Defending Malala: the well-intentioned errors of some atheist campaigners

Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani woman who campaigned for equal rights for women, especially the right to education, is a worthy recipient of  the European Union’s Sakharov prize for human rights.  (See BBC news for details). Having narrowly survived an assassination attempt in Pakistan a year ago, when she was shot in the head by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) gunmen opposed to her defence of girls’ rights to education, she now lives in the United Kingdom.

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Malala Yousafzai

Malala is not altogether out of danger. In defiance of widespread disgust in Pakistan and around the world for the shocking and cowardly assassination attempt, Taliban spokespeople have recently reiterated their threats to kill her.  “She has done nothing [to deserve the award]. The enemies of Islam are awarding her because she has left Islam and has became secular,” TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid told AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location. “She is getting awards because she is working against Islam. Her struggle against Islam is the main reason for getting these awards.” He repeated the TTP’s threat — made numerous times in recent months — to try again to kill Malala, “even in America or the UK”.  (See Global Post for details).

This threat is not just reprehensible, it is also factually wrong. Malala has campaigned for women’s equality and the right to education. So far as I am aware, she has not renounced her Muslim faith, still less has she engaged in any ‘struggle against Islam.’ Many of her most ardent supporters are also Muslim. The Taliban makes this false claim because it seeks to identify its own brand of reactionary anti-woman politics with Islam.  The basis of the Taliban’s fraudulent appeal for political support from Muslims boils down to this: if you are a true Muslim, you will support us. In response to the worldwide revulsion against their boasting about the attack on Malala, they attempt to deny that opposition to education for women was their motivation, and try to shift the discussion into the realm of religion.

It is important to make a distinction between the religion of Islam and reactionary Islamist politics.  I make this point because among those celebrating Malala’s award are campaigners for atheism who, like the Taliban, tend to confuse the two things. On author Jerry Coyne’s blog ‘Why Evolution is True’, for example, we find the following comment on the attacks on Malala: “This comes out of Islam, of course, and I hope no apologists can pin this on colonialism or simply disaffected and poverty-stricken Pakistanis.”

This is wrong. It is no more true to say that the attack ‘comes out of Islam’ than to say that Malala and her supporters ‘come out of Islam.’ The attacks come out of reactionary political forces who seek to use Islam for their political cover and justification. Women’s equality and the right to education are the issues in contention here, not religion – as the Taliban would have us believe.

In order to defend Malala and all she stands for, it is necessary to  mobilise the broadest possible political support in her defence, including from among Muslims.  Otherwise, we are making an unnecessary and unwarranted concession to the Taliban’s claim to speak as the true voice of Islam.

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