Just when Pakistan was showing signs of pulling out of its quagmire of religious bigotry and militancy, a wanton act of terrorism has dashed hope: the despicable gunning down of 15-year Malala Yousufzai.
In northwest Pakistan, the Swat Valley is famous for its natural beauty and the peaceful nature of the people who live there. The Taliban infiltrated the area about five years ago; by 2009, they were in full control.
They unleashed a reign of terror, killing government officials, police, and progressive citizens in the name of a grotesquely distorted interpretation of Islam.
They demanded that women be banished from the workplace and forced back to their homes. When women ventured out, they were required to cover themselves with a tent-like garment called a burqa.
The Taliban banned education for girls and closed all girls’ schools. They were reading from the same script that the Taliban in Afghanistan enforced in the late 1990s.
When the government lost control of the area, the Pakistan army — in a rare demonstration of decisive action against terrorists — went to Swat to reclaim it. By 2010, Swat had returned to normal.
The writ of the government was restored, courts started functioning again, police did not abandon their posts, and girls’ schools were reopened. There were no more Kalashnikov-wielding bearded vigilantes roaming the streets of the two main cities, Mingora and Saidu Sharif, harassing and killing those who in their twisted minds were not true Muslims.
During the Taliban’s reign of terror, Malala, then a 10-year old schoolgirl, became the face of resistance against the Taliban. She went on television and defended her right to be educated. After Taliban forces were routed from the valley, she became the face of progressive Islam in the country.
The Taliban considered her a threat and decided to silence her. This month, three Taliban mercenaries stopped her school bus, identified her, and shot her in the head.
The reaction to the atrocity was swift and widespread. Most people in Pakistan reacted in horror to the shooting. There were large rallies in the country to protest the barbarism of the Taliban.
This put Pakistan’s religious parties in a quandary. Even though they had in the past looked the other way when Pakistani Taliban and other terrorist groups carried out suicide bombings and targeted killings, they could not condone the shooting of a 15-year-old girl.
So in tepid and muted voices, religious leaders said it was against the teaching of Islam. Asked by media to issue a religious decree — a fatwa — against the Taliban for targeting a child, they hid behind the all-encompassing narrative of the American invasion of Afghanistan and attacks in the tribal areas by American drones. They could not bring themselves to condemn the inhuman and despicable act on its own terms.
In Pakistan, plenty of duplicity was on display. Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the chief of Pakistan’s army, dutifully went to visit the injured girl in the hospital. Earlier, he had refused to send troops into the Pakistani region of Waziristan to rout the Taliban, who had been providing sanctuaries to militants.
Those militants have been attacking NATO forces in Afghanistan and creating chaos in Pakistan. The Taliban have declared areas of Waziristan as an independent Islamic emirate.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, who has holed up in the President House in Islamabad, condemned the shooting and arranged to transport Malala to Great Britain. He presides over a weak government that has been incapable of protecting its citizens.
In a bizarre twist, some commentators blamed Malala for putting herself in harm’s way when she spoke out about girls’ education. They called her a child soldier, but conveniently forgot that unlike boy soldiers in Africa, Malala and her friends did not wield weapons in pursuit of their goal.
Instead, they pursued education, which is their God-given right in Islam. They wielded nothing more than the power of words.
Such bizarre juxtapositions speak volumes about the insecurity of Pakistani religious leaders. It is obvious that most Pakistani leaders and opinion makers have lost their focus and their moral compass.
Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org