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Friday, July 19, 2024

Why so many in Pakistan are scared of “Brand Malala”?

Saeed Afridi |

Malala, the name has become a symbol of so much more than just a little girl. Malala also has become a one-word trigger in Pakistan for vitriolic anger and malicious suspicion. There is a tendency among her promoters, supporters and blind cultists to dismiss this reaction as part of the cultural backwardness, patriarchal misogyny, religious imbecility and tribal barbarism prevalent in the North West of Pakistan. They think it is a product of some vile cerebral disease which is beyond empathy and pity. Further, they consider that any criticism of Malala or what Malala symbolizes can only come from a pervasive and deeply diseased mindset that belongs to the darker ages of human development. To these people, the very idea that anyone, not a terrorist or terrorist sympathizer could find a critical word to say about Malala is simply inconceivable.

Yet, there are many, especially in her own hometown and the region around it, who come across as some of the most vocal critics of Malala, and also, it must be said, some of the most vicious.

After you spend some time speaking to those who criticise Malala you get a sense that their criticism may be directed at her but is seldom about her. Malala to those people is not only a little girl but also an unfortunate and naïve pawn in something much more elaborate and sinister.

Take a moment, let this sink in, and contemplate how this could be possible. These are the very people who Malala championed. The fathers who bore the wrath of the Taliban by allowing their daughters to attend schools alongside Malala, the mothers who nursed injured girls beaten by the Taliban and grandparents who buried granddaughters blown apart on their way to school. Among this group are loved ones who saw their daughters shot alongside Malala in the very incident that propelled her to worldwide recognition. These are the people who lived through the very worst of Swat Valley’s Talibanisation and yet, in that very valley, these victims of Taliban-rule are some of the most vociferous critics of Malala. Why?

Read more: Malala visits Pakistan for the first time in six years

“Child Malala” vs “Brand Malala”

After you spend some time speaking to those who criticise Malala you get a sense that their criticism may be directed at her but is seldom about her. Malala to those people is not only a little girl but also an unfortunate and naïve pawn in something much more elaborate and sinister. You get the sense that to those criticising Malala she is not a single entity. With a little patience and some much-needed perseverance you begin to understand that to them, Malala is, if not multiple then at least, two distinct entities. The first is the little girl who reminds them of their own little girls. Savagely attacked, endured physical pain, lived with the psychological scars and overwhelmed by the outpouring of prayers and human emotion for her well-being. That little girl, that Malala, is for them a symbol of what their daughters can be, and in many cases, they already are. No little girl should have to live through this.

The second entity they see, in the words of one local father, is ‘Brand-Malala’.  Some of the mildest criticisms of Brand-Malala in her homeland are about the insensitive and apathetic manipulation of a little girl s suffering to achieve political goals. More emphatic critics see it as the vile prostitution of a child’s suffering to serve political and ideological aims; one person called it ‘sympathy porn’. That reference wasn’t made by a cave-dwelling Neanderthal but by someone from Swat who went on to have an Ivy League education, spent years working in Washington and later at the UN, including the aftermath of both Bosnia and Rwanda. ‘She’ is not a Neanderthal. It’s important to understand what lies behind the criticism of Brand-Malala as it seems much more than mere cerebral barbarism.

Why so much opposition?

Frank discussions with those disparaging Brand-Malala quickly leads one to suspect that despite the diversity of the criticism, there the semblance of a common thread running through overwhelming number of them subscribe to a varying degree of acceptance, if not belief, in the existence of a conspiracy behind Brand-Malala and they are able to present, quite articulately, a considerable amount of circumstantial evidence to support their suspicion. Almost all praise Malala’s bravery and empathize with her suffering. Only an exceptional fringe subscribes to her ordeal being staged and those people are best left to their fantasies. A majority of the rest, who lived through the Taliban’s reign of atrocities in Swat, point to the manner in which her story was pounced upon, propagated and made into a worldwide symbol by way of a narrative embellished beyond recognition. There is a considerable amount of suspicion about the motives of her father who, quite naturally, had become the focal point for much of the media while his daughter fought for her life. It does not help that he was known in his locality, even before the incident, as a ‘political animal’ associated with a political party that promotes secularism, historically inspired by Soviet Socialism but now with no option but to advocate westernization, in a deeply religious environment. Locals view her father as a person who courted recognition and self-promotion by blaming all Swat’s ills, including the Taliban, on the military.

This meets with considerable suspicion locally as it was the military’s concerted, but selective, the campaign against the Taliban that freed Swat from the shackles of Talibanisation. Her father’s anti-military views in the aftermath of that campaign garnered much local suspicion but made him popular with Pakistan’s largely well to do and westernized elite within whom that’s a prerequisite for support. In Pakistan, the military’s persistent penchant for meddling in politics has made being anti-military a badge of honor for most people who subscribe to western democratic or liberal values. Most locals hold the opinion that Malala’s father courted publicity, was morally flexible in his search of recognition and was quite adept at playing the anti-military card, including using his daughter to meet these ends. For these reasons locals, rightly or wrongly, did not take long to equate the media coverage of his injured daughter’s plight as a furthering of his personal ambitions. Perhaps the most detrimental aspect of Malala’s story was how it was told and more importantly, by whom. Despite gaining some meaningful national recognition before her attack, it was the post-attack publicity that shaped her future and also cemented the attitude of the locals.

Even before Malala was shot, she was a known activist. She had gained recognition locally as well as nationally for being among those who, despite overwhelming odds, did whatever limited they could to stand up to the Taliban. The debate had already begun and it was winning hearts and encouraging many minds to think. This all stopped once the post-attack publicity came into gear. From the journey between the pain and suffering of the girl Malala to the high profile and grandiose marketing of the Brand-Malala, many Pakistanis, and especially those from Swat, became polarised. In a society, still reeling from the inadequate definition and execution of the War on Terror (WoT), Malala’s plight fitted well with the narrative promoted by the United States and its ideological allies within Pakistan. Those opposed to the US’s WoT narrative, drone assassinations and promotion of liberal values saw Brand-Malala as yet another peg in the US conspiracy to Westernise, rather than modernize, Pakistan’s society. They cherry picked the names of Brand-Malala’s advocates to highlight those with anti-Pakistan, anti-Muslim and xenophobic histories to demonstrate the validity of their suspicions. For some of these people, Malala was a little girl used by her father, attacked by the Taliban and then perverted by the West; an innocent victim abused in one way or the other by everyone around her. The reality is more complex, but in Pakistan, narratives are usually sold in binaries and the gaps are filled with conspiracies.

In the absence of honest discourse, conspiracies become currency and the most often quoted bogeyman, sometimes justified, is ‘The West’.

Why are so many Pakistanis willing to accept an elaborate Western conspiracy rather than the very likely truth that the West and its largely well-to-do politically liberal Pakistani allies simply pounced on an unfortunate incident to meet their goals? Why must there be a conspiracy?

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Pakistanis are brought up in a version of history which is at best fanciful and at worst fantasy. Pakistan is home to a near 5000 years old history of various people, civilizations, religions, languages, and cultures yet the official history of Pakistan seems to incorporate a mere fraction of five millennia; its Islamised portions. The creation of Pakistan is not taught as a graduated process of a struggle for equal rights that evolved over time into a quest for guaranteed representation, then a dominion safe-haven till it finally resulted in a separation with partition forced upon it. This was no simple progression but a complex one that requires honest and truthful learning. Instead, Pakistan’s creation is taught as a political battle pitting the Muslim underdog against the combined might of Imperial Britain and the wily Hindus of the British Raj. Adversity and paranoia are falsely built into Pakistan’s independence story and its subsequent murky and troublesome life; pockmarked by shadowy deals, immoral intrigue and foreign-assisted usurpations of power. In the absence of truthful contemplation and honest reflection, all gaps are conveniently filled with elaborate conspiracies. Transparency is not something that comes naturally to the Pakistani state, democratic or otherwise. The entire corruption-ridden political system is infested with back-channel agreements, underhand dealings and morally questionable arrangement for seizing, holding and perpetuating power. In the absence of honest discourse, conspiracies become currency and the most often quoted bogeyman, sometimes justified, is ‘The West’.

Pakistan now has entire generations brought up on conspiracy theories. Sit down among them and you hear stories that are simply surreal. In this fanciful cauldron of conspiracy ridden narratives ‘Brand-Malala’ had little hope of being accepted as anything but another western conspiracy despite admiration for Malala, the girl’s, ordeal and subsequent efforts. It did not help that those in Pakistan who championed the cause of Brand-Malala were widely slated, many quite unjustly, as elitist minions of westernization. At the very least, generalized as mere pawns in the West’s assault on hitherto ill-defined ‘Muslim Values’, and at worst, considered venal sell outs available to tout anything that originated in the corridors of western powers. To Brand-Malala’s critics, Malala’s promotion, marketing, and eventual Nobel peace prize is all a conspiracy to forward a Western-Agenda.

Anti-western conspiracy theorists in Pakistan like making comparisons, however unwarranted and irrational. In Malala’s case, they justify Western-Agenda conspiracies by the comparative treatment vetted outside Pakistan to a person who stands a veritable Mt Olympus above all others claiming or attributed the humanitarian pedestal. In Pakistan, that very name, above all others, symbolizes the spirit of humanity in its most fêted form; Edhi.

If you are unfamiliar with Pakistan, you would probably have to google the name Edhi to know who I am talking about. In his lifetime this figure, unknown to you, through his organisation, sheltered more abused women, gave a home to more orphaned children, educated more girls, assisted more disabled people, facilitated the adoption of more unwanted kids, accepted more abandoned babies, ferried more injured to hospital and shielded more children from sexual and physical abuse than any person you would be able to name. If there was a human in Pakistan who could be apotheosized on the mantle of humanity, it was Abdul Sattar Edhi.

Now, without searching the internet, tell me the names of the two girls who were shot alongside Malala. Thank you, for contemplating what that means to those whose daughters we all forgot.

This colossus of humanity lay on his deathbed while the millions touched by his many acts of kindness had tried unsuccessfully for his work to be acknowledged by the Nobel Committee, despite Malala nominating him personally. Edhi died quietly, comparatively unacknowledged by the world at large, in July 2016, almost twenty months after the world watched Malala deservedly accept her Nobel Peace Prize. For critics of Brand-Malala, the West’s comparative ignorance of Edhi is the smoking gun that justifies much of their suspicions regarding her promotion.Unfortunately, in this ill-informed comparison, they are willing to ignore the bravery, optimism, and courage of the girl Malala.

Read more: Malala honored with mural painting in India

How do we, the supporters of Malala, feed such irrational conspiracies?As a test, I urge you, if you are outraged by their criticisms of Malala and find yourself unable to believe anyone could be so callous, insensitive or indifferent to the plight of a girl shot by vile people simply because she wanted to go to school and get an education, then take a moment; focus. Now, without searching the internet, tell me the names of the two girls who were shot alongside Malala. Thank you, for contemplating what that means to those whose daughters we all forgot.

The writer is a former management consultant focusing on the Energy Industry and writes on Energy Security and the Politics of Energy Resources. He is conducting research related to the role of Central Asia’s energy resources in China’s Energy Security at the University of Westminster, UK. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy. A slightly different version of this analysis first appeared in GVS on August 20, 2017, and can be accessed here https://bit.ly/2pSqir7