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The Shooting of Pakistani Teen Activist Malala Yousafzai

by Roop Misir, PhD

Guyana Journal October 2012

A Google internet search reveals the number of stories relating to Malala Yousafzai far exceeds 30 million. She is the 14-year Pakistani girl from the Swat Valley area under the control of the Taliban. She advocated girls' education, and was targeted because she openly defied the Taliban who oppose girls attending school. On Oct. 9, she was shot in the head at close range but managed to survive. Later, she was later rushed to Birmingham, England for medical treatment. The shooting sparked international outrage and plunged a deeply divided Pakistan into yet another round soul-searching.

You may ask: What went wrong? What could go wrong?

Why Malala?

Analysts agree that secularism and Islamic extremism are incompatible. Today, encroaching “secularism” is the new reality and a big headache all over the Islamic world. Malala was viewed as being “too secular” by promoting “Western thinking”. What the Taliban fear most is their loss of power. Secularism would also put into jeopardy their stated objective to impose strict Islamic orthodoxy. Soon after the shooting, they proudly claimed credit. A Taliban spokesman vowed that jihadists would hunt Malala down again should she survive this ordeal.

At her hospital bed, Malala's condition though still critical, is improving by the day.

Violence against women and others who speak out is nothing new in Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto, the first woman elected to lead a Muslim nation, was assassinated in 2007. Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was killed last year for daring to oppose the nation's draconian blasphemy laws. And last month, Rimsha Masih, a 14-year-old Christian girl was imprisoned, accused of Qur'an burning.

Who are the Taliban?

The Taliban is a militant Islamic movement that controlled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, when they were driven out by NATO forces. They gained international attention in 1989 while trying to restore law and order following the abrupt departure of Soviet forces. Their declared goals included the restoration of peace, disarming warring Mujahedeen factions, rigidly enforcing Islamic law, and defending the Islamic character of Afghanistan. At first they enjoyed wide support. But later when they set out to create the world's first pure Islamic regime, they unleashed a reign of terror by restricting everyday freedoms. Men were ordered to grow long beards, women must dress modestly, and people must faithfully observe daily prayers. In every case, non-compliance meant harsh punishment. Furthermore, members of minority religious groups must wear labels as markers, e.g., Hindus had to wear an “H”. This measure the Taliban argued was intended to protect them from religious police enforcing Islamic law. Despite being part of ancient Afghan history, pre-Islamic works of art and famous icons (e.g., the Bamiyan Buddhas) were destroyed. Other “frivolities” (the internet, television, music, and photography) were outlawed. Normal punishments included amputation of the hands of thieves, and the stoning to death of women convicted of adultery.

Early Pakistan

Pakistan was carved out of India as a home for Indian Muslims. The founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah wanted to build the world's biggest Muslim country into a secular, liberal and progressive state. At the nation's birth in 1947, he declared: "You are free… to go to your temples; you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has got nothing to do with the business of the state …"

Now sixty-five years later, Pakistan has been transformed into anything but its founder's dream. The liberal middle classes are in retreat. Fundamentalism, sectarian violence, religious bigotry and creeping Talibanization have turned the country into "the epicentre of global terrorism". The country faces imminent danger of collapse by implosion.

Creeping Islamization

After Mr. Jinnah's sudden death in 1948, successive political leaders cleverly used “Islamization” to craft the nation's new identity and consolidate their grip on power. In 1956, they transformed the country as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, ushering religion (clerics and their street power) into politics. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto strived to project himself as the undisputed Muslim champion, both at home and on the global stage. During the Cold War era, his appeasement of the clergy was part of his grand scheme to gather Muslim nations around him and to create a new Islamic Power Bloc-along the lines of the Soviet and Western nations. He started by banning alcohol, proclaiming Friday as a weekly holiday and declaring the Ahmadis as non-Muslims.

Gen. Zia and Arabization

Bhutto's successor, dictator General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, went even further. He replaced Pakistan's South Asian identity (cultural, social, educational and its institutions) with Arabization and Wahhabism (the radical Saudi version of Sunni Islam). To achieve this quickly, he made Arabic studies mandatory and had television and radio newscasts produced in Arabic. He introduced an Islamic justice system by setting up a federal sharia court to try cases as per the Qur'an. He prescribed amputations for robbery and theft, and flogging and stoning death for adultery. He also banished liquor, cabarets, clubs and non-Islamic dress. Under his chadar aur char diwari (the veil and four walls) policy, women were required to discard their South Asian dress, including the highly popular sari, in favour of top-to-toe Arabic chadors, and had to stay behind four walls of the home. Blasphemy against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was punishable by death.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan only served to speed up the Arabization of Pakistan. Zia's Saudi friends as well as the CIA showered with him petro dollars to set up madrassas (Islamic religious seminaries) and mosques staffed by Arabic Imams to train die-hard mujahedeen to fight with and drive out the Soviets.

It was Gen. Zia's obsession to Arabize Pakistan that turned this culturally rich South Asian country into a virtual Islamic theocracy, allegedly a safe haven for global terror networks – from al-Qaeda to the Taliban, to the homegrown Tehrik-e-Taliban and sundry lashkars (militias) – plus the jihadist-churning factory with its network of more than 18,000 madrassas. Meanwhile, the country's entrenched ruling elites were gloating over Pakistan becoming “Fortress Islam”, complete with the Islamic nuclear bomb. Not surprisingly, ethnic cleansing, forced conversion and migration drastically reduced its non-Muslim minorities (Hindus and Sikhs) from 20% (1947) to barely 1% (present).

Is the rest of the world sincerely surprised at Malala's shooting, or what's happening in Pakistan today?

Canada's Role

After Haiti and Afghanistan, Pakistan is the third-largest recipient of Canadian foreign aid. Also, Canada is a major destination for Pakistani immigrants. Malala's only crime was her persistent demand for girls' education. She wasn't the accidental victim of a suicide bomber, nor was her shooting a random act. She was targeted because she won the wrath of the anti-secular Taliban extremists. Under the circumstances, surely the Canadian government can ask Pakistan to enforce existing laws and take responsibility for internal problems? True, the complex roots of ongoing unrest, religious intolerance and misogyny run deep; however, a solution can be found if Pakistan's rulers are prepared to accept change. With the Arab Spring overthrowing entrenched systems in Muslim Middle East, Pakistanis may find it useful to chart an independent course-by reversing imposed Arabization, embracing ongoing secularism and reclaiming their South Asian heritage.

Is there going to be another Malala incident?

No, not if Pakistanis are united as they have shown after the recent shooting of Malala Yousafzai.

Dr. Roop Misir is a writer, educator and Real Estate professional.