Jewish Journal


October 17, 2012

Malala Yousafzai and Pakistan’s dilemmas


Malala Yousafzai. Photo by T. Mughal/EPA/Newscom

Malala Yousafzai. Photo by T. Mughal/EPA/Newscom

Malala Yousafzai, the girl at the center of a loud nationwide debate in Pakistan, is silent.

At least for now she is recovering from gunshot injuries at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham in Britain.

She was attacked on Oct. 9, when masked gunmen hunted her down and shot her in the head in her school van in Mingora, Swat, in the north of Pakistan. The 14-year-old had become famous for writing a diary under the name Gul Makai (Sunflower), which the BBC published in 2009 when the Taliban swept the valley, destroying girls’ schools and attempted to enforce Shariah law in the area. 

“We targeted her because she would speak against the Taliban while sitting with shameless strangers and idealized the biggest enemy of Islam, Barack Obama,” Reuters reported the Taliban’s statement as saying on Oct. 15. Malala had actually said that she wanted to become a politician people looked up to. She admired Benazir Bhutto, Bacha Khan (a proponent of nonviolence in the north of Pakistan), and Barack Obama for his efforts to bring about peace. For the most part, Pakistanis reacted with horror to the shooting, which made international headlines. 

A $1 million bounty has been announced for Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan, according to CNN reports. Malala will be awarded the Sitara-e-Shujaat, or Star of Bravery, by the government, and the interior minister has said that they know the identity of the assailants, but can’t disclose it yet.

In essence, the shooting of a teen who blogged about her school has become yet another milestone in Pakistan’s fight against itself. It is a barometer of the Pakistani struggle to understand, interpret and react to extremism in the midst of the pullout of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, drone strikes and an internal struggle with terrorism.

There has been widespread condemnation of the attack. We are asking questions, from the drawing rooms to the broadcast studios, many of which are important. Why was Malala attacked? Why was she attacked right now, out of the blue, when her primary work was done in 2009 and the Pakistani government honored her with an award in 2011? Who attacked Malala? The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, as opposed to the Afghan Taliban) have claimed responsibility and given reasons, but there are people who counter this by hinting at collusion with different forces. 

It is worth mentioning that in Pakistan, big questions like these tend to be framed through the lens of gender/sex. Remember the gang rape of Mukhtaran Mai? The video of the flogging of a young woman in Swat? The Christian woman Aasia Bibi who was accused of blasphemy and in whose defense Gov. Salmaan Taseer met his end? Rimsha Masih, the girl with Down syndrome who was accused of blasphemy? The assassination of Benazir Bhutto?

This much is clear: Extremists have stooped to the depths of attacking children, and terrorists are still powerful in many parts of Pakistan, from the mountains of Miran Shah in North Waziristan to the shores of the Arabian Sea in Karachi. 

Story continues after the jump.

Mingora, Swat

A map showing Mingora, Swat in northern Pakistan. Photo from Google Maps

Many people have expressed the hope that this attack will be taken seriously enough to turn the tide of public sentiment against the Taliban. Yet while it has hit a nerve in a population otherwise desensitized by repeated violence, it is most likely just to register as a blip on the radar and not actually become a focal turning point. The reason for this is the confusion that has spread over the decades in Pakistan over the nature of the problem and what needs to be done about it.

History, geography and foreign intervention have not helped.

The problem is that Malala’s story, the drones, the U.S. war in Afghanistan are all being conflated. 

Take, for example, the extreme right-wing cleric Maulana Fazlur Rahman of the JUI-F Party, who condemned the attack but tempered his point by asking why no one has condemned all the deaths in the drone strikes?

This line of reasoning has the dangerous effect of diluting public anger over one incident and helping indecision take root at a time when intelligent strategies need to be devised with the Pakistani population’s support.

As another example of the confusion being created, take one main unsubstantiated rumor making the rounds. It says that the army attacked Malala itself in order to build public outcry to a pitch that would allow it to start a military operation in North Waziristan. The people who believe this rumor argue that this was the plan, as there is intense pressure on the Pakistani army from the United States to go after the terrorist Haqqani network, etc.

But the people who believe this rumor say that the Pakistani army is doing this in order to make money off the Americans. According to a Peshawar reporter (who cannot be named here for security reasons) who was one of the first to report the creep of the Taliban in Swat in 2007, the reaction has thus been double-edged. He wrote in a background interview for the Jewish Journal: “The right-wing Jamaat Islami [JI] in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa issued a sheepish and weak statement on the day Malala was attacked, terming the incident as ‘an attack on humanity.’ However, in the same breath it linked pro-U.S. policies of government with lawlessness across the country, saying that such policies have [turned] Pakistan into a battleground.” 

This kind of talk from the JI deflects from the criminality of groups that operate outside the writ of the Pakistani state.

The reporter went on to say: “The media attention which Malala received itself became a bone of contention. Many people argue that in a country which has lost about 40,000 people [to terrorism] over the past decade, besides tens of thousands being injured and crippled, why has such a hue and cry been made over a single attack?”

In the absence of general clarity on the army’s policies, the workings of the intelligence agencies and their links to proxy groups, the people of Pakistan tend to fall prey to conspiracy theories. “When is the last time you heard of a journalist who went to North Waziristan?” asked the journalist. “Things are never clear.”

But there are certain facts to build on. For those people who have started talking about Malala as an excuse to build support for a military operation in North Waziristan, let them understand that the Pakistani army has not gone there in the decade that the United States has been in Afghanistan (which shares a porous border with North Waziristan), so why assume it will go now, one year ahead of the pullout? (Indeed, there is talk that the United States will leave Afghanistan before 2014.) If there has been pressure on Pakistan’s army to clean up the Haqqani network in North Waziristan, it has been there for a while. 

“The last eight years couldn’t force Pakistan to do an operation in North Waziristan,” respected analyst Najam Sethi said on Oct. 16 on his Geo TV talk show, “Aapas ki Baat.” “Brace yourself for more killings, more terrorism, more confusion,” he added.

An increasingly popular politician, Imran Khan, who tried to lead a caravan of journalists to Waziristan, has argued that given that you cannot just kill everyone out there, you have to talk to the militants. His grand plan is to win over those whom he can and allow the military to do a “teeny tiny” operation for the rest.

This is not likely to be taken seriously as a solution. For one, guerrilla warfare is long and drawn out and will take a sustained planned multiyear strategy for the army to tackle. Unlike in 2009, it cannot be done on the defensive; it will need to dent their weapons capacity and rehabilitate them. (Consider the IRA, for example.) Those who argue in favor of peace deals should factor in that six of them have failed; the militants did not keep their end of the bargain.

The problem is that Pakistan’s political leadership is not clear on what to do. It has not been able to convince the population of a course of action either. Rumors and conspiracy theories have eaten away at the ability to act. The politicians are afraid that if they supported military action, the Taliban would unleash a wave of terror and the elections in 2013 would have to be postponed.

One can only assume that average Americans wish to see Pakistan stable and terrorist-free, if not for children like Malala, then for America’s security as well. That should be the average Pakistani’s hope as well. But regardless of what the Americans may want from Pakistan, or Afghanistan, it is extremely important for Pakistanis to see that this is their war. They need to see that their government needs to be empowered to develop a long-term strategy to ensure its authority is not challenged by terrorists.

After all, it’s our children who are being shot going home from school.

Mahim Maher is a journalist in Karachi and a former Daniel Pearl Fellow. Her blog, My Pakistan, is at jewishjournal.com.

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