‘I Am Malala’ Takes Freedom Rhetoric Too Far

Ever since Malala Yousufzai became the voice for women’s freedom in the world, the West has been under fire for using her as a puppet against the Taliban and to justify secularism in a region deemed extremist in terms of Islam.

malala-yousufzai Malala’s new book I am Malala goes a step further, perhaps one step too far, to prove that there may be a demarcation line between tolerance and faith. Especially in a region that has time and again exhibited an enduring adherence to this demarcation when it comes to contemptuous attitudes towards sensitive religious issues.

Malala visited the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Christiane Amanpour wanted to introduce her to her son and Jon Stewart asked her if he could adopt her. Despite all this, disgruntled Pakistanis were making the effort to accept her, even if with a pinch of salt, waiting for the Malala tide to eventually ebb out. Disfavor escalated again over her nomination for the Nobel Prize when people like Abdul Sattar Edhi, the “Father Teresa” of Pakistan, was sidelined for her.

However, Pakistanis still struggled to convince themselves that Malala was nonetheless a daughter of the country. This did not change the consensus that Malala was a puppet being exploited by the West for defending their stance against extremism in the region, especially the Taliban. Needless to say, her book took an already complicated affair to a labyrinthian level.

Interestingly, Pakistanis are less upset over the fact that Malala, despite her hard to fathom sagacity and wisdom, had little to say about the US drone attacks on Pakistan that are liable to be defined as war crimes, as reported by Amnesty International. The report states, “Secrecy surrounding the drones program gives the US administration a license to kill beyond the reach of the courts or basic standards of international law.”

Given this background, the consensus of the majority is that Malala is being used as a means to highlight extremism in Pakistan and hence rationalize, among other things, the ongoing drone attacks.

Previously, at the end of heated debates surrounding Malala, the debaters would agree to disagree and move on to the next topic. But after the book, people are no longer agreeing to disagree; they are out with verbal hatchets at those who are disagreeing. The book wouldn’t have caused such a snowballing furor in the already sectarian-violence ridden country had it only been the views of an innocent 16-year-old.

To the contrary, I Am Malala seems to deliberately deflect off the main topic of mostly cultural norms about women’s rights and into waspish territories such as Salman Rushdie’s banefully blasphemous Satanic Verses, reference to Ahmadis, a controversial religious sect, and calling sacred Shia days a “festival.”

For Rushdie she writes, “My father also saw the book as offensive to Islam but believes strongly in freedom of speech.” She further writes, quoting her father, as she does throughout most of the book, “Is Islam such a weak religion that it cannot tolerate a book against it? Not my Islam.”

References in the book seen as deliberately provocative to the Taliban include calling Mullah Omar the “one eyed Mullah” and saying, “Wearing a burqa is like walking inside beige fabric shuttlecock with only a grille to see through and on hot days it’s like an oven.”

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This further solidifies the general opinion that these are not words of a 16-year-old from Swat valley but of a greater power out to stoke the fire of an already smoldering US-Pakistan relationship.

The journalist Junaid Saleem in his political satire talk-show Hasb-e-Haal, the most watched show on Pakistani television, stated how stupefying it was that a girl of Malala’s age is so wise beyond her years as to offer comprehensive and detailed analyses on world views, global policies, and political theories. Especially when she did not know where in the world Birmingham was when she first woke up there after her surgery.

The Pakistani organization representing more than 152,000 of the most elite private schools in the country, The All Pakistan Private Schools Federation, also announced their decision of not stocking the book in the schools’ libraries or including it in the curriculum. This is because the federation believes that I am Malala creates a negative impact on students due to disrespect of Islam over certain issues.

According to Mirza Kashif, the federation’s president,

“The federation thought we should review the book and having reviewed it we came to the decision that the book was not suitable for our children, particularly not our students. Pakistan is an ideological country. That ideology is based on Islam… In this book are many comments that are contrary to our ideology.”

The federation also said it would review this decision if Malala agreed to change the objectionable references in the book that “hurt the emotions of Muslims.” He denied that the decision was based on fears of attack by the Taliban who have threatened to attack the bookstores that stock or sell the book.

While there is no dearth of secular views in Pakistan, there is also a great power of hearsay. Even an insinuation that the book favors Rushdie and cites the blasphemy laws as being too strict can bring mobs to the streets.

According to Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US and author of Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States and an Epic History of Misunderstanding, “Even some Western educated Pakistanis seem to condone violence against minorities and terrorism in the name of Islam, describing it only as a reaction to Western colonialism and American global influence.”

Needless to say, everything in the book could have been swallowed had it not opened the can of worms called ‘sensitive religious issues best left untouched.”

Judging by the growing dissent over the book, and the fact that the Taliban have appointed Fazlullah, the mastermind behind Malala’s shooting, as their new leader replacing Hakimullah Mehsud, it is clear that the people behind it have not only endangered her life but also western interests in the region.

Irum Sarfaraz is a freelance writer/editor originally from Pakistan. Her opinion pieces and feature articles on contemporary political and social issues have appeared in both American and Pakistani publications. Her key areas of interest are topics related to Pakistan’s strategic stand in the world at present and its turbulent relationship with the West in particular.