Symbols of defiance

By Saad Hafiz


Anne Frank and Malala Yousafzai, two girls from different eras, share a certain kinship. They lived under fear and terror. Their ability to read and write allowed them to share their stories with the world. Both are regarded as symbols of defiance against the forces of cruelty and darkness. Anne died of typhus with her sister Margot, at the Bergen-Belsen internment camp in March 1945. Malala was shot and gravely wounded by a Taliban gunman, with two of her classmates Kainat Riaz and Shazia Ramzan, in the Swat Valley in October 2012. Anne’s remarkable diary became a world classic, a powerful reminder of the horrors of war and an eloquent testament to the human spirit. Malala’s online journal and book, about her struggles in trying to continue attending school after the Taliban took over her home, helped catapult her to the Nobel Peace Prize.

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Anne’s tale was shaped by an event that occurred in 1933 of the kind that had been unseen in Europe since the Middle Ages. German students from universities once regarded as among the finest in the world gathered in Berlin to burn books with “un-German” ideas. The students, along with brown-shirted storm troopers, tossed heaps of books into a bonfire while giving the Hitler arm-salute and singing Nazi anthems. Among the 20,000 volumes hurled into the flames were the writings of renowned authors such as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Maxim Gorki, Ernest Hemingway and Marcel Proust. A hundred years before the advent of Hitler, the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, foretelling the future, had declared: “Wherever books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned too.”

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Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels joined the students at the bonfire and declared: “The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end…The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. It is to this end that we want to educate you.” Germany was led by a self-educated, high school dropout named Adolf Hitler, who was, by nature, strongly anti-intellectual. For Hitler, the reawakening of the long-dormant Germanic spirit, with its racial and militaristic qualities, was far more important than any traditional notions of learning. During the war years, the Hitler Youth organisation gradually supplanted the traditional elementary and secondary school system and became the main force educating German children. The quality of that education continually worsened. Students emerging from the elite Adolf Hitler schools could be best described as robots drilled in Nazi ideology but lacking any sense of humanity.

Malala’s story has a different historical backdrop but she faced down a similar ideology to Anne’s Jew-hating Nazis. In both cases, the movements appealed to prejudices that flourish under conditions of extreme social and economic insecurity, and hence gained a significant following. Resembling the Nazis, western liberalism and intellectualism is anathema to the Taliban. Like Germany’s Third Reich, the Taliban’s potent virulent belief system openly justifies the most barbaric acts against those who it does not assign basic human rights or dignity on a mass level. Nazism, too, preyed on masculine gender insecurity by invoking a hyper-masculine ideology, emphasising purity, cruelty, military valour and conquest. Hitler’s anti-Semitism fed off a conspiracy theory that the Jews had caused Germany’s defeat in World War I. The Taliban see female education as part of a western conspiracy, an “invention of the infidels”, aiming to corrupt Muslim societies.

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Malala comes from the small Swat Valley in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly known as the North West Frontier Province. Historically, the northwest has been one of Pakistan’s least developed, devout and conservative regions. However, Swat, interestingly, has long been a bright spot in terms of education. It was this future that was threatened when the first signs of Taliban influence emerged, borne on a tide of anti-western sentiment that swept across Pakistan in the years after 9/11 and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. The Taliban claimed to represent ‘good’ Muslims who would not tolerate ‘un-Islamic’ activities. They blew up girls’ schools because they considered them haraam (sinful) and a kind of blasphemy. They pronounced that girls should not be going to school as they were so sacred that they should remain in pardah (female seclusion).

The Taliban retrograde ideology deserves to follow the Nazis into the dustbin of history. Their interpretation of Islam and the sharia, which negates the value of education and human empowerment, must be firmly rejected. Whatever the Taliban ideas about ‘good’ Muslim women and girls, you cannot really lock up over half the population behind closed doors. Anne Frank famously wrote in a tiny attic in the midst of a terrible time before her capture by the Nazis, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” After her near-death experience, Malala wrote: “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen, can change the world.” The enduring power of the girls’ messages and calls to action rings as true today as it did over 70 years ago.

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