IN MAY LAST YEAR, when Osama bin Laden was discovered – not pathetically skulking, as was predicted, in some tenebrous cave on the Afghan border, but ensconced in a luxury compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, less than a mile from the Pakistan Military Academy – there commenced much collective scratching of official heads. How, it was asked, could the world’s most wanted man have lived for so long and so comfortably under the noses of the Pakistani security forces? Pakistan, a beneficiary of $4 billion a year in military and financial assistance from the United States, is not always the most dependable ally. The shooting of Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old schoolgirl, in an area purportedly under firm government control, is only the lowest point in a story replete with shame and cynicism.
Malala Yousafzai became famous inside and outside Pakistan in 2009, at the age of 11, when she wrote a blog for the BBC detailing the depravities of life under Taliban rule. In 2007, Taliban militants had begun the take-over of her home in Swat Valley, the verdant tourist destination near the disputed Durand Line that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan. (The Durand Line, like so many other violent geopolitical demarcations, including the one that created Pakistan from India, was drawn on a map by an official of the British Empire.) The Taliban forbade girls’ education, destroyed hundreds of schools, and attacked teachers and pupils (as well as its usual attacks on music, tolerance and culture). Her handwritten notes were smuggled to a BBC reporter who then posted them on the BBC Urdu website. The Pakistani military eventually fought back against the Taliban, but the degree of control they now claim over the area has been belied by Yousafzai’s shooting.
“It seems that it is only when dozens of schools have been destroyed and hundreds others closed down”, she wrote in January 2009, “that the army thinks about protecting them. Had they conducted their operations here properly, this situation would not have arisen.” Her criticisms of the Taliban and the Pakistani government’s actions were serialized in newspapers, and when the Taliban had been driven out of Swat, she became an activist for female education, and a national political figure. She was awarded Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize by the then Prime Minister, Yousa Raza Gilani (who, in April this year, was controversially removed from office by the Supreme Court), and was also nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize.
At one point, Yousafzai wrote on her blog, “O God bring peace to Swat and if not then bring either the US or China here [sic]”. And therein, indeed, lies part of the problem: the US provides $4.3 billion in military and financial aid to Pakistan. In return, the elite that rules the country focuses popular anger towards the ‘sovereignty violations’ caused by the use of unmanned US drones, rather than towards the abuses committed by the Taliban and related fundamentalist groups, with which the security forces often collude. (In fact, the drone strikes are entirely legal under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, since the Pakistani government, despite its repeated protestations of surprise and offence, authorizes them all beforehand.) For as long as the US continues to bankroll the corrupt military and political elites of Pakistan, it will be funding its own enemies, and the enemies also of the large number of people in Pakistan who affirm the basic rights that ought to inhere in the word “human”. Manufactured offence, such as that caused by the film, ‘The Innocence of the Muslims’, a deranged piece of piffle from an independent filmmaker, often occludes the fact that being a Muslim in the Middle East does not axiomatically make a person opposed to American values – or, indeed, interventions.
Although the Prime Minister, Raja Pervez Ashraf, has called Yousafzai “our daughter”, the Pakistani parliament has once again rejected a motion for a military operation against terrorist forces in North Waziristan. Many politicians have been too afraid to condemn the Taliban attack on Yousafzai, and it is likely that some support it. Nonetheless, the shooting of Yousafzai, as she rode the bus home from an exam, has prompted popular outrage across Pakistan. Only 29% of girls are educated in Pakistan, and violence and serfdom are often the only things the future promises for the rest, but large groups of women and – crucially – men, have been prepared to rally and protest in Malala Yousafzai’s name and against the Taliban. Many also offered to donate blood, before she was transferred to the UK for medical treatment. And fifty Islamic clerics promulgated a fatwa against the Taliban gunmen (which, one can’t help feeling, while to be applauded under the circumstances, rather misses the point in its own way).
Consider, finally, the Taliban’s typically arrogant attempt at explanation and self-exculpation: “We did not attack her for raising a voice for education. We targeted her for opposing the mujahideen and their war,” said a Taliban spokesman. Given that their ‘war’ involved, amongst other things, burning down and destroying a total of 401 girls’ schools in Swat Valley, assaulting and killing teachers, and throwing acid in the faces of schoolchildren, this explanation doesn’t suffice on the factual level, let alone the moral. But we might choose to take hope from the fact that the Taliban feels the need to justify itself in the first place. And from the fact that, while the government and the politicians of Pakistan continue to abase themselves, many brave men and women – and children – are prepared to risk their lives for the right to an education, and the freedom that that must be made to entail.