Malala Yousafzai is no longer a cult; rather, she has become the canon, the bandwagon, the epoch-making actor and the symbol. There is no stopping her as the National Assembly (NA) has also resolved to “salute” her struggle for girls’ education and the Foreign Office (FO) has declared here the pride of Pakistan. The good thing about canons is that they grow greater than reality because they are many things for many people. Unlike a cult, which falls in the category of a “passing fantasy” according to The Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopaedic Dictionary, canons do not draw red lines for others. Instead, media researchers preach that canons show the way forward for those who hope to make a change. They are like arrow signs guiding the people on which direction to take.
If we see Malala as a cult and use her successes to smite our rivals, like most left-leaning writers are doing, we will be no different from her tormentors, who try to drag society back into their cults. It is however unusual for Malala to have become a canon in such a short span of time. The credit for this unusual development goes to the media. Consider: terrorists shot her on October 9, 2012 and on October 10, 2014, the world recognised her as the youngest and second Pakistani to share a Nobel Prize. She was named for the award last year too. In these two fast and short years, no shift in the opinion of the international media and audience has taken place as they have been with her all along. However, a visible shift has been witnessed in opinion about her in the local media where there had been a lot of criticism about her struggle right from the start. However, media attacks have died their unnatural death (unnatural because they are still alive off media) ever since she won the Nobel.
A media observer could see in this unnatural death the process of ‘mediatisation’ unfolding. Many would mistake mediatisation for mediation. Professor Stig Hjarvard of Copenhagen University explains that mediation means delivery of a message from the source to audience while mediatisation is about changing behaviours and lifestyle. This is the modern process of canon making and brand building.
Saying that one does not care about the media is not an option at all as the media is no more confined to public life; it has also become part of one’s private life, which is why the approach of looking at it as something that affects society from outside or something that the masses can control due to technological advancement lacks credence. At the start, rising up against the discourse on the international media in favour of Malala’s non-violent stance against violence, the local media in Pakistan gave enough room to puritanical elements and conspiracy theorists to vent the anger they seemed to have stored in them over the failure of the attackers to take out their target.
In the meanwhile, the international media and saner sections of our local media stuck to their guns and the situation was dramatised when the Taliban owned up to the deed and vowed to redo it if she ever returned home. Flaring up this drama, a brief discontent among the terror ranks was seen when one of their own wrote a letter setting out certain conditions for sparing her life and others declaring that the letter was not their “official” position. This, no doubt, devastated the argument of apologists for the Malala attackers. The contest between international, local and internationalised local media raged with Malala delivering a very strong message at every forum she went to. Put against the narrow and puritanical narrative of the Taliban and their apologists, her message of enlightenment cut straight into the hearts and minds of the masses.
A stronger media consolidated by a stronger message put out a helping hand towards the section of media that was mired in a weak argument. This is manifestation, in a modern way, of what one of the pioneers of the Toronto School of Communication and creator of the term “global village”, the legendary Marshall McLuhan called “media cannibalism”.
Like the paradox in the concept of canon, cannibalism in media research means giving new life to a dying thing by replacing its weak parts with strong ones; e.g. if a movie is made on an old novel, it is called cannibalisation of that novel but, in reality, a strong movie gives new life to a dying novel though not without some necessary changes. In a modern manner, an advanced media has done the same for the less advanced segments of Pakistani media in the case of Malala by keepping them from dying in isolation.
Some ask what Malala has changed. The answer is obvious: she has changed thinking patterns, evident from the fact that even religio-political parties have now asked her to come back home. The change is that Malala is setting the discourse of the future and has become too prominent to put down. She is the canon with a single “n” that stood up to the cannon with double “n”. Discussing Malala, we can safely say that this bell cannot be unrung.