people with awards and honours are hardly ever made vice chancellors of universities. I could elaborate but it would be invidious of me to do so.
But not noticing deserving individuals is not the only harm of conspiracy theories. The greatest harm is that they create a reality which is so wrong that it prevents realistic action. Take the theory that the Taliban do not exist (2006 onwards); that al-Qaeda does not exist (2007 onwards); that they do but they are Israeli, American and Indian agents (throughout -- including in a movie about them). This nonsense should actually have encouraged military action against them but somehow it did not. Nobody who propounded this theory explained why the Americans were fighting them too but normal logic is abandoned by conspiracy-theorists.
A very popular conspiracy theory is that the drones are an act of war by the USA. The fact is that they decimated the militant’s leadership and weakened them. Moreover, they were always allowed by the Pakistani authorities precisely in order to weaken the militants -- the common enemy of the Americans, Pakistanis and Afghans.
Where both the Pakistanis and the Afghans went dreadfully wrong was that nobody told the common people the truth, hence the confusion. In short, the drones became so unpopular with the people that they eventually caused losses on the propaganda front but not because they were bad weapons. And what have they been replaced with: gunship helicopters, heavy artillery and air force jets. These will obviously kill more civilians than the drones and turn more buildings into rubble.
But these the people accept because there is no propaganda against them. All these extra deaths and destruction of buildings can be attributed to the conspiracy-theorists who went hoarse lambasting the drones.
Other ancillary theories are that Nine Eleven was the work of American intelligence. This can only be responded to by calling for the bell, book and the candle! So, let Osama etc answer. Fortunately, Osama bin Laden, his son and a number of other people have left behind evidence that it was planned by them but then conspiracy-theorists do not read evidence which refutes their faith-like claims.
People also believe that Osama was not killed in Abbottabad in May 2011. They claim, without a shred of evidence, that Pakistani leaders are propped up by the ubiquitous Jews or the Americans etc; that there are no events which happen naturally in Pakistan but that we are puppets of the proverbial ‘foreign hand’.
But this way lies insanity -- so, to preserve our own sanity, let us come to the conclusion.
This is that our people believe that Pakistan is surrounded by conspiracies and our troubles are not of our making. Thus, they prevent governments and the military from taking the right action at the right time. They live in a world of unreal fantasy looking for enemies everywhere and blaming everything on Israel, America and India.
The fact is that our decision-makers have made wrong decisions and we are reaping the bitter harvest. Unless we stop hiding behind conspiracy-theories and blaming the ‘foreign hand’ we will never make sane policies. Also, unless we respect our brilliant people, our successful icons, we will never gain the respect of the world. So, three cheers for Malala, Asma Jahangir, Sharmeen Chinoy and others who have won international recognition.