It’s fitting that the issue at the core of Malala Yusufzai’s struggle is education, not only because the first command spoken by angel Jibreel to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was to ‘READ!’ but also because, in her struggle for her own education, Malala has given many lessons to us herself.
Since Malala was shot by Taliban for daring to seek an education, many people have tried to twist her story by accusing her of all kinds of schemes and conspiracies. These accusations were repeated ad nauseam, even to such a point of ridiculousness that a certain hyper-nationalist site re-posted a satirical piece by Nadeem Paracha as if it were authentic!
A few obvious lessons can be taken from such blatant conspiracy peddling. This incident provides a lesson in just how desperate our education emergency has become. Many people point to literacy rates as a measurement of the countries education, or the number of doctorates, or the number of students granted overseas scholarships. None of these are truly meaningful, though, as long as our education system continues to fail to teach critical thinking skills.
This critical thinking deficit can be merely embarrassing, such as when much of the nation was duped by Agha Waqar’s water kit, but it can also be deadly, as in the case when parents refuse to give their children polio drops because they fear they are made with urine of Satan. In the case of terming Malala as a Western conspiracy, the lack of critical thinking becomes both embarrassing and deadly.
In a piece for The News, Adiah Afraz gives hope, though, if only we are willing to take the advice:
If only our school curricula could incorporate sociology and human rights; rational inquiry and critical thinking, literature, gender studies, feminist theory or human psychology; then maybe one day there could be less misogyny and hate mongering in Pakistani society. Because it is only through this kind of education that we can teach our children about reason, empathy, acceptance, tolerance and the universality of human emotions.
It is not only the need for critical thinking that we learn about ourselves from Malala, however, it is also some unfortunate truths about our own culture and the way we hold ourselves back from improvement. Not all anti-Malala conspiracies put her in the palm of a foreign hand. Many who even refuse to believe she is part of a grand conspiracy against Pakistan dismiss her as self-serving, as if a young girl would choose to be shot in the head!
Pakistanis, as a people, have been socialised into a society that inherently resents recognition, acknowledgement and achievement if earned by anyone apart from themselves. It is disliked and downplayed with passionate disdain.
Even if it is a 16-year-old girl. Jealousy in Pakistan creates a genuine, and otherwise lacking, sense of unity with no bounds of age, class, ethnicity and language. After all, how many of us can boast of having celebrated our 16th birthday by addressing the UN; getting nominated for a Nobel and claiming world-wide recognition and fame?
Why do we do this to ourselves? Devouring our own sons and daughters out of bitter jealousies and resentments? We complain when the world does not acknowledge our courage and intelligence, and then, when one of us does earn the world’s recognition, we dismiss them.
Finally, the lesson that Malala has given us which is so crucial for our current situation is that the this resentment can be seen not only at the personal, individual level, but at the national level also, as when we dismiss anything Western as against Islam. Combined with the culture of conspiracy theories that has grown in place of critical thinking, we have found ourselves at the root of the matter – a young school girl has done what all the hyper-nationalists have been unable to bring themselves to do which is to stand up to the Taliban.
As an eleven year old five years ago, Malala stood up for her right to an education in the beautiful but remote Swat Valley in Northwest Pakistan, where the Taliban sought to impose their obscurantist version of Islam by force of arms. In doing so, she showed more courage and foresight than many of Pakistan’s politicians, generals and public intellectuals who have gradually ceded space to extremist Islamists, projecting them as a nationalist reaction to U.S. dominance or Indian influence rather than a menace that would set the country back several centuries.
The lesson here is not that our leaders are paralysed, though. This has been apparent for some time. The lesson is on why our leaders are paralysed, which is that for generations we have taught that Pakistan’s problems were the result of the West, and that the solution to our problems was a return to a golden era of Islam. In doing so, we rejected the possibility that we we could be responsible for anything bad, and we rejected the possibility that the West could be responsible for anything good. We began to define ourselves not by who we are, but by what we are not.
Thus, while the West was advancing, we were retreating. While the West was adapting to the modern, global era, we began turning inwards and turning on ourselves. No longer was it enough to be Pakistani, one had to be Muslim. And not just Muslim, but Sunni Muslim. And not just Sunni Muslim…the rejection goes on until there is nothing left.
In a miraculous way, a young girl has taught us these lessons about ourselves and in doing so shown us a way out of our current predicaments. Like any students, though, we must be willing to accept the lesson if we are going to advance.