In Defense of Malala’s ‘Leftist’ Fans

On October 10, 2014, Malala Yousafzai became the second Pakistani to win a Nobel Prize. Amidst all the celebrations that unfolded on social media, there was the predictable response by some who chose those see this award as yet another way of humiliating our nation and portraying Pakistan in a negative light. What was unexpected though, was the inability of many people on both sides of the battle-line to distinguish between Malala’s unwavering courage and the response elicited by her stand against the Taliban within western political and media circles. As the usual conspiracy theories portraying Malala as a foreign agent flourished with renewed vigor, an entirely unexpected polarization has emerged within the ranks of those claiming to admire Malala within the last few weeks. Demonstrating a depressing lack of nuance some Pakistani commentators have decided to conflate anyone who so much as whispers about the politics of western humanitarianism with right wing hate mongers all of whom are apparently united in their campaign to ‘smear’ Malala. Those cautioning against the co-option of Malala’s story by Islamophobes and war hawks suddenly find themselves being labelled as ‘fake anti-imperialists’ and ‘radical new leftists’. Malala’s story has indeed been misappropriated by some politicians, sections of the corporate media and Islamophobes. Much of the mainstream coverage of her activism completely effaces the fact that she is a Muslim feminist and socialist who has explicitly located her struggle for the rights of women and children within an Islamic framework and reiterated her commitment to socialist principles as a way of ending social inequality. Career Islamophobes like Sam Harris have added her to their list of distressed brown women in need of saving and declared her ‘the best thing to come out of the Muslim world in a thousand years’. Others like Bill Mahar lost no time in using the attack on Malala to justify drone attacks even though he could barely get her name right. Even the statement from the White House Press Secretary’s Office did not mention her objections to drone attacks which she voiced in her meeting with President Obama. Far from invalidating her activism, the vigilance prescribed by the likes of Omid Safi against such usurpations of Malala’s narrative are necessary to ensure that her struggle is not co-opted to further hatred and violence, the very ideas she has been fighting against. Such concerns about humanitarian warfare is not rhetorical hyperbole. Justifying military interventions and tyrannical regimes through the pretext of saving brown women from savage brown men is a time honored technique of colonialist powers. The British empire was busy ‘rescuing’ Indian women at the turn of the last century even as it fought against suffragettes at home. The Bush administration decided to ‘liberate’ Afghan and Iraqi women in rapid succession even as his fellow republicans struggled to restrict women’s reproductive rights at home and later scrambled to cover up military sexual assault by American soldiers who raped their colleagues in the process of effecting said liberation. Those like Assed Baig and Arundhati Roy with their criticisms of the ‘white savior complex’ and ‘the great game’ are not questioning Malala’s qualification to receive recognition but whether her courage would have received this rightly deserved acclaim had geo politics been aligned differently. Moreover, locating Malala’s international acclaim within global politics does not diminish her exceptional courage in standing up to mass murderers nor does it imply a blanket suspicion of those who stand behind her. People have been challenging the Nobel Peace Prize’s dubious credibility and political motivations long before Malala was born. It is of course perfectly acceptable to challenge the legitimacy of these accusations but to imply that the ‘good name’ of the Prize Committee is beyond question is ridiculous. A simple google search should reveal how several nominations over the last few decades have attracted extreme controversy. Muslims and their ‘traditional conservative mind-set’ did not invent the idea that the prize may in some cases be used to further western political interests. And in all fairness giving awards to warmongers like Henry Kissinger has not helped the committee’s reputation. Frankly, Malala deserves better than to be in such company. This year’s awards to Malala and Kailash Satyarthi have in fact done much to restore the credibility of the Nobel Peace Prize committee. However, pointing out that Malala might not have achieved such immense recognition, in spite of her tremendous courage, if her fight hadn’t incidentally been against the current designated enemy of the US is neither radical leftism nor religious conservatism. It is a complicated world, get with the program. It is possible to be critical of the political misappropriation of an activist’s struggle without delegitimizing the courage of the recipient. Having said that it is obviously true that the politics of Malala’s richly deserved fame pose less of a problem for us than the educational crisis, terrorism and violence against women in Pakistan — the very issues that Malala is working against. Malala’s award and its much needed pushback against religious extremism has given our nation something to celebrate after a long time. But alienating those who choose to insist on a nuanced view by invalidating them as ‘fake anti-imperialists’ or ‘pseudo leftists’ introduces another unhelpful divide in an already polarized society. A version of this article was published in Viewpoint on 30th October 2014


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