Listening to Nobelist Malala Yousafzai instead of just Honoring Her

By Juan Cole

Malala Yousafzai has become the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in history, sharing it this year with India’s Kailash Satyarthi, a children’s rights activist.

Ms. Yousafzai, from Pakistan’s picturesque Swat Valley, was shot in the head by a member of the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP or Pakistani Taliban Movement) two years ago this month for standing up for girls’ education.

There is always a danger that in honoring a figure like Malala Yousafzai, the world will drown out her more challenging views. Martin Luther King, Jr. is now mainly lauded for his “I have a Dream” speech but his socialism, anti-imperialism, and opposition to the Vietnam War is little remembered. Likewise, Lila Abu-Lughod has warned against the use of Ms. Yousafzai by powerful white men as a symbol whereby they can pose as champions of Muslim women against Muslim men– an argument first made powerfully in a another context by Gayatri Spivak The real Malala Yousafzai is harder to deploy for those purposes than is Malala the symbol.

Islamophobes who use her story as an indictment of the religion of Islam have another think coming. She credits her religion with inspiring her values, the values that made here a nobelist: “What the terrorists are doing is against Islam because Islam is a religion of peace. It tells us about equality, it tells us about brotherhood, it tells us about love and friendship and peace, that we should – we should be nice and kind to each other.”

It should be remembered that Ms. Yousafzai told Barack Obama off about his drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) of northwest Pakistan. She said of her meeting with the US president, “I also expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fueling terrorism… Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education it will make a big impact.”

She appears to oppose military action against the Taliban: ‘If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.’

She approvingly quoted her father as criticizing novelist Salman Rushdie for his book Satannic Verses, but as standing for freedom of speech for such authors. Her remarks caused her book to be banned in many Pakistani private schools, angering the country’s fundamentalists. She also criticized the denial of rights to Pakistan’s Ahmadi minority.

Honoring someone with the bravery and resiliency and ethical intelligence of a Malala Yousafzai is easy. Taking her more challenging positions seriously and engaging with them is much more difficult.

Related video

Malala’s story – BBC News

15 Responses

  1. Good points indeed, and so are hers. It is touching that many wish to please a young woman who took a stand and suffered. But it is a waste of honors to deny the distinction to Snowden. A great honor should be given where it has some effect: recognizing a great risk taken. or a lifetime of distinguished work, motivates more whistleblowers and long-suffering idealists. The Nobel committee’s decision seems rather cowardly, and unworthy of the principles it should recognize.

    • Snowden isn’t seen in the same light as Malala. He’s not a feel good or a safe choice. Neither is Glenn Greenwald who has continued to tell the truth about Obama’s wars. His piece about the evildoing “Khorasan Group” is one of his best. The Obama ad. cooked up these BAD GUYS and the media sold it to the public so they could start bombing Syria ASAP.

      Obama listened and then just blew off Malala’s criticism of his drone wars. She’ll get to visit Hillary if/when she gets elected. Hillary, Malala and Bill in the Oval Office is perfect.


  2. Interesting contrast between the lights that illuminate the face of Malala Yousafzai and the darkness that shades the visages of the GUNmen that feature so prominently in the photo headings of so many posts here. Which hold the power and the trump cards and vetoes?

  3. It is not important exactly what Malala Yusafzai says. It is important that she talks and it is important that we listen. It is important that we respect her. The cultural revolution in Islam has already started by women starting to talk. Even when extremist Islamist women talk they are chipping away from Islamic rigidity.

    • Muslim women have been talking, and talking for justice and other noble things for 1400+ years.

      P.S. The terms, Islamist/Islamism, are made-up terms and are highly politically manipulated.

  4. Honoring someone with the bravery and resiliency and ethical intelligence of a Malala Yousafzai is easy. Taking her more challenging positions seriously and engaging with them is much more difficult.

    That bears repeating.

  5. Honoring someone with the bravery and resiliency and ethical intelligence of a Malala Yousafzai is easy. Taking her more challenging positions seriously and engaging with them is much more difficult.

    Of course, the distinction is that Ms. Yousafzai and her co-laureate are interested in developing a world where human rights and justice prevail. People engaged in the sordid business of international politics and the running of global corporations couldn’t care less about these virtues

    “I also expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fueling terrorism… Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education it will make a big impact.”

    Ms. Yousafzai didn’t have much effect on Mr. Obama, did she?

    • The problem with the liberal view of the US being the source of all evil in the world is that it ignores the homegrown evil in the rest of the world and gives it a free pass. If you abide by the “Marquess of Queensberry rules” in a street fight you get the shit kicked out of you. An example would be the border tribal Pakistani groups that have been crossing over the Afghani border murdering and terrorizing innocent civilians. They would do that with or without the drone attacks. Or the fact that Ossam Bin Liden was living in the open a few miles from Pakistan’s West Point.

      Truth is every country has its negative element. We have our Sarah Palins but Russia has its Alex Duggins or Iran has its Khameinis. I know perfectly well my country’s shortcomings:

      It’s two tiered judicial system
      It’s irrational need for firearms to face a mostly fictitious fear
      It’s unilateralism that prevents it from even supporting benign institutions such as the international criminal court.
      It’s vaunted medical system that is by far the most expensive in the world.

      Even if we could correct these ills overnight those evils abroad would still be alive and kicking.

      • The game of international power goes on with us or without us. The problem is that most countries have natural limitations that force them to get involved, but limit how much they can do, which probably leads to a certain pragmatism across their political spectrums lacking in the USA where we think we can do, or not do, whatever we please. Socialists in West Germany looking at the gunbarrels of tens of thousands of Soviet tanks understood, defense good, nukes bad. Thus Sweden, having stayed out of the Cold War, still maintains a strong army to deal with all comers.

        But it all gets far too complicated when we know we’re too big to play no role in global affairs, yet we’re too ignorant to deal with any complex conflict overseas without blowing up stuff. We don’t even have a real debate over what our self-imposed limitations should be because there is NO CONSTITUENCY for America to demote itself to simply being a Great Power state. Anyone who cares about the issue is either a total imperialist or a total pacifist, because they think such absurd positions have no negative consequences.

        • @Donald and super390,

          I appreciate your thoughtful comments. I would suggest that you read Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins and A Game as Old as Empire. I mention this as neither of you entertained $ as a driving mechanism. As far as I can tell the US power structure is driven exclusively by $, while performing some of the most heroic linguistic acrobatics and re-definitions around to mask it. Further, the corporate world functions on such short profit timelines, usually quarterly, that waste, fraud, corruption, war, and a continual trail of destruction is inevitable. Lastly, as the nation with the largest and most spread military to force capitulation it should come as no surprise that our hand is in almost all global flare-ups.

          So follow the $ not the politics or the trash in the main stream media, that is designed much like Monday night football to entertain the bewildered herd, according to Walter Lipmann, the grand wizard of propaganda.


  6. She also identifies as a socialist: “I am convinced Socialism is the only answer and I urge all comrades to take this struggle to a victorious conclusion. Only this will free us from the chains of bigotry and exploitation.” link to

    • Ironically, she has also been awarded the Sakharov Prize, named after an anti-Soviet dissident, and often awarded to those who oppose Communism.

      • So Soviet MafiaCommunism = Socialism? From the little that’s visible, she maybe dislikes all forms of thuggery and thievery? Maybe even our own Vulture Exceptional I am in its many parts? We should all award ourselves prizes for Egregious Self-Interest…

  7. Jo

    brilliantly stated (particularly the last paragraph), and with blazing clarity.

  8. It wasn’t the Salman Rushdie remarks alone that angered fundamentalists to ban her book (though used by many conservatives as one of their long list of negative hate points against her and her father – it wasn’t by any sort of pressuring anti-protest hate rhetoric. The schools’ administrators took that decision by themselves). Its an overall narrative against her, by a sizeable but not majority Pakistanis, which includes reasons of shameful denials and delusional conspiracies…

    -‘She is a US agent’,
    -‘Why is she giving Pakistan a bad name? There are girls going to school’,
    -‘I doubt the Taliban shot her. How is she alive? Its all a drama’,
    – ‘Look at how the West promote her, including celebrities (the controversial Angelina Jolie. Even though she’s one of the few who actually care and shown concern for Pakistan), while thousands die in drone strikes. Why doesn’t Malala speak up about them?’ etc.

    So the other danger in honoring her, feeds the anti-Malala sentiments, from extremists to conservative nationalists or even the average citizen, in reasons their anti-West narrative and propaganda, and makes them irate or furious, though this Western male sentiment of being white knights is also ridiculous.

    But I think she’ll be very relevant and have an impact outside of those mean or terrible people. She will be remembered as an educationist (more so than her principal father), political (her fame started off with the anonymous blog for the BBC about life under the Taliban) and feminist activist.

    When news was waning on the kidnapped Nigerian school-girls, Malala’s appeal helped keep it in the cycle. Her presence at women summits is always noted. She’s honoured in Birmingham, with a large library in her name, which has the largest (or 2nd largest) Pakistani origin diaspora. Plus she’s young, can fight being pigeon holed and hopefully won’t meet the same fate as Dr.King, or an assassination again like she faced last time and survived.

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