Will attack on child activist end Pakistani apathy about civil rights?

Students hold pictures of schoolgirl Malala Yousufzai during a tribute at the Pakistani Embassy in Abu Dhabi. Yousufzai, 14, was shot by the Taliban last Tuesday for speaking out against the militants and promoting education for girls. (Photo from REUTERS/Ben Job)

The name Malala Yousufzai was new to me until recently.

But the power of her words wasn’t.

Back in 2009, when her hometown in Swat Valley was virtually under Taliban control, Malala, using the pen name Gul Makai, wrote a diary that was published and broadcast on BBC’s Urdu language radio service.

In it she described the Taliban’s atrocities, their violently enforced decrees against girls’ education, and how she would try not to attract Taliban soldiers’ attention while making her way to school each day.

I would listen to her chronicles broadcast on BBC Urdu every evening with my grandfather in Pakistan, before I moved to Seattle. (The older generation in Pakistan prefers getting the news from BBC because of it has more credibility than local news sources).

I was in awe of Malala’s courage and her steadfast stance on girls’ education in the face of an enemy that is as brutal and savage as she is innocent and sweet.

By the time the militants were defeated in Swat, they had destroyed more than 400 schools, most of them for girls. Malala survived, and her bravery was commended with the International Children’s Peace Prize and Pakistan’s National Youth Peace Prize.

But it also earned her a place on a Taliban hit list.

That hit finally took place on Tuesday, when a Taliban militants shot her twice as she rode home in her school bus. She survived the attack but was critically injured and has been taken to the UK for treatment.

In a long statement issued to the media, Pakistani Taliban justified their heinous attack by citing examples from Quran and Shariah law, the Islamic jurisprudence.

“This was a new chapter of obscenity, and we have to finish this chapter,” Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan told the media.

Malala Yousufzai, a 14-year-old schoolgirl, who was wounded in a gun attack, is seen in Swat Valley, northwest Pakistan, in this undated file photo. She is now in critical care in a U.K. hospital. (Photo from REUTERS/Hazart Ali Bacha)

Tuesday’s incident has been an eye opener for many Pakistanis who, until recently, believed that their country was fighting a misguided proxy war against the Taliban on behalf of the US, despite the fact the militants have killed more than 40,000 Pakistanis in terrorist attacks sine 9/11.

Even popular cricket star-turned-opposition-politician Imran Khan has expressed this viewpoint, mainly to gain political leverage against his rivals in upcoming general elections in the country.

Khan will be here in Seattle later this month for a fundraising event for his political party, Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (Pakistan Justice Movement).

Almost all politicians, including Khan and the chief of the country’s powerful army, have condemned the horrid attack on Malala.

But mere condemnation can’t help.

With an anti-Taliban sentiment high in Pakistani public, the politicians should force the military to change its policies of nurturing and providing safe sanctuaries to Taliban and al-Qaeda militants who are eluding allied forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

Public sentiment has grown against US drone strikes and other military action in recent years. Pakistan now has a significant intolerant, anti-American and radical population that believes the country’s problem are caused by outside forces.

Malala Yousufzai is brought out of a hospital on a stretcher in Rawalpindi. The 14-year-old activist was transfered this week to a hospital in the U.K. where she is now in critical condition. (Photo from REUTERS/Inter Services Public Relations )

The Pakistani military itself concocts such conspiracy theories to avoid criticism of their actions.

Many analysts believe the shooting on Malala could be the game changer.

However, given the public’s apathy and inaction toward similar incidents that have happened recently, it is unlikely that such optimism will lead to tangible change.

In early 2011, a prominent politician and governor of the Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was killed by his own security guard after he had spoken out against the country’s controversial blasphemy law.

Many Pakistanis applauded the murderer since the governor was accused of speaking against the religion and defending a Christian woman sentenced to death.

Soon after the governor’s murder, the killing of a minority affairs minister and Christian, Shahbaz Bhatti, brought another wave apathy from the public.

Equally disturbing was the arrest of a Christian teenage girl, Rimsha Masih, under the country’s blasphemy law. Doctors had confirmed she had Down’s syndrome, but still spent three weeks in prison. The public shrugged with indifference.

Students pray for the recovery of Malala Yousufzai. Analysts believe the shooting will be a wakeup call for the Pakistani public with a poor record for supporting civil rights causes. (Photo from REUTERS/Athar Hussain)

A few liberal elites grunted but no one really picked up the torch for Rimsha.

With the attack on Malala, Pakistanis now face a stark reality, one they’ve long been evading.

The Taliban and al-Qaeda are no longer a threat just to the Western powers.

Their violent form of religion threatens Pakistanis’ way of life and transgresses our cultural norms that bar attacking children and women even in a state of war.

Malala has survived her attack so far. But will Pakistan survive this wave of militancy and radicalization if we don’t stand up against it?

Muatasim Qazi

Muatasim Qazi is a Pakistani journalist now living in exile in the US. He is assistant editor for The Baloch Hal, an online newspaper which reports human rights violations and religious extremism in Balochistan and has been banned by Pakistani authorities. He can be reached at muatasimqazi@gmail.com.
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