The vicious Taliban attack on a 14-year old schoolgirl on 9th October in the Swat region of Northern Pakistan has prompted global outrage, but the question remains – was this the result of a localized battle or is it part of a far bigger issue?
Malala Yousafzai became an internationally-recognised name when she began writing a blog for BBC Urdu at age 11; the Taliban occupation of her home region, Swat, in 2009 prompted her to publicise her account of living under severe repression. She complains of the most basic violations of her individual freedoms, such as being told not to wear bright colours or being forbidden to go ‘shopping’: supposedly symbols of a Western invasion of culture, but which Malala (with an edge of humour) simply describes as universal female interests. Most of all, however, Malala laments the Taliban’s successes in hindering education: on 3rd January 2009, she wrote “I was afraid of going to school because the Taliban had issued an edict banning all girls from attending schools. Only 11 students attended the class out of 27. The number decreased significantly because of the Taliban’s edict.”
Part of the reason this story has prompted such outrage this week is not only that such a young, innocent girl was shot for political reasons; it is also shocking to learn of the very real influence of the Taliban in Pakistan, and even the concept that such basic human rights such as education are being denied to women in parts of the world which no longer seem so far away. The ‘war in Afghanistan’ has become a phrase which very few members of the Western world, especially politicians, want to hear any more; it refers to something which began many years ago, for a bitter cocktail of unclear reasons. Westerners are also no longer convinced that it is ‘our war’; increasingly it seems as though we are fighting an unknown cause, with little sight of a resolution.
Yet, reservations about military engagement aside, the message Malala has sent out to the world (though not in a way anyone would want it) is this: it is vitally important that we continue to fight a group of reprehensible extremists who are not justified by religion, nor supported by any majority and who are willing to use any means necessary, including arbitrary violence, to forcibly inflict their principles upon others. Malala has shown bravery that any soldier would respect and resolute conviction that should embarrass political leaders who have failed to deal with the problem. This is not a territorial issue; it is not about defending borders or sovereignty or fighting ‘someone else’s war’. This is a universal issue that should unite believers in the principles of freedom across the world: freedom of speech, of democratic engagement and, at the very least, of education.
When the violent clashes began in Swat in 2009, the UN refugee agency warned that it could become the worst displacement crisis since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. It is easy to forget that the Taliban continue to be an imminent, dangerous presence not only in Afghanistan but also across the Middle East; failing to deal with the problem would be disastrous. However, the Pakistani government do not make it easy; people have questioned how the attack on Malala was carried out in broad daylight, only 10-minutes walking distance from the Army Brigade headquarters and close to various security checkpoints. This comes less than a month after the Pakistani government granted a ‘public holiday’ on Friday 21st September, allowing mobs to take control of the streets of Islamabad in protest against a Western film that mocked the Prophet Muhammad, leaving 21 people dead. Similarly, the discovery of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan last year put a strain on their relations with the USA.
Cultural, religious and political division between Pakistan and the West make them difficult allies in fighting the Taliban, as Pakistan’s government struggles to maintain and enforce a policy against its Muslim ‘brothers’ across the border. Malala Yousafzai’s name means “grief-stricken”. If one good thing should come of Malala and her family’s current grief, it should be renewed and cooperative efforts against the brutal villains who caused it.