The shooting of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai has unleashed a wave of revulsion and protest in Pakistan, along with a wave of media attention around the world. Across the political spectrum people are, quite naturally, interpreting this brutal crime through their own ideological lenses.
Unfortunately, leaps of logic and aggressive, violent non-sequiturs abound — in both the misogyny-addled justifications for this brazen assassination attempt and in the attempts to use this sickening attack as cover or justification for deadly and destructive foreign interventions.
Anti-imperialism of fools
The criminals themselves have tried to dress up their disgusting actions in the language of anti-imperialism. A spokesman for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) told the media, “She was pro-West, she was speaking against Taliban and she was calling President Obama her idol.”
I have seen no evidence to substantiate these claims about young Malala’s views. An international marxist group has said that Malala was in fact a sympathiser of theirs. But little else has been reported in the media pertaining to Malala’s political opinions, beyond the obvious that she has been a courageous advocate of education for women and girls. And of course — it should not even have to be said — assassinating a child would never be justified in any circumstances, whatever her political views.
This rhetoric from the group that targeted Malala is, to say the least, an “anti-imperialism of fools,” and fortunately seems to have fooled only a very small minority in Pakistan. Civil society, religious and political leaders across Pakistan and around the world have condemned the shooting.
Yesterday, tens of thousands marched in Karachi to demand justice for Malala’s would-be assassins.
Enlisting the moral power of Malala to push foreign intervention
There has also been no shortage of pro-imperialist fools enlisting the moral power of Malala’s plight to put forward their own pro-war views. Sometimes this process is subtle; often it is vulgar, aggressive and ahistorical.
Take Piers Morgan — as CNN recently did. The very personification of late imperial arrogance, the TV personality is equally at home gossiping about the latest celebrity inanities as he is flattering the powerful while echoing their worldview. A pretentious lightweight, he is prone to giddy overstatement. The glitz of the star-studded Olympic ceremonies, for example, prompted him to Tweet — seemingly unironically — about how he wished for the return of the British Empire.
In a special commentary “honouring Malala,” Morgan quoted the girl’s defiant and brave words, contrasting them with the TTP’s sickening vow to return to finish the job of silencing her. He then concluded:
“Remember those words next time somebody questions what right the American military, together with allied forces, had taking on these evil thugs. It wasn’t just because they harbour terrorists like Al-Qaeda. It was because they think it’s fine to murder 14-year-old girls for speaking their mind.”
The reference to “allied forces” suggests Morgan has shifted the argument to Afghanistan. If only this casual conflation had been a nod to the fact that the Durand line dividing the Pashtun tribes of Afghanistan and Pakistan has always been an arbitrary imperial division…
But, no, in fact Morgan was arguing that this crime committed in one country justified a decade of western military intervention in the neighbouring country. In using the attack on Malala to justify not just this specific foreign intervention, but the unquestionable right to interfere, Morgan obscures or ignores international law, as well as some basic recent and longer-term history, including:
-The TTP and other extremist groups are themselves by-products of Pakistan’s history as a corrupt military-run, U.S.-allied state, and of imperial partition and intervention in the region.
-Armed fundamentalist militias and parties were given a particular boost by the U.S.-Saudi intervention in the 1980s war in Afghanistan against Soviet occupation.
-The current, 11-year-long war in Afghanistan has fuelled fundamentalist groups and further destabilized Pakistan.
-The Afghan government that the western occupation props up is itself full of fundamentalist political forces, many of whom have horrific records of human rights violations and of abuses against women.
Seen within even a fraction of this context, nothing about the crime against Malala should lead anyone to conclude in favour of more foreign military intervention in the region. I dare say the large majority of people in Pakistan and Afghanistan are to be found between the fools on either side of the arguments around this tragic case: opposed to foreign occupation and the “drone war,” as well as opposed to the various armed fundamentalists like the TTP.
The Pakistani alternative publication Viewpoint notes that ‘there are countless Malalas’:
“Reprehensible as the shooting of Malala Yusufzai is, it does not justify imperialist drone attacks on peoples living in tribal areas. Reprehensible as the targeting of a 14-year-old girl is, it does not justify the Pakistan Army’s often indiscriminate operations that have led to the displacement of millions of people.”
These widely held positions are rarely given a hearing by media personalities like Piers Morgan; it falls outside the preferred narrative that reinforces the idea of the West as saviour and the rest as villains (or victims of their own culture and society.)
Look at Malalai Joya, the young Afghan politician and women’s rights activist who shares Yousafzai’s namesake. (The British-empire-nostalgic Morgan will be dismayed to learn that both were named after Malalai of Maiwand, a heroine of Afghanistan’s 19th century wars of independence against the British. In an interview with Christain Science Monitor a couple years ago, Yousafzai said that Joya was a person she hoped to emulate, “I want to be a social activist and an honest politician like her.”)
Joya, like Yousafzai, fought for the right of girls to go to school, teaching at secret underground schools during the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan. Joya survived assassination attempts and was even elected to the Afghan Parliament back in 2005. She was then kicked out of her elected position and has been subjected to more threats and violence, forced now to live on the move, surrounded by bodyguards. No Bush or Obama administration officials ever condemned her suspension from Parliament. In fact, last year, the U.S. government refused to give her an entry visa for public speaking events, only relenting after a public pressure campaign demanded she be allowed to enter the United States.
In 2010, TIME magazine included Malalai Joya in their ‘Top 100’ list of the most influential people in the world, but then the write-up completely erased her anti-war, anti-NATO positions.
That’s really the only way they know how to tell the story. For all the talk of ‘liberating women,’ they actually prefer an essentialized, one-dimensional image — they want victims, not empowered agents of their own liberation.
Malala Yousafzai’s prognosis remains unclear. Emergency surgery saved her life, but she remains unconscious. There are reports that the U.A.E. has offered to pay for her to be flown abroad for further, intensive medical treatment.
All over the world, people are hoping and praying for Malala to pull through. It is an incredibly compelling human story. At a very young age, Malala summoned the resolve to speak out, no matter the consequences.
I hold out hope that, out of this terrible episode, many new people will come to learn about the courageous people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and indeed about the struggles of all those in the wider region which has been so severely scarred by fundamentalism, war and occupation.
We must cut through the noise and expose those who try to use Malala’s suffering to rehabilitate a murderous occupation and a cruel and illegal drone war. And we must also do better than the safe cause-surfing of the celebrity set.
Malala’s courage inspires us. The suffering of the many, many Malalas compels us to act.