The two share the prize for "their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education", said the announcement by the Norwegian Nobel Committee.
It is also an irony that child rights – or lack of – is an issue that affects both countries deeply. Both countries have huge youthful populations, massive illiteracy, rampant child abuse and child labour. Yet both spend only a fraction of their budgets on alleviating the issue, compared to their expenditure on arms and ammunition.
Pakistan now has the distinction of being home to the youngest Nobel laureate ever, Malala Yusufzai, as well as the world’s first Muslim Nobel laureate, Dr Abdus Salam, who won the award for Physics in 1979.
However, Malala cannot live in Pakistan due to threats to her life from the Taliban and their assorted ideological groups, and Pakistan doesn’t accept Dr Salam as Muslim.
Let’s parse out these two apparently unrelated ironies.
In 1974, the parliament under then Prime Minister Z.A. Bhutto passed Pakistan’s Second Constitutional Amendment declaring Ahmadis, the sect to which Dr Salam belonged, as non-Muslim. The step was taken at the behest of Saudi Arabia, according to Bhutto’s finance minister Dr Mubashir Hasan, as the Saudis did not want Ahmadis, whom many orthodox Muslims consider to be non-Muslims or even heretics, to attend the pilgrimage at Mecca.
The military dictator Gen Zia ul Haq who hanged Bhutto on trumped-up murder charges, took the damage done by the Second Amendment further: he made it a criminal offense for Ahmadis to say or do anything that would give the impression that they are Muslim. And so, after Dr Salam’s death in 1996, a magistrate, responding to a petition, ordered the word “Muslim” erased from the gravestone epitaph "First Muslim Nobel Laureate".
It is this sequence of events that brings us to the second irony: the danger to Malala in her home country.
Declaring someone to be non-Muslim stems from "Takfiri” thinking, a mindset that creates divisions. The loudest Takfiris, who will kill for their beliefs, are the Taliban and their supporters and allied groups, not just in Pakistan but abroad – like Al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State.
Dr Salam was described in his Nobel bio as someone “known to be a devout Muslim”. Pakistan officially termed his sect as non-Muslim and criminalised him from practicing his beliefs.
Today, decades after those legislative changes were imposed on Pakistan, the rot of Takfiri thinking has spread, accelerated by Gen Zia ul Haq’s military alliance with the United States in the war against the "godless Communists" in Afghanistan.
They turned the Afghans’ fight for national liberation into a religious war, a jihad ‒ a concept that, as the late Dr Eqbal Ahmad pointed out well before 9/11, had disappeared as an international violent phenomenon in the last 400 years, until it was “revived suddenly with American help in the 1980s”.
Pakistan created an army of mujahideen or holy warriors, funded and trained by Jeddah and Washington. Those mujahidden later morphed into the Taliban ‒ who attacked Malala Yusufzai.
As the young political activist and television journalist Jibran Nasir says, writing about Dr Salam, “His faith did not change for the entire duration of 70 years nor did his services to the Nation stop. What changed was the power dynamics in Pakistani politics; what changed was the ideology of Pakistan and what changes was Jinnah’s vision that religion was not the business of the state.”
Similarly, Malala does not need a Nobel Prize to carry on doing what she’s doing or to inspire people, though it will certainly help in her mission. She’s inspiring enough. And she is, as she herself reminds us, not the first or the last girl in Pakistan to fight for education. There were, are, and will remain, millions like her in Pakistan who attend school against all odds, braving social disapproval or Taliban threats. Many of their parents never attended school, but are determined – especially the mothers ‒ to educate their daughters. Obstacles include the mundane, for example lack of facilities like toilets for girls, or toilets with no locks on the doors.
Returning to Pakistan
One day, Malala will be able to return to Pakistan. One day, the girls who fight social attitudes and defy the militants will be able go about their work or education ‒ or even leisure ‒ safely. This will happen one day, of that I am sure. But it will not happen overnight.
For this to happen, Pakistan has to do a lot of things. We have to defeat the Taliban that pose a physical danger not just to girls’ education but to all those working in areas they deem un-Islamic. We have to counter social attitudes that prevent girls’ education. We need to overturn legislation to overturn that fosters and encourages Takfiri thinking. We need to take steps like establish witness protection programmes, empower and enable police to do their jobs at the local, community level and provide prosecution that allows the courts to hand out justice. This is how we will deny criminals and militants the impunity they currently enjoy. Criminal acts at the local level feed the Taliban and other militant groups, not just financially but also by creating an atmosphere that allows Takfiri thought to breed and spread, by intimidating those who oppose it and attracting like-minded recruits.
The silver lining I see is that Pakistan is on the right track, with the democratic political process, however shaky it may yet be, underway. People are speaking out for girls’ education and against Takfiri thinking. They are standing up against VIP culture (which utilises thousands of policemen who could be better employed combatting crime) and demanding accountability.
The process must continue.
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