Raza Habib Raja
Sometimes I find it strange how completely innocents can find themselves embroiled in needless controversy. The omnipotent presence of electronic media and increasing role of social media, amplifies the controversy and moreover often makes the individuals ( who are at the center of controversy) into polarizing figures.
A sixteen year old girl, Malala, previously unknown but now globally famous is one such individual who despite her youth and innocence has become embroiled in a needless controversy and much to my amazement, has also been made into a polarizing figure.
If you happen to read Pakistani newspapers or follow Pakistani cyberspace, you will find Malala being abused by some (the derogatory level of abuses which I have heard and read is shameful) and venerated to almost Demi-God status by others.
Some have claimed it is a Western ploy to use Malala to sell its narrative with the ultimate purpose of humiliating Islam and Pakistan. Constant comparisons of Malala with the drone victim have been made. I keep on hearing and in fact have become sick of hearing the phrase: Drone Victims bhee tu kisi ki Malala hain ( Drone victims are also someone’s Malala).
This camp ( though no monolithic as various point of views exist) by and large calls Malala a tool-with some going to the extent of calling her an agent-of the West. For some, the entire incident was planned by CIA to create public sympathy for operation in Waziristan. Some have even gone to the extent of blaming Pakistan Army ( which lately has been pressing for military action against Pakistani Taliban while continuing to support the Afghan Taliban) of being the “real culprit” behind the assassination attempt.
Even those who believe that incidence was real nevertheless have loathed the little girl with some blaming her father for acting as a “pimp” to extract fame. This was shameful and yet I have actually read such remarks.
Some of the “liberals” also joined the band wagon and I remember a Facebook status of someone who writes for a famous liberal newspaper which read as: Malala ka nia Mujra Kahan ho raha hai ( Where is the next dance of Malala taking place?).
Personally I could not understand and have not still come to terms with this hatred for someone so little and who went through a near death experience which has left her face permanently disfigured.
In my opinion, all this petty hatred directed towards Malala is nothing but our twisted hatred for the West. Many Pakistanis simply saw the media coverage as kind of a ploy to insult their country. The attempt on her life highlighted the depth of TTP’s reach and ruthlessness. Ironically, in the beginning, there was a wave of sympathy for her and revulsion for the act of TTP. However, the moment Western media started its emulation of Malala, some who had initially praised her quickly changed their opinion.
Unfortunately some of the coverage did go overboard ( though the hatred is still unjustified) and portrayed Pakistan in a skewed manner rather than fully illustrating its complexities. Many Pakistanis became defensive and started to accuse Malala for bringing a bad name to their country. The conspiracy theory mindset which has always tried to shift the blame to the external world went into overdrive.
With every minute of increasing fame, the opponents retaliated with charges of Western hypocrisy of highlighting just Islamic extremism while glossing over its own wrongdoings.
Needless to say all these haters never bothered to look towards the real reason as to why their country is associated with terrorism and extremism across the globe. They simply forget that in the past ten years or so, nearly all most wanted terrorists have been killed or captured from Pakistani soil. They forget that Osama Bin Laden was found hiding literally yards away from Pakistan Military Academy. They forget the dismal record Pakistan has with respect to minorities and treatment of women. And of course they even forget that thousands of their own countrymen have been killed in the last 15 years by extremists.
And yet, a few speeches by a kid, who also has suffered from the hands of extremists has made their blood boil.
As expected, this irrational tirade was countered with almost equal ferocity by defenders of Malala. Now, broadly I agree with the supporters of Malala but I do think that some of them (not all) have really gone for the overkill here.
As the Western media gave a lot of coverage, some of the supporters in Pakistan elevated her to a Demi God status. Supporting and ferociously defending her became a standard “liberal” criteria. If you consider yourself a liberal then you had to defend her otherwise you would be accused of being one or more of the following: a closet Taliban, a coward who does not have guts to stand up and defend a 14 year old girl; envious of her; and of course a pseudo liberal.
I remember when I wrote an article titled “Malala Issue: Perils of Overexposure” in which I pointed to the problem which media overkill could do, I was actually criticized by some for “abandoning a 14 year old in the wake of Taliban advance”. My main argument was to stress the importance of moving beyond her to focus on the larger issue of extremism. I wrote:
“The problem with over projection is that it automatically creates visible targets and also puts questions about motives. This is what has happened in Malala’s case. In my opinion, we need to move beyond her and focus our debate on the larger issue of extremism. Those who claim to be liberal also need to understand that there is no point fighting uselessly on proving that she is a hero. Those who have made it their mind are not going to change. One can argue and convince some but not all opponents. Frankly, it does not matter as it does not materially affect her. She is now outside Pakistan and safe.”
And yet some expressed “deep disappointment:” in me despite the fact that in the article I had admired Malala for her bravery.
Yes, in my opinion Malala is a brave little girl who has suffered a lot but so have countless others at the hands of religious extremists and the rules/customs ( written and implicit) of this patriarchal society. But not everyone is given this much coverage. She is already in the global spotlight and her elevation is also influenced by the way Western media weaves sellable narratives focusing less on causes and more on celebrities. As Max Fisher points out in Washington Post:
“The young woman’s power as a symbol is undeniable. In the past months, though, the Western fawning over Malala has become less about her efforts to improve conditions for girls in Pakistan, or certainly about the struggles of millions of girls in Pakistan, and more about our own desire to make ourselves feel warm and fuzzy with a celebrity and an easy message..”
To a certain extent, it has to be admitted that media hype is also responsible for making her image larger than life and at the same time somewhat polarizing.
And this strange battle came to its full prominence when it became known that Malala was a strong contender for the much coveted Nobel Prize. With that news, the entire media erupted into passionate debates.
Now Malala has already won several awards and a Nobel Prize frankly is just one of the prizes. The kind of global recognition she has already enjoyed, a loss really should not have mattered but the prestige attached to Nobel Prize is such that it was bound to become the talk of the global media.
Moreover, the way pro and counter Malala narratives have evolved, the occasion was bound to give rise to another fierce battle. Opponents were claiming ( much before the actual announcement) that Malala would be given the prize to “humiliate” Muslims. The hater camp particularly has uttered vicious and sick sounding statements, ranging from calling her an attention grabbing person to an agent of the West.
On the other hand some of the supporters simply assumed that no one other than her deserved the prize and if it was awarded to someone else than it would show thorough incompetence of the Nobel Prize Committee. It was also projected that a loss would somehow or the other mean the loss for the prospects of female education in Pakistan. Also it was considered essential for her to win so that the conservative/reactionary lobby opposing her could be dealt a blow. The very fact that TTP did not want to win her also became a reason.
Obama’s controversial ( frankly Obama did not deserve it) award in 2009 was constantly made as a justification for giving Malala Nobel Prize. Yes Obama also got it in 2009 but that was and still remains a highly controversial decision as by that time Obama had not done anything ( good or bad) to deserve a Nobel Prize. It was like giving a Nobel for merely having good intentions!
Malala’s case was hyped to such an extent that it became difficult to even argue the obvious reality that despite her courage, she still had not done enough to really make changes. Yes she is brave, but as a Pakistani I would prefer someone like Ms Asma Jehangir ( though she was not in contention) because the latter has decades of actual services and has made a lot of difference to women and minority rights.
May be a few years down the road, Malala will be able to but right now if she had gotten it, it would have been more due to fame rather than actual impact unless you define impact as symbolic rather than material. And that symbolic impact owes more to Western media and its commercial orientation. As Zeynep Tufekci ( A Professor of North Carolina University) put it eloquently and let me say quite convincingly:
“ Instead, the committee awarded the prize to Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The who?… seemed to be a collective sigh of disappointment. But let me argue that this was exactly the right choice. The Nobel Peace prize should absolutely go to such under-appreciated, crucial institutions that help build peace, and that are sorely lacking in our complex world.
Yes, I am amazed by Malala. How can one not be? Her courageous young body, shattered by Taliban bullets, her strong, kind stance in that Jon Stewart interview everyone on my Facebook timeline shared.. It is hard not to be moved by her. But she is but one courageous person. Fortunately for the world, there is no shortage of such brave, courageous individuals. In fact, there is an abundance of them, especially in poor, authoritarian countries. If you think Malala is rare, that is probably because you have not spent much time in such countries. Most Malala’s, however, go nameless, and are not made into Western celebrities.”
In some ways, it is a blessing in disguise for her as the prize would have made her too much of a target and she would have actually lost her rallying power at home. But more importantly, it is important to realize that she is still a sixteen year old who should have some shot at normal living. Attempted murder has already robbed her once, too much fame would also do the same and would make her difficult to carry so much expectations.
As one of my Facebook friend put it eloquently in her status update
“We should not be upset at Malala not getting the Prize. We must now take eyes off her and let her grow as a normal teenager, and spare her from the wrath of evil eyes too. Too much love can be counterproductive. I am relieved to be honest”
Well Said Madam!!