Now that Malala Yousafzai has won her hard-earned and well-deserved Nobel Peace Prize, she and her amazing, tragic story is back in the spotlight. Per usual, nevertheless, the corporate media has taken this positive development and exploited it, in the service of US imperialism.
The US corporate media loves talking about the remarkable bravery and strength of Malala and the brutality of the Taliban forces that almost killed her. Such coverage fuels its racist, orientalist, neocolonialist narrative about “backward,” violent, misogynist Muslims and their need for “white saviors,” thereby legitimizing Western imperialist interests in South and West Asia. Malala’s victory can be appropriated and whitewashed by the US political establishment to “prove” that its (internationally illegal) invasion, occupation, and destruction of Afghanistan has “helped” its people (as for the hundreds of thousands killed and injured in the process, well, those inconvenient exceptions aren’t part of this narrative).
While most people who win the Nobel “Peace” Prize do so, as Michael Parenti points out, for war-mongering and crimes against humanity (for a prime example, consider that none other than Henry Kissinger boasts one, along with of course Obomba himself), Malala actually deserves hers. This makes the exploitation even more despicable and grotesque.
Malala has devoted her life to fighting for education for children—indeed a most noble and important cause. When she implored, before the UN, “let us pick up our books and our pens, they are the most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen, can change the world. Education is the only solution,” the Western intelligentsia ate it up, like a voracious canine gobbling up its kibbles (on second thought, perhaps a vulture would have been a more apt choice for this simile). Everyone can agree that education for children is a positive goal. By emphasizing that “Education is the only solution,” the West can draw attention from the very real material concerns the vast preponderance of the world endures—that is to say, horrific poverty.
This oversight is by no means the fault of Malala. She herself, in that same speech, just before the above excerpt, spoke of “a glorious struggle against illiteracy, poverty, and terrorism.” Two of these three things can be found endlessly emphasized throughout the corporate press. You can guess which one is excluded.
Roughly half of the world still lives on less than $2.50 per day. Around one quarter of people live in extreme poverty, less than $1.25 a day. UNICEF estimates 24,000 children under the age of five die each and every day because of poverty. “Every 3.6 seconds one person dies of starvation. Usually it is a child under the age of 5.” And, in many countries, poverty is getting worse.
Education certainly has a role in the fight against poverty, and it’s important that one learns, say, basic chemistry. (Malala was sitting in chemistry class when she was informed she had won the Nobel Prize.) But learning basic chemistry does not provide billions of impoverished people with food, clean water, and healthcare. That takes material, collective action.
Malala understands how poverty creates and perpetuates the very social and political ills against which she is fighting. She continuously stresses the importance of not just spreading education, but of directly combating poverty. Yet these calls fall on the selectively deaf ears of the Western media.
The press picks and chooses which of Malala’s messages are amplified—and which are silenced. It can hardly get enough of the activist’s insistence on the importance of “the philosophy of nonviolence … learned from Gandhi, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa.” The Western intelligentsia positively salivates upon hearing such messages. It matters not that Gandhi was a virulent racist who defended Hitler and imperial Japan, or that Mother Teresa had ties to Central and South American dictators. Citing the “Saint of the Status Quo” and the “Mirror of Bourgeois Guilt” as influences is a surefire way to reach (that void in) the Western ruling class’ heart.
Interestingly, many of the same people lauding the Nobel Peace Prize laureate for her advocacy of nonviolence also happily cheered on the obscene violence of the bloody US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. The utter antinomy (and hypocrisy) does not strike them. After all, it has always been much more useful to advocate that individuals and small groups (particularly oppressed ones) adopt a philosophy of nonviolence, not hegemons and states.
As much as it accentuates Malala’s thoughts on education and nonviolence, nonetheless, what the US corporate media never mentions is the side of Malala it doesn’t like, the side of Malala that doesn’t serve but rather challenges Western imperialist interests, the side of Malala that overtly opposes not just US drone strikes but capitalism itself.
The Malala Who Opposes Drones
On 11 October 2013, Malala met with Obama in the Oval office. The press could hardly have lauded the president more for taking the time out of his busy schedule to meet the 16-year-old activist, and for bringing his family with him. What went much less reported was that, at this meeting, Malala warned that US drone strikes are “fueling terrorism.” Obama ignored her (presumably mumbling something like “Sorry, but I have to drone strike your home/neighbors/friends cuz freedom”), and the White House left the comment out of its official statement.
In recalling the incident Malala said she “expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people.” Again, no peep from the Obama administration—who, presumably, given its supposed investment in fighting terrorism, would not be interested in spreading it further.
Just a few weeks after this meeting, Nabila Rehman visited the White House to testify before Congress. Her story did not inundate the US media—it is much less favorable. The eight-year-old Pakistani was out in a field picking okra when her grandmother was eviscerated, right before her eyes, by a US drone strike. Seven children were also wounded, including family members. Given such a horrific report, you’d think the US government would express interest in learning from it, as to make sure random civilians are not again slaughtered by bombs falling from microscopic dots in the sky. Yet only five (out of 430) Congressional representatives attended the hearing.
Nabila’s brother Zubair, a 13-year-old who was injured in the US drone attack, told the five congresspeople decent enough to face the truth, “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer grey skies. Drones don’t fly when sky is grey.” The echoes of the teen’s heart-wrenching words in that almost-empty chamber still resonate loudly today, while Obama’s drone war rages on.
Murtaza Hussein exposed the obvious duplicity of the US exploiting one Pakistani tragedy and ignoring another, writing “Unlike Malala Yousafzai, Nabila Rehman did not receive a welcoming greeting in Washington DC.” He notes that the Rehman family’s story was so dreadful that the translator burst into tears. The US government, however, “made it a point to snub this family and ignore the tragedy it had caused to them.”
“Symbolic of the utter contempt in which the government holds the people it claims to be liberating,” Hussein adds, “while the Rehmans recounted their plight, Barack Obama was spending the same time meeting with the CEO of weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin.” Clearly stoking the very same military-industrial complex that creates the predator drones that have murdered and injured thousands of innocent civilians is, for the President of the United States, a much higher priority than meeting the actual victims of what can only correctly be referred to as state terrorism.
The Malala Who Opposes Capitalism
At this time last year, while the story of Malala frequented US newspapers (and while that of Rehman was almost nowhere to be found), I wrote a brief piece titled “Malala Yousafzai, Spivak, Abu-Lughod, and the White Savior Complex.” It remains just as accurate today as it was then.
I noted that, Gayatri Spivak, in her classic article “Can The Subaltern Speak?“, explained that colonialist powers justify their draconian, parasitic rule with the belief that their “White men are saving brown women from brown men.” In her well-known essay “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?,” Lila Abu-Lughod situated Spivak’s thesis in a contemporary setting, explaining how the US’ imperialist invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was justified with the exact same argument–Bush and his overwhelmingly white administration, far-right leaders who had consistently worked against women’s rights in their own country, now desperate to “save” Afghan women from Afghan men.
Journalist Assed Baig published a column in the Huffington Post, titled “Malala Yousafzai and the White Saviour Complex,” in which he explored how this racist phenomenon is still alive and well, detailing the repugnant ways in which the West, continuing in this paternalist, colonialist “white man’s burden” tradition, has exploited Malala Yousafzai’s amazing strength and bravery to support its interests.
One of the things that has consistently been absent of even these discussions, however, as countless parties shape the heroine’s story to serve their respective interests, is that Malala herself is well aware of this manipulation. In a statement released on 13 October 2013, she defiantly declared that she is not a “Western puppet.”
When discussing the way in which the neocolonialist West exploits and manipulates the trials and tribulations of those working against oppressor groups and forces, for justice and liberation, one should be careful to establish that this is not done to them unwittingly. We are dealing with agents, with individuals who understand the implications of their actions and change them accordingly. To forget this fact is, in a less overt way, to uphold the very paternalist, neocolonialist strictures we seek to destroy.
As Spivak reminds us, the subaltern indeed speaks—and not only speaks but resists oppressors. Articulated a bit differently, Arundhati Roy insisted “There’s really no such thing as ‘the voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard.”
The attempt to deliberately silence Malala is not only evident in the way the US corporate media ignores her criticism of US drones; even more insidious is its complete disregard for the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s politics.
In March 2013, Malala sent a message to the 32nd congress of Pakistani Marxists (the biggest of such meetings in the country’s history). Her statement read:
First of all I’d like to thank The Struggle and the IMT [International Marxist Tendency] for giving me a chance to speak last year at their Summer Marxist School in Swat and also for introducing me to Marxism and Socialism. I just want to say that 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 any one 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?
I would like to send my heartfelt greetings to the congress. I am convinced Socialism is the only answer and I urge all comrades to take this struggle to a victorious conclusion. Only this will free us from the chains of bigotry and exploitation.
This is the Malala the Western corporate media doesn’t like to quote. This is the Malala whose politics do not fit neatly into the US’ neocolonialist, cookie-cutter frame of presentation. This is the Malala who recognizes that true liberation will take more than just education, that it will take the establishment of not just bourgeois political “democracy,” but of economic democracy, of socialism.
Malala does not hide her socialist sympathies. “Socialism is the only answer and I urge all comrades to take this struggle to a victorious conclusion. Only this will free us from the chains of bigotry and exploitation,” she counsels.
When the courageous activist speaks of the importance of education and nonviolence, the West shouts her words loudly from the media mountaintops. When that same activist criticizes predator drones and, that most sacrosanct entity of all, capitalism, the silence is deafening.
Only the distinctive buzzing of US killer drones can be heard, watching overhead, bombing over heads, protecting empire and “freedom.”
Ben Norton is an artist and activist. His website can be found at http://bennorton.com/.