In South Asia, Islamist forces emerge out of the womb of secularism, or the practice and politics of it. In 2008, secular leaders of the Pakistan People’s Party and Awami National Party, which came to power in Islamabad and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province through elections that year, signed an agreement with the Taliban led by Maulana Fazlullah for implementation of Islamic sharia rule in the Swat region. By early 2009, with the complicity of the secular leaders the Taliban were enforcing sharia code in the region, burning music CDs and DVDs, ordering barbers not to shave beards, preventing women from visiting bazaars and setting up sharia courts until they also ordered a total ban on female education — forcing the international community to take note of the modern-day barbarism, just hundred miles from Islamabad.
“From barbarism to civilisation requires a century; from civilisation to barbarism needs but a day,” observed Will Durant, the American historian celebrated for his magnum opus The Story of Civilisation. Just coming out of General Pervez Musharraf’s military rule, Pakistan began sinking into barbarism, notwithstanding the judgment of the adult Pakistanis who had just voted these secular parties to govern them for a brighter, democratic future. As the jihadists were enforcing the total ban on female education, young girls like Malala Yousafzai, 11 years old then, felt the world shutting around them. Malala, who had already been in the vortex of local education movement led by her father, wrote an anonymous online diary, describing her feelings about the jihadists in her neighbourhood.
Before reading what happened next, here is a brief history of the secular version of Islamism in the Indian subcontinent. During the 1940s, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a thoroughly secular Muslim who drank wine and ate pork, steered a movement for Pakistan in the name of Islam. In 1974, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, a secular leader, gave an altogether new power to Pakistani parliamentarians to legislate who should be called Muslim and who a minority, a negative term for Hindus and Christians in Pakistan. That year, Ahmadi Muslims were constitutionally declared non-Muslims on the watch of Bhutto, whose secular daughter Benazir would later facilitate the Taliban’s rise in the 1990s.
In the 1980s, secular politician Syed Shahabuddin demanded a ban on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and was granted his wish by the Rajiv Gandhi government, unleashing Islamist and Hindutva forces, who had been strengthening since 1986 when the same government surrendered before the fundamentalists in the Shah Bano case. The surrender would subsequently lead to the demolition of the Babri mosque and Gujarat riots of 2002. In present times, secular Congress leader Salman Khurshid advocates reservation in jobs and education in the name of Islam. Nearby, Imran Khan, also a secular leader, has emerged as the Taliban’s political ally.
Consequences of such secular-Islamist politics can always be foretold, as can be seen from the damages from the actions of Jinnah, Zulfiqar and Benazir Bhutto, Syed Shahabuddin (and Rajiv Gandhi), and the secular leaders of Awami National Party and Pakistan People’s Party in the case of the Swat Taliban.
On October 9, 2012, Malala was shot in the head by the Taliban for her diary written three years ago, airlifted to England for medical treatment and became a celebrity, eliciting prayers of support from teenagers around the world. Girls and boys in Pakistan, where children do not often hear positive stories, adored her; she was celebrated on Pakistani television channels as the nation’s daughter, having earned international awards and met with world leaders, including UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II.
Will Durant also wrote: “Barbarism is like the jungle; it never admits its defeat; it waits patiently for centuries to recover the territory it has lost.” The Islamist forces were isolated in the face of Malala’s popularity in Pakistan. Soon after her book I am Malala, an autobiographical story told by her and written by journalist Christina Lamb, was published in October 2013, Islamist commentators and columnists launched a movement to discredit Malala in Pakistani eyes.
Three influential commentators warrant mention: Zaid Hamid, who advocates jihad against India; Maqbool Orya Jan, an Urdu columnist peddling Islamism on television; Ansar Abbasi, an editor known for authoring conspiracy theories against the West. Zaid Hamid accuses Malala of being used by the West against Islam, Pakistan and Muslims. Orya Jan attacks her for not denouncing The Satanic Verses and writing, “My father also saw the book as offensive to Islam but believes strongly in freedom of speech.” Abbasi goes a step further, literally haranguing liberal debaters by asking them religiously sensitive questions on television channels such as: Do you personally think that Ahmadis are Muslims, or that the words “peace be upon him” should accompany Prophet Muhammad’s name. They are also questioning how the now 16-year-old Malala could write this book, while they teach Pakistani children that 17-year-old Islamic conqueror Muhammad bin Qasim invaded Sindh in 712 AD, launching Islamic rule in India.
Malala is criticised because her father wore black armbands on the 50th anniversary of Pakistan’s Independence Day, saying that Swat had suffered since its merger with Pakistan in 1969. There is nothing blasphemous in the book. The Islamists are attacking her for trivial points: for writing Jinnah instead of Quaid-e-Azam, or great leader; for not writing “peace be upon you” with Prophet Muhammad’s name, not a norm in English.
The book is an absorbing memoir and should be on the reading list of all teenagers in India for the following reasons: Malala upholds an idea of freedom against the forces of darkness in South Asia; she is a role model for girls in Pakistan and India; she stands against forces which are inimical to democracy; her story, still unfolding, is the story of civilisation and illustrates how misguided actions of secular leaders could unleash barbarism in our societies. The bigger challenge, maybe for the courts, is how to rescue South Asian secularism from its amorous embrace of Islamism.
Tufail Ahmad is director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research
Institute, Washington DC.