The Girls Who Aren’t Malala

Rumour had it that the Pope would receive this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. The ‘rumour mill’ was wrong. This year’s peace award went to a 17-year-old Pakistani girl who survived a murder attempt by the Taliban to become a highly vocal advocate for female education: Malala Yousafzay. Malala will share the prize with the much-lesser-known Kailash Satyarti, a children’s rights activist from India. The Nobel Committee admired the two “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.” Linking the work of this year’s prize winners with the quest for world peace is something of a stretch. It always is. Recall how US President Barak Obama was given the prize, not for what he had done, but in anticipation of what he was going to achieve. And then there was the time the prize was totally debased by giving it to Yasser Arafat! The Nobel Peace Prize committee has done a much better job of selecting the recipients this time round. To be honest, I know nothing of Satyarti’s work in India, but I do know what Malala has achieved, and I applaud the Nobel Peace Prize Committee’s choice of the young Pakistani girl.

What has not heard Malala’s story? I still remember the revulsion I felt when I heard how a Taliban gunman had boarded her school bus that afternoon in October 2012, asked for her by name, then pointed a pistol at her head and fired three shots. What kind of man would board a school bus and shoot a young school girl? The ‘man’ was 23-year-old Atta Ullah Khan, a graduate student in chemistry and member of Pakistan’s Taliban. (Ironically, the word talib is a Pashto word meaning ‘student’. Taliban is the plural ‘students’). In the days following the attack Malala remained unconscious. When her condition improved enough for her to travel, she was sent to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England for rehabilitation.

Malala’s crime in the eyes of the Taliban? She defied the Taliban’s ban on female education. When she was only twelve years old, Malala wrote a blog under a pseudonym for the BBC, describing her life under the Taliban occupation in the Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan. The Taliban banned not only education for girls but also television, music, shopping for women. The following summer Malala became the subject of a New York Times documentary. Then Desmond Tutu nominated her for the International Children’s Peace Prize. As her prominence grew, so did her vulnerability. One day the Taliban decided it was time to silence her. They didn’t–quite the opposite!

Her voice became only louder and stronger after the attempt on her life. On 15 October 2012 the UN Special Envoy for Global Education and former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown launched a petition in her name, calling it ‘I Am Malala’. On 12 July 2013, on what the UN dubbed ‘Malala Day’–Malala ‘s sixteenth-birthday–the young activist spoke at the UN, calling for worldwide access to education.

Malala has paid a high price for standing up to the Taliban. She and her family have been forced into exile in the UK. Since March 2013 Malala has been attending the all-girls’ Edgbaston High School in Birmingham. She and her family can never go back to Pakistan. Those who tried to kill her that day on the bus would still like to see her dead, and have reiterated their intent to kill both her and her father.

In October 2013, Malala published her memoir co-authored by the British journalist Christina Lamb: I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. I have not yet read the book, but intend to. The reaction of the Taliban to Malala’s memoir was predictable. In the eyes of the Pakistan Taliban, Malala is an apostate who does not represent Islam. She’s been “brain-washed” by her teacher-father. She’s an “agent of the kuffar ‘disbelievers’.” Spokesman for the Taliban Ehsanullah Ehsan says that fighters will continue to strike people who take what to them are anti-Islamic positions. And thus Malala remains a target of the Taliban.

What was less predictable, however, was the response from some Pakistani educators. One would think educators would be her strongest supporters, but no, the All Pakistan Private Schools Federation announced Malala’s book would be banned in its 152,000 member institutions. Why? Her book, in the Federation’s view, disrespects Islam and could have a negative influence.

Whether at the request of the UN, or because of political correctness, or perhaps for some other reason, Malala has become an advocate for education for all the world’s children, a noble goal, to be sure. But by making her activism so inclusive, Malala fails to draw attention to the real problem. Let’s not forget that Malala was a Muslim girl, living in a Muslim-majority country, shot by a Muslim graduate student who belonged to a Muslim terrorist organization. The courageous and determined schoolgirl survived. She has achieved so much in her seventeen years and her future looks bright.

But what about the girls who aren’t Malala–school girls like those kidnapped by the Islamic terrorist organization Boko Haram six months ago? Of the 276 taken forcibly from their secondary school in Nigeria that night, some have escaped, but 150 are still missing. I can’t even begin to imagine the anguish of their parents. Reports (which have yet to be verified) state that girls have been taken to Chad or Cameroon; that they’ve been married in mass ceremonies; that they’ve been sold for $12 to the terrorists or to much older men. Many of these kidnapped girls no doubt hoped one day to be doctors or lawyers or educators. Malala visited the families of these girls recently and issued an appeal to Boko Haram: “Lay down your weapons, release your sisters, release my sisters, and release the daughters of this nation.” She was ignored. In fact, the leader of Bokko Haram laughs at the ineffectiveness of the hashtag campaign #BringBackOurGirls.

And then there are the female victims of the Islamic State (IS). The IS fighters have taken Yazidi women under the age of 35 captive–some as young as 5–for sex slaves. What does the future hold for these girls and young women? Sex at the whim of their owners, unwanted pregnancies, miscarriages, gynaecological problems, maternal death–and probably worst of all, no hope for the future.

Yes, it’s gratifying to see Malala rewarded for her bravery and determination. But let’s not forget the girls who aren’t Malala.


Saudi Arabia and the Fight against Sunni Extremism

Last week Colleen Hufford was brutally beheaded by a co-worker who had converted to Islam. This didn’t happen in Syria or Iraq, but in Oklahoma! The gruesome practice of beheading used to be something we in the West encountered only in history books. But that changed when al-Qaeda began using beheading as a terror tactic in 2002 with the murder of kidnapped Jewish-American journalist Daniel Pearl. A videotape was released by al-Qaeda showing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed decapitating the journalist. This heinous terror tactic has been continued by the so-called Islamic State (IS). And so in recent weeks the world has witnessed the beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff; aid-worker David Haines; and French mountain guide, HervĂ© Gourdel. There are countless other victims of IS whose names never make the front pages of newspapers or appear on TV screens: Christians beheaded because they refused to renounce their Christian faith; minorities like the Yazidis; captured Iraqi soldiers. This morning alone, IS beheaded seven men and three women in a Kurdish area of northern Syria.

As part of the strategy to stop the killing and halt the advance of IS in the region, US Secretary of State John Kerry has put together a ‘coalition of the willing’ that includes four Sunni-majority Arab states: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, and the UAE. Kerry has been praised for achieving what was once thought unachievable: finding Sunni Muslim-majority countries willing to fight other Sunni Muslims. And thus, when the bombing campaign against IS began, Jordanian and Saudi planes, along with US planes, were in the skies over Iraq. Sunni Arab participation is intended to be a declaration to the Islamic world that this is no war between ‘Crusaders’ and Muslims.

Looking at Kerry’s coalition, however, one sees an obvious irony (one to which Kerry must have wilfully ‘turned a blind eye’). Saudi Arabia–one of the four countries Kerry enlisted to fight “Sunni extremism”–itself adheres to an extreme form of Islam: Wahhabism. Not only does Saudi Arabia follow Wahhabi Islam, it actively exports it abroad. It is this same Wahhabi Islam which is behind all Sunni Islamic extremism.

Wahhabi Islam originated with Muhammed bin Abd al-Wahhab (d.1792) who led a reform movement promoting the notion that every idea added to Islam after AD 950 was false. Only those Muslims who adhere solely and strictly to the original beliefs as set forth by Islam’s Prophet Muhammad are ‘true’ Muslims. And, importantly, this authentic form of Islam does not change over time. Wahhabi Muslims thus insist on a strict, literal interpretation of the Qur’an. Whoever does not follow this ‘true’ form of Sunni Islam is takfir , ‘apostate’, and therefore an enemy of Islam.

IS believes its version of Islam is the only correct one. Wahhabis also believe they alone are following the true Islam. And true Islam means taking the Qur’an literally. In the Wahhabi Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, beheading remains an integral part of the justice system. Of all the countries in the world, only Saudi Arabia continues to behead people. On average, one hundred beheadings take place each year. For this reason, Deera Square in downtown Riyadh, site of public beheadings, has acquired the name ‘Chop Chop Square’. While predominantly the penalty for murder or drug offences, beheading can also be the sentence for non-violent offences like apostasy or sorcery. In August 2014, nineteen people were beheaded, eight for non-violent offences, including sorcery. And what constitutes an offence in Saudi Arabia is left solely to the discretion of the religious judges. A case in point is that of the Saudi blogger Raef Badawi, creator of the website Free Saudi Liberals, who was arrested on a charge of insulting Islam. One religious judge recommended that Badawi be charged with apostasy, a crime which would have led to the death penalty. That particular judge’s recommendation did not prevail and at his re-sentencing, Badawi was sentenced instead to 1000 lashes, a hefty fine, and ten years in prison. In Saudi Arabia, the death penalty always remains a possible consequence of dissent.

Given its own harsh ideology and own abysmal record on human rights, can Saudi Arabia rightly be considered a ‘partner’ in the war on Sunni Islamic extremism? The Saudi monarchy no doubt views IS and its self-proclaimed caliphate as a threat to their kingdom and has joined the coalition out of self-interest. Some have called Saudi Arabia’s participation ‘hypocritical’. That’s a valid criticism. What Saudi Arabia’s participation says to me is that, with partners such as these, the struggle to defeat Islamic extremism is going to be a very long one.