Saturday, October 13, 2012

On the courage of Malala Yousafzai, the drone attacks and a culture of extremism

                                         (Credit: Associated Free Press, Asif Hussain)

When I logged onto Twitter Tuesday morning and saw that #Malala was trending, I had a feeling that it might be about Malala Yousafzai. I first became aware of her through Adam Ellick's video feature in the New York Times. And then I found out that she had been targeted for her ongoing activism for children's education, especially for girls in the Swat Valley (pronounced Sawat, not SWAT). For the last two days, I had been working on a blog post with regards to this attack, one which was ready to be published a few minutes ago, when a technical hitch with Blogger resulted in my draft being deleted in its entirety. So here is a condensed version on my thoughts instead.

The deliberate attack on Malala by a member of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), represents a dark chapter in the history of Pakistan. The fact that even children are not off limits from violence by religious extremist forces in this country is shocking to say the least. However, this is nothing new. Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy's Emmy winning documentary "Children of the Taliban", highlights the use of children by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and other militants in their fight against the Pakistani state.Unlike these children, Malala is not a direct victim of Pakistan's misplaced priorities of defence spending at the expense of public education. Instead as a children's rights and education activist, she found herself in the cross hairs of an extremist ideology that has taken root in our society and has paid the ultimate price for her beliefs.

A bullet lodged in her neck is not enough, not for the TTP. If she recovers from her critical condition, the TTP have promised to target her again until she is dead. Her family members, including her father and brothers have been placed on hit lists. Is this what we, as a nation have become?

It is heartening to see the widespread condemnations across political, social and ethnic divides (also see fatwa issued against this attack). The ongoing protests and vigils across the country provide hope that it is still possible to stamp out extremism and intolerance in our society. However, there is a disturbing trend on social network sites with conflating the attack on Malala with the death of non-combatants, women and children in drone attacks carried out by the United States in the FATA region, especially Waziristan.

Case in point, the following tweet:

There is one major underlying problem with this assertion. The United States does not deliberately target the women, children and non-combatants that die as a result of collateral damage from its drone programs, but the Pakistani Taliban did deliberately targeted Malala for assassination. This is not to say that there are not important ethical problems with the drones themselves, ranging from defining a combatant as any military age male in the region, to the targeting of alleged militants in areas of high civilian traffic including mosques, schools and funerals and the assignation of guilt without any due process. But these deaths (one too many) should not be compared to Malala's attack. Intention matters.

In the weeks and months ahead, let's not forget our visceral reaction to this atrocity. This rage needs to be channeled into action against extremism and intolerance within our society, lest this attack becomes another marker, a footnote in the history of our decay. Apathy is no longer justifiable. Silence is no longer an option.