Malala Yousafzai: still a hero!
Malala Yousafzai is still taking abuse even amid the adulation accompanying her American tour last week. Upon her shooting one year ago, her Taliban would-be assassins claimed she had praised Obama and expressed support for "Western culture." This was quickly exposed as nonsense, as it became clear that Malala was a sympathizer of a Marxist tendency that was fighting for secularism in the mullah-dominated Swat Valley! However, some voices on the "left" continued to diss her in self-righteous terms, even engaging in lugubrious conspiracy-mongering that the whole affair had been set up as a propaganda job. So what are we to make now that Malala has spoken before the United Nations, appeared on Jon Stewart, and met with Obama in the White House? Are the cynics vindicated? Has Malala now, finally, been co-opted?
No. Malala saves herself. She used her audience with Obama not as an excuse to bask in accolades, but an opportunity to speak truth to power—by protesting the incessant US drone strikes on Pakistan. As she said in a press statement released after the meeting: "I thanked President Obama for the United States' work in supporting education in Pakistan and Afghanistan and for Syrian refugees. I also expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education it will make a big impact." (McClatchy, Oct. 11)
We do hope that after this, Malala's sanctimonious critics will learn some humility. Back in July, one Assed Baig wrote on Huffington Post a piece with the grating title of "Malala Yousafzai and the White Saviour Complex"...
There is no justifying the brutal actions of the Taliban or the denial of the universal right to education, however there is a deeper more historic narrative that is taking place here.
This is a story of a native girl being saved by the white man. Flown to the UK, the Western world can feel good about itself as they save the native woman from the savage men of her home nation. It is a historic racist narrative that has been institutionalised. Journalists and politicians were falling over themselves to report and comment on the case. The story of an innocent brown child that was shot by savages for demanding an education and along comes the knight in shining armour to save her.
The actions of the West, the bombings, the occupations the wars all seem justified now, "see, we told you, this is why we intervene to save the natives."
The truth is that there are hundreds and thousands of other Malalas. They come from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places in the world. Many are victims of the West, but we conveniently forget about those as Western journalists and politicians fall over themselves to appease their white-middle class guilt also known as the white man's burden.
What hideous condescension. One line of perfunctory lip-service to the notion that the Taliban should perhaps not shoot 14-year-old girls, followed by a dismissal of Malala for playing into the hands of racists and imperialists! The mind truly boggles at such blindness. Far from appealing for a "knight in shining armour to save her," Malala was standing up to the Taliban on her own. And far from justifying the US bombardment of her country, she protested it at the first opportunity. Are the peoples of south and central Asia and the greater Middle East to not resist jihadist tyranny for fear of playing into the hands of Western imperialism? By the same token, perhaps they shouldn't protest Western imperialism for fear of playing into the hands of jihadist tyranny.
A response, also on HuffPost, came Oct. 9 from one Taufiq Rahim, in a piece entitled "Malala Yousafzai and the Missing Brown Savior Complex." He writes: "The real reason that the 'white savior complex' even is relevant is that we fail to champion the very 'brown saviors' in our midst." Rahim acknowledges the terror of the drone strikes, and the complicity of the US in the rise of political Islam in the region (in terms far more forthright than Baig's lukewarm pseudo-support for Malala). But then:
Does saying all of that make Malala Yousafzai any less of a hero (or heroine)? Is her courage dimmed by the crimes of others? Is her movement for the empowerment of young girls in Pakistan any less important? Of course not. Criticisms of the West will bring no one closer to emancipation. And it cannot mask the very pure fact that today's purveyors of disaster and death in the world also include Muslims...
It has become far too easy on all sides to blame the other rather than introspect inward. Above all, instead of blaming the West for its 'white savior complex' maybe it's time to develop our own brown savior complex to save ourselves from ourselves.
In fact, Malala did win widespread support from secularists across Pakistan. (The pro-secular Pakistani newspaper Dawn on Oct. 11 runs an hilarious send-up of the endless conspiracy-thoerizing about Malala, saying their "researchers" have determined through DNA tests that she is the Hungarian-born offspring of Christian missionaries; alarmingly, they had to add a "disclaimer" at the start of the piece making clear that it is satire!) Appallingly, many of her critics are hurling their rhetoric from the safety of the West. (Baig appears to be based in the UK.) This brings us to a related point about the nature of real heroism and who has earned the right to criticize whom.
Business Insider notes an exchange during Malala's appearance on the Jon Stewart show. Stewart asked her how she reacted when she learned that the Taliban wanted her dead. Her remarkable answer:
I started thinking about that, and I used to think that the Talib would come, and he would just kill me. But then I said, 'If he comes, what would you do Malala?' then I would reply to myself, 'Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.' But then I said, 'If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.' Then I said I will tell him how important education is and that 'I even want education for your children as well.' And I will tell him, 'That's what I want to tell you, now do what you want.'
Like the heroic peasant pacifists of Colombia, who are taking a nonviolent stand in the face of paramilitary terror, Malala has faced down evil, in real life and up close. Nothing could be further from the hypocritical stance of too many Western pacifists, who, with bewildering arrogance, preach nonviolence to the oppressed of Pakistan or Syria from the comfort of New York or London.
Malala Yousafzai has clearly not been co-opted, even now, and she owes this to her life experience of real immersion in real struggle, at real sacrifice. She is a hero still.
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