View Full Version : Malala Under Attack - Ghazi Salahuddin - 18th November 2012

18th November 2012, 12:13 PM
In many ways, Peshawar has a kinship with Karachi, even though they are the two most distant major cities in the country. Both are afflicted with violence and targeted killings. What is remarkable in this relationship is that Karachi has a larger population of Pakhtuns than Peshawar, a city of history unlike Karachi.

So, when I was in Peshawar for three days during this week, I was looking, in a sense, for reflections of my own city in a somewhat alien environment.

But my interactions, except for an entire afternoon when I walked the Peshawar streets, were restricted to students, teachers, writers, artists and social activists. If you wonder how such an ingenious congregation was available in a place that is surrounded by jihadi elements, let me tell you that I was there for Children’s Literature Festival, held in the environs of the great Islamia College.

However, my encounters and observations were laced with some scary thoughts about the nature of conflict that is raging in the minds of our youngsters. I felt that the seeds of militancy and intolerance are scattered widely and have already sprouted into seemingly invincible biases in the thinking of many young students.

If the powers that be do not readily confront this challenge, the entire edifice of what we perceive as national security is bound to crumble before long.

Malala Yousafzai, come to think of it, has emerged as a great symbol that should help the authorities to promote the high ideals of education, particularly of girls, and of social advancement in a society held back by primitive and obscurantist ideas. Because Malala comes from the same region and culture, it was natural for her face to represent the very spirit of the festival. And she did figure in some of the festival’s activities.

However, the lunatic fringe in this respect was also exposed as a few students angrily – or threateningly – expressed their views against Malala. It is all right, even necessary, to hold one’s opinions and express them in a rational manner. That is what education is all about.

The problem is that the Taliban worldview, starkly at odds with our times, is being poured into the receptive minds of some groups of children and what we have in the name of education is not being able to deal with this deadly distortion.

It is in this depressing setting that we have the shining light that Malala has personified. The rulers were gifted with a rare opportunity to build popular support for a decisive operation against terrorism and religious extremism when the Taliban hit Malala and the entire nation was suddenly pushed into a state of shock and disbelief. Alas, this Malala moment was not seized in spite of the liberal and democratic ideals that the rulers profess.

After that initial display of indecision and weakness on the part of the wielders of power, it became easier for the religious lobby to put a spin on the Malala incident and confuse the entire issue. She was portrayed, in defiance of common sense, as a spy of the west and, unbelievably, the Taliban have continued to assert that she deserved to die. All this should only enhance the meaning and the power of Malala as a symbol.

Hence, if Malala is under attack, Pakistan is under attack. This is a message that has not yet been received by our security establishment. Is it because this establishment is distracted by power games that have domestic, as well as global implications?

Be that as it may, I am recounting here some impressions that I gathered at the Children’s Literary Festival held in Peshawar on Wednesday and Thursday. Sponsored by Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA) and the Oxford University Press (OUP), in collaboration with Foundation Open Society Institute, Bacha Khan Trust Education Foundation and Islamia College University, the festival was a grand affair and must have been an occasion for great joy for thousands of school students who attended its varied and colourful activities.

That such an event could take place in the present security environment in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is in itself an achievement and it represents the silver lining that the civil society activists have provided in the realm of education and awareness.

Writers, educators, artists and commentators were brought together from all parts of the country and the pace, on both days, was quite hectic. Incidentally, the first such festival was held in Lahore last year. It was followed by a similar show in Quetta two months ago. Understandably, security concerns did become an impediment in Quetta and Peshawar.

My own participation was restricted to just four sessions, surely not as popular as stage shows and the fair on the lawns. My main interest was in talking to parents and teachers on ‘promoting the culture of reading’. I was impressed by the high-level of discourse in a session on ‘critical thinking’ that I moderated.

Throughout, I was aware of a depressingly poor intellectual environment in educational institutions and the onslaught of militant and orthodox ideologies.

At the same time, I was astonished and inspired by some examples of how these ideologies are being challenged. The inaugural session projected this conflict in an unexpected manner. One school presented a tableau on a martial theme. This obviously was not in sync with the spirit of the festival.

But it was refreshing to see the two provincial ministers who were the chief guests to speak forcefully and eloquently against that tableau and what it sought to convey. In fact, what both the ministers – Qazi Asad of the Ministry of Higher Education and Wajid Ali Khan of the Ministry of Environment and Forests – were candid and courageous in their defence of liberal and progressive policies.

I was also impressed by a number of other speakers and there was sufficient evidence to show that rational and progressive thinking may be gaining strength in small and isolated sections of our society.

One problem, in this respect, is that our national policies are not supportive of the emancipation of the Pakistani mind. This will bring me back to the great tragedy of how the ruling coalition appears to be more interested in its own survival than in the survival of a truly democratic and egalitarian polity in which ordinary people are protected from ignorance and injustice.

I have said that I spent an entire afternoon walking the streets of Peshawar. I was able to converse with a number of individuals and it was heartbreaking to find many of them ill-informed and totally biased about the national crisis. I have no idea how anyone, including the political leaders and the media, can communicate with these people.