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The Malala Dilemma


Prizes can be disabilities, impediments on future progress. “Inscribe all human effort with one word,” claims Robert Browning on creative achievement, “Artistry’s haunting curse, the Incomplete!” Awards have the habit of distorting the perspective of achievement, labours complete when there is much to be done. Greatest is the curse to have reached to mountain and find yourself unable to climb another. On the PBS Newshour, Nobel Prize nominee Malala Yousafzai claimed that it was good not to win it – she had a lot of work to do. Success, after all, can breed sloth.

The language used by some press vultures was that of deprivation. She was “denied” the Nobel Peace Prize. The Taliban were “delighted” that she was so denied. Certainly, according to their spokesman Shahidullah Shahid, “She did nothing big so it’s good that she didn’t get it.”

In any case, the Nobel committee has fallen into the business of coercing its awardees into success. According to Marc Champion (Chicago Tribune, Oct 14), it has developed a “habit of offering the peace prize as a kind of advance payment on great deeds to come, which in such cases tells us more about the priorities of the committees members than the actions of the winners.”

President Barack Obama is the perfect case in point. Awarded the prize ahead of time, he was saddled with expectations he could not deliver. An imperial consul can rarely qualify for peace when a state of permanent war exists. But the peace game, like the war game, are seen as part of the same board, the pieces of the same strategic puzzle. The Nobel Peace Prize committee has shown time and again that it does not see them as mutually exclusive. It demands flawed candidates, a dirtied slate.

The prize itself is a poisoned chalice. It has been given to war mongers. It has been given to those as an incentive. The case of disbanding the weapons on the part of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons continues the legacy. Criticism was bound to issue against the OPCW – first, it being bloodless, an entity, rather than a personal face, and second, that the prize brings with it a somewhat slimy hue. The OPCW is deemed to be in bed with the UN, while it is properly more appropriate to see it as a brief visitor.

That would be to ignore that body’s efforts at verifying the destruction of 82 percent of chemical weapons stocks states have declared. But here, the Nobel committee demonstrates again that it is second-guessing an effort, calculating success ahead of time, an achievement before it has been bagged. Serious work has yet to begin in Syria, the groups appointed and seemingly colossal task.

What of Yousafzai’s own credentials? How does the resume rank in terms of the award? It was obvious that her fan club would feel snubbed by the decision. Nayeem Akhtar, a political figure in Kashmir, “was looking forward for her and [was] disappointed.” Comedian and talk show host Jon Stewart wanted to adopt her. She has certainly started to get a collection of trophies and prizes, the most recent being the European Union’s Sakharov human rights award.

Yousafzai’s own weapon is that of education, a traditional view that the more one learns, the less ignorant one is. (Not in itself accurate – great crimes are often created by the learned.) One teacher, one student one pen, one book – these are the properties that will propel prejudice to the outer. She is becoming the global iconoclast, the embedded symbol of rights for female education.

But the seemingly invincible moral credentials of Yousafzai present her with a fundamental problem. She risks succumbing, or at the very least becoming, the cult figure of interests, a weapon of their podiums. Her potency where it counts may be her Achilles heel – that she is a mere 16 but a global celebrity; that she was near death because of the bullet she took to her head from the Taliban. That she flirts with politics as an activist when she risks becoming a politician who flirts with activism.

There is already a sense that this point is being made. Muhammed Ayaz, a trader who operates his business beside Yousafzai’s old school in Mingora makes the point that, while Yousafzai might be “a heroine of the West,” her record on achievement in the Swat valley is scant (New York Times, Oct 11). This is the battle all historical agents face, and in this case, it is particularly acute.

In time, it may well be that this young woman will earn her stripes for the prize. By then, virtue might have been blunted, and principle stained by experience. The Nobel Prize Committee tends to only acknowledge experienced sinners.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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