By Peter Knoope.
Malala Yousafzai a hero in the West and how her impact was killed at home
On October the 12th CNN reported the impressive message of a 16 year old schoolgirl criticizing a world leader. She reflects the thoughts of many when The “Bravest Girl in the World” has stood up to President Barack Obama. Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old shot by the Taliban for promoting girl’s education in her native Pakistan, confronted Obama at the White House on Friday about U.S. drone strikes. Yousafzai challenged one of Obama’s premier counter-terrorism strategies saying, “I also expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education it will make a big impact.” While expressing what many bystanders would feel as just, she may address and resonate with a different audience than she would have wanted. To what extent does she still reflect and speak for a constituency in her own country? While Malala gained fame in the West by addressing the UN in New York, by being honored with the Children’s Peace Prize for her work promoting education for girls in The Hague, by being nominated for the Nobel Peace prize and by criticizing the most powerful of world leaders, in the process she just may have lost her position, status and influence in her own homeland. The real question is what is her impact in Pakistan where it is most needed? We, here in the West, already agree with her work, promoting education for girls, promoting peace, fighting political violence and objecting to drones, because of its counter -productive impact and the killing of innocent people. She, just like us, would like to see education rather than drones. We agree. But the real question is what is the impact of what she says and does in Pakistan, what is her message for the Pakistani people and does that message reach her opponents?
If need be, let me be absolutely clear, I fully sympathize with everything that the young girl stands for. But anyone who is really concerned about what her message is and how that lands in the environment that tried to silence her in the most brutal way possible, should take a minute and check what is taking place in her country of origin. In Pakistan the debate about her is fierce. There are those that claim that the mere fact that a 16 year old was seriously considered for the honor of winning the Nobel Peace Prize is significant. Such global attention for a teenager would be cause for national celebration in almost any country of the world. But not in bitterly divided, conspiracy theory-prone Pakistan, because, as could have been expected, the Islamists in Pakistan and the hyper-nationalist Taliban claim that honoring a 16-year-old girl is part of a Western design to impose Western values on Islamic Pakistan. This led to some commentators exclaiming that the criticism from Malala’s Pakistani detractors highlighted the national malaise that young Malala has committed herself to fight!
While Malala is defended by some she is attacked on various fronts in Pakistan. Conspiracy theories about her in Pakistan abound, with one doctor claiming in the (Karachi based) Dawn newspaper that he has a DNA report proving she is not a Pashtun and not from Swat. Other outlets claim she is a CIA agent and one of the top five “most hated people in Pakistan”. Sherry Rehman, Jinnah Institute Executive President highlighted the vitriol she receives on both sides of the aisle. The right-wing Islamic militant who spews hatred on the internet, hates everything she stands for and for fighting back. While on the left, commentators resent her commodification by the West. The latter does not necessarily hate Malala, Rehman argues but, “[postmodern leftists] resent her identity as a poster child for resistance to coercion… because she has become a brand bigger than her authentic grassroots self.”
What all this shows us is that countering a narrative of violence and hate, promoting peace and human rights, in an environment that is heavily poisoned and in deep political turmoil, is a very complex issue. Countering such a narrative requires more than just enjoying hearing our own opinion reflected by a sympathetic individual. Malala and her side of the story may be right, but that is not enough. Being right is not the same as getting it right and requires more. Credibility is the other ingredient. And maybe she has lost some of her credibility by receiving the various Western accolades and being entertained by Western leaders and institutions. If that is the case we may have managed to save her life but kill her impact.