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The inhuman and criminal attack by the Taliban on 14-year old Pakistani education activist, Malala Yousafzai, has been hijacked here in the United States to provide moral patina to America’s equally devastating wars in South Asia. Instead of a focus on the political contours of the tragedy, mainstream media have tragically peddled, unchallenged, the tired Orientalist tropes that legitimize American militarism in the region. It is a page right out of Nicholas Krisof’s playbook: the depoliticizaion of a fundamentally political event.
The image carried by the Islamophobic website, islam-watch.org, showing a bearded man cowering from a small girl clutching a book, best summarizes the scope of American coverage of the atrocity: the cowardly Taliban hate women, especially educated ones. This reductive focus on the barbarity of the Taliban, to the exclusion of a discussion of the full circumstances that required a Malala to rise – what distinguished historian Mahmood Madani has called a ‘pornography of violence’ – does little but perpetuate America’s messianic narrative among its domestic audience.
In Malala’s country, Pakistan, where distrust of both America and the Taliban runs high, the conversation is far more multifaceted and complex.
The crime has met widespread condemnation from both sides of the country’s political spectrum.
Condemnation among conservatives has been strongest from the religious organizations. Sunni Ittehad issued an edict criminalizing the assault, and asked the military to ‘crack-down’ on the Taliban. Pakistan’s televangalist industry was not far behind: with popular scholar, Amir Liaquat, issuing religious indictment of the Taliban across the country’s many TV channels. News shows also hastily invited Soviet-era mujahids to declare the assault unIslamic. The response from Pakistan’s major Islamist parties, Jama’at-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, was equally vociferous, but remained reticent in assigning blame solely to the Taliban.
Among Pakistani liberals, condemnation was expectedly strident. The Pashtun nationalist party, ANP, expressed early outrage. The crescendo grew quickly, and Karachi’s left-of-center Muttahida Qaumi Movement, among many others, issued biting criticism of government inaction against the Taliban. Pakistan’s vibrant NGO community organized rallies in solidarity with Malala, and, indeed, posters reading “Drones Kill So Malala Can Live” were seen at demonstrations.
This uncomplicated liberal ascription of blame to the Taliban found uneasy reception among Pakistani conservatives, who continued to highlight the role of failed American and Pakistani policies that created both the Taliban and the need for Malala. This otherwise trenchant critique met quick dissolution at the hands of social media, where the shameful scandal of spurious accusations of Malala being an American lackey found more voice than an honest conversation about the tragedy.
Yet, just as the sordid lies that associate a 14 year old with imperial militarism require our unequivocal condemnation, the role of the American machinery in co-opting Malala’s story, too, demands our attention.
In his recent New York Times column exhorting Americans to save Pakistani girls from Saudi “medieval extremists”, Mr. Kristof offered another stale, Orientalist, recipe for American activism: liberate their women. This gendered inanity, no doubt, found little room to contemplate that those initially arrested for the crime included a woman.
Identifying himself with Malala, Mr. Kristof also quoted a Pakistani man showering him with gratitude for America’s war in the country. Americans were now both victims and saviors. The politics of Central Asian control, of the emergence of the Taliban, of economic destitution and political marginalization, of a million uprooted, and of the broken and charred bodies called America’s collateral damage were all subsumed under a new, more seductive narrative: American boots and drones saving Pakistani girls.
In a longer New York Times article reviewing the shameful social media chatter falsely alleging Malala’s American connections, chief strategist of America’s Iraq invasion, Col. Robert Mackay, offered yet another picture glut with Orientalized imagery and bereft of political context. The article, largely plagiarized from a Pakistani blog post, which in turn offers absurdly comical evidence of its claims, painted the Pakistani right dumb-witted, misogynist and rabidly assaulting a teenage girl. It was an assessment of the Pakistani conservative the way that a review of Pamela Geller’s twitter-feed would be of the American Republican.
The article’s female protagonist, a Pakistani journalist, diligently exposed the lies of her anti-American adversaries by proving their exhibits of drone casualties to be, in fact, the doing of the Pakistan Army, thereby absolving the United States of the atrocity. The cognitive dissonance of American disavowal of the casualties simultaneous with U.S. demands that its ally “must do more” failed to register with Col. Mackay.
The moral sanitization of a war already swept clean from the American conscience could scarcely have been better facilitated.
A composite picture emerges from such coverage of not just a fringe movement, but an entire nation complicit in the attack on a teenage girl. An idea of American power is reinforced that is not only benign, but also capable of preventing another such misogynist tragedy.
The stage is set for the meeting of two strange bedfellows: neo-conservatives and liberal feminists.
In her searing indictment of this noxious ideological concoction, anthropologist Sunania Maria highlights how appeals to feminism continue to legitimize American imperalism. Victims of the violence of anti-American militias are offered a platform for their grievences, she details, while those who hold the United States accountable for their suffering are accorded no voice. Percipient critical theorist, Hamid Dabashi concurs, and characterizes the situation as “the abuse of legitimate causes, in this case, women’s repression, for illegitimate ends, US global domination.”
While women’s rights remain tragically curtailed in Pakistan, America’s claim to the mantle of feminist liberation is belied by facts. The very Islamist parties Col. Mackay indicts as incurable sexists are also responsible for some of the greatest leaps in female literacy and access to women’s health services in Pakistan’s restive Khyber-Pukunkhwa province. Despite this, their rhetoric against American interference remains unabated. Similarly, despite Mr. Kristof’s claim of having brought benevolent American protection to Pakistanis, the country ranks highest in a poll of 24 nations in its desire to see an immediate U.S. withdrawal from its neighbor, Afghanistan. Pakistani approval of U.S. assistance, too, remains dismally low, with Pew reporting only a tenth of Pakistanis believing it to be in their interest.
Eschewing an exploration of the tensions of “racialization, class, gender and nationalism that shape the nature of terrorism in all forms” in favor of a vapid, moralized conversation about right and wrong obscures the reality that Malala and thousands others like her live. It is a reality where America is neither hero nor victim, but a superpower with geo-political interests. Anything short of such a frank discussion is what sociologist Marnia Lazreg has called the use of women as a “Trojan horse.”
The last decade has seen the publication of more books by Afghan women highlighting their plight under the Taliban than the entire history of the United States preceding it; yet one finds barely a mention among these pages of the atrocity of American invasion. In such a time, the shameless pandering of this journalism to an American public ravenous for stories of barbaric Muslim men from whom to save their women does little but whet American appetite for its mission civilisatrice.
Attacking a 14 year girl to assert religio-political dominance is despicable; using her tragedy to sanctify wars that destroy the lives of thousands of others is no less shameful.
Hamzah Saif holds a Masters in Public Policy from Georgetown University and has previously published on the U.S-Pakistan relationship with Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) as their foreign policy fellow.