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Malala, Obama, socialism: Nobel laureate’s political views are complex

Analysis: Hailed in the West, denounced by some in Pakistan, the Taliban nemesis eludes ideological pigeonholing

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai is widely hailed in the U.S. and other Western countries as a symbol of freedom and equality, her courage and resilience triumphing over the Taliban’s murderous attempts to halt her fight for education for girls. But Malala’s vision of freedom and equality goes far beyond the current consensus among Western governments on the meaning of freedom and equality, and her political views are bracingly independent of U.S. tutelage.

“I am convinced,” Malala wrote in a message sent earlier this year to Pakistan’s International Marxist Tendency (IMT), that “socialism is the only answer, and I urge all comrades to struggle to a victorious conclusion. Only this will free us from the chains of bigotry and exploitation.”

Malala’s message, sent from Birmingham, England, where she is at school, thanked the group for introducing her to Marxism and socialism. Despite the accolades being showered on her abroad, Malala was hardly advocating reliance on Western salvation: “I just want to say in terms of education, as well as other problems in Pakistan, it is high time that we did something to tackle them ourselves. It’s important to take the initiative. We cannot wait around for anyone else to come and do it. Why are we waiting for someone else to come and fix things? Why aren’t we doing it ourselves?”

Sources of inspiration

“The first Trot sympathizer to the get the Nobel Peace Prize,” noted the British-Pakistani writer and onetime leading Trotskyist Tariq Ali in an email to Al Jazeera on Malala. “Did they know?”

Malala’s association with the leftist group predates her Nobel and the Taliban’s attempt on her life. She addressed the IMT National Marxist Summer School in 2012, speaking from a stage adorned with portraits of Russian revolutionaries Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. 

Her leftist inclinations appear, however, to be more locally rooted, in a progressive Pashtun political tradition — and her family’s left-wing secular politics. That made her not only an advocate for children’s education but a self-aware and determined ideological foe of the Pakistani Taliban who had ravaged her native Swat Valley.

Asked in a 2012 television interview to name her sources of inspiration, the precocious teenager offered three names.

First, there was Barack Obama — a controversial choice in a country where anti-American sentiment is at an all-time high. She admired how the U.S. president had cast down the racial barrier in a country where the treatment of African-Americans continues to ignite controversy.

Pakistan’s religious responded by accusing her of being part of some hidden U.S. agenda, threatened by a young girl publicly advocating education for all in a country where 25 million children are out of school. They didn’t take much notice of the fact that when she met Obama in the Oval Office last year, she warned him that U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan fuel extremism. The White House didn’t publicize that detail either.

‘Fearful are the men with guns of an unarmed girl.’

Habib Jalib

Pakistani poet

The second inspiration was Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistani prime minister slain in a Taliban attack in 2007. Malala survived a bullet from the same misogynistic group that killed Bhutto; when Malala addressed the United Nations in 2013, she wore a shawl that once belonged to Bhutto — a gift to the young survivor from the former prime minister’s children.

In the minds of many Pakistanis, Malala’s bravery recalls a verse written for Bhutto by the Pakistani left-wing poet Habib Jalib: “Fearful are the men with guns of an unarmed girl.” That line was written when Bhutto, as a young woman, faced the military dictator Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who killed her father, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. And it resonated when a Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan gunman boarded a bus in 2012 and demanded, “Who is Malala?”

Whereas Obama and Bhutto are global icons, the third inspirational name offered by Malala in her interview was a more obscure figure, although one hallowed in her northwestern Pakistan Pashtun heartland and more closely aligned with her political views. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, or “Bacha Khan” — the King of the Khans — as he is known, was often described during his lifetime as “the Frontier Gandhi.”

Like Malala, Khan was a devout Muslim and expressed distinctly leftist, anti-imperialist and pacifist views. After witnessing the failure of a series of armed revolts against the raj, Khan concluded that unarmed resistance could be more effective. “I am going to give you such a weapon that the police and the army will not be able to stand against it,” Khan told his followers, the Khudai-Khidmatgar (Servants of God), or as they were colloquially known, the red shirts.

“It is the weapon of the prophet, but you are not aware of it,” he said. “That weapon is patience and righteousness. No power on earth can stand against it.”

Khan’s methods were tested in 1930. Even today, shopkeepers in Peshawar’s Qissa Khwani bazaar tell visitors, over cups of sweet tea, of the story of when, at the height of the freedom struggle, British forces massacred as many of 400 of Khan’s red shirt followers. That atrocity gave birth to the aphorism that the colonialists feared an unarmed Pashtun even more than they feared an armed one.

His politics were not much more welcome in post-independence Pakistan than they were by the British. He was close to Mohandas Gandhi, the leader of India’s independence movement, whose concept of satyagraha were and inspiration for Khan’s ideas on nonviolence. And he wanted to maintain the bond with his fellow Pashtuns in Afghanistan, rejecting the idea that an arbitrary line drawn by the British could become a border that divided his people. That legacy has left the Pakistani establishment suspicious of his followers ever since.

Khan’s grandson Asfandyar Wali Khan now leads the Awami National Party (ANP), which was in power when Malala was shot. The ANP has degenerated over the decades, mired in tales of greed. But it has nonetheless maintained its secular politics, and thousands of its followers were killed mounting a heroic resistance to the Taliban takeover of the Swat Valley. The ANP continues to celebrate Malala’s bravery in the face of Taliban intimidation as an outgrowth of the party‘s tradition.

A father’s daughter

But the single greatest political influence in Malala’s life has been her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai. She writes in her memoir, “I Am Malala,” that she was named after Malalai of Maiwand, an Afghan heroine who took up arms in the 1880 Pashtun triumph against the British in the Battle of Maiwand. Malalai was lionized as a Pashtun Joan of Arc, and her father was said to have been a fellow traveler of Pakistan’s socialist left, though never formally a member of any party.

Ziauddin told his daughter heroic tales of Bacha Khan and instilled the progressive values of women’s equality, education for all and nonviolent resistance.

The power of nonviolent resistance is a leitmotif in Malala’s public remarks. “I don’t want to be remembered as the girl who got shot,” she once said. “I want to be remembered as the girl who stood up.” She said that she was tempted by the thought of hitting with a shoe the Talib who shot her but she changed her mind. “If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib,” she said. “You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly. You must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.”

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