It would be a grave mistake to blame some ‘Western’ focus on education for these religious assaults on learning when young people across Asia are expressing a desire for knowledge and understanding no less eagerly.
The shooting last week of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai in the Swat valley, Pakistan, further demonstrates that incidents of religiously-justified terrorism cannot be adequately explained as merely angry responses to a growing influence of ‘Western’ values. Members of the Swat Taliban were ordered to carry out the attack in response to Malala’s writings on the group, which she had articulated in a series of defiant diary entries in 2009. In her writing, Malala describes a life characterised by daily fear of reprisals from the Taliban for the crime of attending school. On one day, a friend anxiously asks her, ‘Is our school going to be attacked by the Taleban?’ It is disturbing for many of us to imagine the antithetical fusion of innocent intellectual inquiry with this unpredictable terror of religious tyranny, but for Malala and her friends the feeling has been commonplace for years.
Commenting on the shooting, a spokesperson for the Swat Taliban has stated that, ‘We have a clear-cut stance. Anyone who takes side with the government against us will have to die at our hands,’ adding that, ‘Other important people will soon become victims.’ The New York Times reports that while Malala is currently in critical condition in hospital, the people of Pakistan are showing their support for her by condemning the attack. Moreover, the violence has drawn a negative reaction from Islamic leaders and groups, including the Kashmiri nationalist terrorists Lashkar-e-Taiba, described by the New York Times as ‘militant’ but adhering to ‘a different strain of Islam from the Taliban.’ In this sense, the assault has been a considerable failure in more ways than one, yet perhaps the most significant aspect of the shooting is that it represents an unwarranted and unprovoked assault not only on Malala Yousafzai but also on the notion of intellectual freedom and the right to learn.
Another Taliban spokesperson attempted to justify the attack by explaining to Al-Jazeera that Malala ‘is a Western-minded girl.’ However, the extremism Pakistan has witnessed and denounced in the last week represents hostility towards all those who wish to live and learn freely and equally, regardless of cultural background. This is especially true because Malala Yousafzai is not alone in her struggle. Girls in Afghanistan have long been at risk of deadly terrorist attacks if they attend school, while last month universities in Iran imposed new rules aimed at restricting the options or outright banning women from studying.
It is thus a grave mistake to blame some ‘Western’ focus on education for religious oppression of education when young people across Asia are expressing a desire for education no less eagerly. Their bravery in the context of both physical violence and relentless civil oppression indicates that a yearning for knowledge is not a ‘Western’ value or a ‘liberal’ ideal but a human passion, making it all the more resilient against those who would see them buried beneath a charred and oppressed landscape. Malala’s only crimes were to document her experiences in a diary and to go to school. Her courage, along with the violence she has endured, demonstrates that there exists an intellectual culture among young people, and indeed human beings in general, entirely independent of geography or religious belief. Intellectual curiosity is not, as has been claimed, a ‘Western’ precept. It is a human one, and one that must be defended wherever it is threatened.
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