If you visit the Nobel Museum in Stockholm, you cannot help but notice that the nationalities of Nobel Prize winners are never mentioned against their name. For a second this may seem odd. But on a deeper reflection, the reasoning is rather obvious. The best of human endeavour has no nationality — it transcends geographic boundaries and identities created by ‘imagined communities’.
This, however, is only half the story.
People awarding the Nobel may see things this way but individuals who live within boundaries of nation states see things radically differently.
When I visited the Nobel Museum last November, the late Dr Salam was our only Nobel laureate. The tragedy was obvious. His life’s essential work was celebrated elsewhere but ignored at home. What mattered at home was not his work or his scholarship but his religious beliefs. In life, and more importantly in death, he is seen as an Ahmadi — not a physicist. Those persecuting and also those standing up for minorities engage in a disservice by constantly highlighting his religious beliefs. This is not to say that one should ignore the persecution he faced. But to define him almost entirely as a persecuted minority plays into the hands of those who want to hijack this debate. We have done nothing as a country to see him as an individual who was more than his faith.
Enter Malala Yousafzai: a hero to many and a symbol of a global conspiracy to others. This precocious teenager with her uplifting bravery has learned much about life the hard way. For instance, soon after she had been shot in the head and was fighting for her life, thousands in her country were reluctant to mourn the attack. Comparisons were drawn to reactions of the state and media when innocent civilians die in drone strikes. It remains unclear, however, how the media’s allegedly indifferent treatment of deaths in drone strikes undermines what Malala has stood for. The media is by its nature divisive and certain stories ‘sell’ more than others.
But this calculus cannot and must not impact an assessment of Malala’s courage and the cause that she has stood up for — a cause she almost died for.
Also read: The importance of being Malala
The world is aghast at Pakistan again. Apparently we are a country that disowns its Nobel laureates. There is no shortage of people across the political spectrum giving the foreign media things to gobble. The liberals love portraying every question about Malala’s Nobel as bigotry while the conservatives do not make the broader nuanced argument they are supposed to be making — instead Malala’s legitimacy as an activist and the breathtaking heroism of her work is called in question.
The debate is not whether Malala Yousafzai is a hero or not. She is plain and simple. Now there is the question that many have raised, and we must engage with this, is why others are suffering in a conflict zone or even in the same incident not treated with the same attention by the state and media? But the answer to this question cannot be linked to an assessment of Malala’s life. Her courage does not lose any sanctity just because the media or the state has not highlighted the courage of others. In the same vein, a celebration of Malala is not a disrespect to others who deserve to have their stories told too.
Whichever side of the debate you are on, you cannot drag Malala into this to mock her achievements. At least not till you get shot in the head and were brave enough to take on the Taliban.
We live lives of ordered convenience. Our discourse is largely a Facebook post, a Tweet, a classroom lecture, this article etc. We benefit from being invisible among a crowd and once we are visible, we check ourselves. Malala did not do that. She did not set out to conquer the world but she did not back down when those who had the power to destroy her world turned against her.
She was and is an outspoken advocate of a cause that is close to her heart. Prominence brought her threats but she faced them with a courage that few adults can muster.
Remember, she had no obligation to stand up to the TTP. She never wore a military uniform and never took an oath to defend the country. A child’s world ought to have smaller concerns. The TTP did not attack her as a coincidence. She was making them uncomfortable — not a small feat in the Swat of the recent past.
No matter how many other deaths you point to, you cannot logically argue that injustices against others are somehow an indictment of Malala.
Of course, a society and the global community has a responsibility to all its children. One must also question the nature of the interests of the local and foreign media in promoting some stories while ignoring others.
Of course you can take issue with the fact that why CNN doesn’t cover the lives of families ripped apart by drone strikes. But this does not affect the heroism of our children like Malala. It should not make you question her fight or cause — because the sanctity of her cause deserves an independent engagement.
Instead of contributing to a critical discourse about issues that matter, Pakistan is once again tearing down its own. When not doing this, it is screaming at itself in the mirror like a madman. Ignored in all of this are our children and their dazzling courage.
Malala is just one example — one that we should all be extremely proud of.