The softest of targets
SYED SALEEM Shahzad, Salman Taseer, and Shabbaz Bhatti, a brave journalist and two brave politicians, all died in the last year, all at the hands of the self-appointed thought police of Pakistan’s Islamist militant fringe. Their crime, to speak out fearlessly, whether against oppressive use of blasphemy laws or the secret state.
Human rights groups estimate that some 52 people have died in “street justice” after being accused of blasphemy since 1990, while 17 media workers have lost there lives in the last decade for publicly expressing their views. Journalist Declan Walsh has called liberals in Pakistan “an endangered species”, while Taseer spoke prophetically of being “the last man standing” just days before his death.
Now, plumbing the depths of barbarity, the Taliban have extended their list of “legitimate targets” to 14-year-old schoolgirls. The attempted assassination near her home in the Swat Valley of Malala Yousufzai, a remarkable, articulate and fearless campaigner for the rights of girls to schooling, is an attempt by the group both to reassert its medieval theocratic authority, particularly over women, and to proclaim from the rooftops its return to the valley. In the summer of 2009 a major Pakistani army operation to clear the Taliban from the region was largely successful in driving them into Afghanistan but uprooted some 1.2 million residents. Now the militants are returning in small numbers.
Yousufzai, now recovering in Rawalpindi from surgery to remove a bullet from her neck, came to public attention anonymously at 11 with a blog for the BBC about life under the Taliban in her home town Mingora. She went public in 2009 to campaign for girls’ right to an education and became famous across the country, winning Pakistans first National Youth Peace Prize. The Taliban has openly acknowledged its involvement in the shooting, describing her campaign as “pro-Western” and an “obscenity”, and threatening to finish the job.
The group has never had much time for public opinion but was badly isolated in 2009 by videos of the beating of a woman in Swat, a PR disaster that assisted the army’s task in pushing them out of the valley. Now they may again have scored an own goal – the overwhelming response in a Pakistan seemingly inured to violence is of anger and promises to continue Malala’s work. “If all of us die fighting, we will still not leave this work,” her father, Ziauddin Yousufzai, insisted. It is a welcome reality that gives the lie to simplistic western attempts to caricature Islam as a monolithic, oppressive force.