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October 22, 2013

A Book Review: I Am Malala

Reuel S. Amdur

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I Am Malala, By Malala Yousafzai, Little, Brown & Co., 2013.

No question.  Malala Yousafzai is an incredible girl.  Beginning when she was 11, she began a diary-like dictation about life under the Taliban in Swat, Pakistan.

While her mother tongue is Pashto, her account for BBC was in Urdu.  She also knew English even then.  Remember, she was just 11! 

The New York Times followed soon after with a filmed documentary about her and conditions in Swat.  She continued her activism with radio and television interviews as well as speeches in various Pakistan locales.  Her reputation went far and wide.  Rev. Desmond Tutu nominated her for an award for her activism for the right of girls to be educated.

In October 2012, after many threats, a Taliban shot her in the head.  She barely survived.  After initial treatment in Pakistan, she was taken to Birmingham, England, for extensive medical treatment at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.  Her recovery has been impressive, and on July 12 this year, her 16th birthday, she gave an address at the UN General Assembly.  While she was not awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, she is the youngest person ever nominated for it.

Malala’s fame serves as a burr under the saddle for the Taliban. 

They explain that she was shot not because she campaigns for education for girls but because she promotes secularism, but in their eyes the kind of education she advocates—equal education and equal opportunity for girls and women—is precisely what they see as secularism. 

From the book it is clear that Malala is in fact a devoted Muslim.

There are Christians and Christians.  There are Muslims and Muslims.  The Taliban brand of Islam is exclusionary.  Malala’s may largely be summed up in the Qu’ran’s exhortation “Read!”  That command does not apply just to men.  Both men and women are expected to follow the precepts of the religion, implying the importance of general education.  Malala’s is a tolerant, inclusive Islam. 

She disapproves of the Taliban destruction of Buddhist monuments in Swat.  She opposes the blasphemy laws that have been used in Pakistan to persecute Christians.  Malala prays not just for Muslims but for all people.

Her political observations are often very acute.  Perhaps the exception would be her idolizing of Benazir Bhutto.  Her rule was tainted with the smell of corruption and the suppression of workers’ rights.  The fact that a woman made it to the top might explain her enthusiasm in this instance.  After all, this was a woman in an extremely sexist culture and society. 

Bhutto aside, she is quite perceptive: the relationship of elements in the military and intelligence apparatus with the Taliban, the sloth and corruption in government, the death and terror created by American drones.  She has witnessed much of this with her own eyes.

After the shooting, Pakistani officialdom flocked to her aid.  In part, they could not afford not to, without alienating the United States and much of the rest of the world.  To give credit, there may be more charitable explanations.  Undoubtedly, genuine admiration and compassion could come into play.  Perhaps this was also a way of in some measure assuaging guilt feelings for the role they played in Pakistan’s recent sordid history.

Malala’s father Ziauddin is equally impressive. 

While in that culture the birth of a girl is considered a tragedy, for him it was a matter of pride.  He believed in education for all children and carried out his belief by creating schools, against economic odds. 

Ziauddin was active in opposing Taliban and other religious extremism.  He fought for freedom of expression.  While many wanted action taken against Salmon Rushdie for his Satanic Verses, he said that he opposed the book but that the answer should be another book. 

As for Malala, he was fully supportive of her activism.  Her mother, on the other hand, was illiterate and very traditional.  Perhaps her father might be faulted for not having seen to her education. 

A word about Christine Lamb.  This book is an “as told to”.  She does an excellent job of letting us hear Malala’s voice.  The book’s voice rings true to the Malala we know through the book and elsewhere.  Yet it is clear that she has brought her own extensive research to the work, interviewing back in Swat, for example.  She is probably responsible for much of the medical detail.  The pairing of Christina Lamb and Malala Yousafzai has been highly successful.

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