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November 24, 2013 5:03 pm

Malala, Pakistan, and Israel

avatar by Denis MacEoin

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Malala Yousafzai. Photo: Wiki Commons.

A few days ago, I was sitting at home undergoing a multicultural musical experience. I was, in fact, listening to a number of Qawwali songs from Pakistan. For many years, singers like Aziz Mian and the Sabri Brothers (all now deceased) have been favourites of mine. Qawwali will never take the place of the Portuguese fado I have known and loved for so long, or the traditional Irish music I have known all my life. But it is a vibrant and energetic form of singing and musicianship that carries in its heart the Sufi poetry of the region, of northern India, parts of Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Look for it on YouTube, it will surprise you.

Although this is religious poetry from the Sufi tradition, it plays a wider part in society. One excellent performance by Aziz Mian has an audience made up of upper-class Pakistanis, including young women, some of them extremely beautiful (go here). That in itself shows the complications of Pakistani society.

Sufism is a spiritual tradition that has always stood in contrast to the worldly concerns of the rich and powerful. In Qawwali concerts like this, two realities are mixed. Not only that, but men and women are sitting together, another contradiction and an affront to the religious authorities who like to tell other Pakistanis how to live their lives. There are Westerners in this audience, and even if the men and women dress in traditional clothes, there are no veils. It’s hard to believe an assembly like this would shut the door on non-Muslims who wanted to watch and listen to a great figure of Pakistani culture.

“ŽIn the West, a better-known product of Pakistani culture is a 16-year-old schoolgirl from the Swat Valley. Just over a year ago, Malala Youssefzai lay dangerously wounded after a Taliban assassin shot her in the head at close range. Malala was already an advocate of education for girls, but the Taliban condemned female education and shut down as many schools as they could, threatening death to students and teachers alike. The bullies won out, bombing and burning out schools that would not bend to their hatred of women and knowledge. Malala spoke out from her small village school until, in 2012, the Taliban decided to take revenge and silence her voice forever. Except that their ill-fated attempt did the opposite.

In Birmingham, in the wicked West, doctors saved her life. In due course, she recovered from her injuries. Since then she has gone on to become a symbol of everything the Taliban hate, a symbol for peace, co-existence, and, above all, education. She is known all over the world. She is already one of the most famous Pakistanis, male or female, to have lived. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest ever nominee, and she came very close indeed to receiving it.

She has been given enough prestigious awards to last her several lifetimes, and may well enter the Guinness Book of Records for their sheer number. She has been received by the U.S. President and the Queen of Great Britain, by Prime Ministers, and innumerable dignitaries everywhere. She has spoken to the General Assembly of the United Nations. No matter where she goes, people listen to her. She talks of peace and education, and her message goes deep. Instead of silencing her, the Taliban turned her into a megaphone to trumpet aloud the emptiness of their philosophy.

You would think the Pakistanis would love her to bits, and, of course, large numbers of them do. She’s bigger than all the Qawwali singers put together. Her name is everywhere. One day, she could stand for the post of Prime Minister. And God help the Taliban if that day ever dawns.

But a week or two ago, I came across a news item that disturbed me greatly. Two organizations representing private schools in Pakistan have banned her book, I Am Malala”Ž from more than 40,000 schools across Pakistan. The book, apparently, is an insult to Islam and shows Malala herself to be nothing more than a tool of the West. So, the leaders of an important sector of the Pakistani educational world has chosen to ban Pakistan’s best-known and most loved proponent of education, not just in Pakistan, but all around the world. It sounds like some sick joke, but it’s true. This is happening in a country that can’t even provide even primary education for half its children.

Malala’s influence on young Pakistani girls and teenagers has been and remains enormous. Pakistan (as I shall argue) needs educated men and women to produce a better-educated workforce that will help the country compete in the international marketplace. According to UNESCO, Pakistan’s literacy rate places the country at 113 out of 120 countries surveyed. In some places, the female literacy rate stands at 3 percent. And two educational bodies are banning an innocuous book by the country’s foremost advocate of female education. And Pakistanis almost lead the world in their hatred of Jews and Israel.

Why has this estimable book been banned? Simple: about a month before the edict, the Pakistani Tehreek-e Taliban had issued the threat that it would target any shop that tried to sell the book. They added that they would kill Malala in the end.

The problems with the book are essentially religious problems, problems that show yet again how obstinate Islam is to the slightest hint of change. For example, we are told that when Malala (or her ghostwriter) wrote the name of the prophet, Muhammad, she did not add the letters PBUH — Peace Be Upon Him — or SAW to stand for the Arabic equivalent, Salla’llah ‘alayhi wa sallam. We are once more in the realm of a neurosis that has put its grip on Muslims around the world. I encountered this same problem in the 1970s in Iran: nothing has changed.

Writing in English, it is not common usage much less obligatory to place honorifics after names. You can call me Denis MacEoin MA, PhD if you need to, but just the name will suffice in all but very formal situations. Adding phrases like these (and they are used after more than just the names of prophets) makes it very hard indeed for scholars of religion or history to write in a neutral style.

Malala’s next mistake was to pass on her father’s views on Salman Rushdie’s infamous novel, The Satanic Verses, which had drawn down on the author threats of murder and mayhem. ‘Malala says that her father sees The Satanic Verses as “offensive to Islam but believes strongly in the freedom of speech.” “First, let’s read the book and then why not respond with our own book” the book quotes her father as saying. So it’s not enough to find the book offensive, but we can’t even read it or talk about it? And Pakistan is almost at the bottom of the heap when it comes to education. Need we ask why?

Another matter found offensive by these giants of Pakistani education was Malala’s reference to the two million-strong Ahmadi community, a religious group that has been declared non-Muslim by the Pakistani government, and which suffers prolonged and severe persecution without any attempt to protect them by the authorities. Malala simply calls for some degree of tolerance and is castigated for it by the obscurantists who control everything in a country determined to set its face against the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries.

Despite the largely secularist policies and intentions of Jinnah, Pakistan is still under the thumb of the holier-than-thou men in beards and turbans, men who always know more than anyone else, even the best educated, who are always closer to God than anyone else, and who reckon they know how to put their fingers on apostasy and unbelief wherever they rear their ugly heads. Even if they don’t raise their heads, the mullas can always make them up.

Fortunately, there are other voices in Pakistan. Perhaps the loudest is Pervez Hoodbhoy”Ž, an openly-avowed supporter of Malala, the remarkable Professor of Nuclear Physics at Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University, a man who has won almost as many awards as she has. Active in many fields, he has devoted much of his writing and debating to education, and he has extolled the benefits of secularism and deplored the harm done to his country by the religious leadership and their insistence on hardline, unchanging traditionalism.

‘No major invention or discovery has emerged from the Muslim world for well over seven centuries now. That arrested scientific development is one important element—although by no means the only one—that contributes to the present marginalization of Muslims and a growing sense of injustice and victimhood.’ (‘Science and the Islamic World – The quest for rapprochement’, Physics Today, August 2007.)

In a compelling and insightful article, he examines the roots of the modern problem through four ‘metrics’: the quantity of scientific output, the role played by science and technology in national economies, the extent and quality of higher education, and the degree to which science is present or absent in popular culture.

“ŽHe cites a study from the International Islamic University in Malaysia, which shows that Muslim countries have a mere 8.5 scientists, engineers, and technicians per 1000 population, compared with a world average of 40.7 and 139.3 for countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Forty-six Muslim countries together contributed 1.17% of the world’s science literature, yet 1.66% came from India and 1.48% from Spain. Of the 28 lowest producers of scientific articles in 2003, no fewer than half belonged to Muslim countries. By another measure, he points out that his own country, Pakistan, has produced a mere 8 patents in 43 years. More Israeli (population 7.5 million) patents are registered in the United States than from Russia, India and China combined (combined population 2.5 billion).

He adds that “no Pakistani university, including QAU, allowed Mohammad Abdus Salam to set foot on its campus, although he had received the Nobel Prize in 1979 for his role in formulating the standard model of particle physics.” The reason? Abdus Salam belonged to the deeply unpopular and much persecuted Ahmadi sect (referred to by Malala), the only Islamic denomination to forbid jihad. Imagine any of my old universities (Dublin, Edinburgh, or Cambridge) refusing entry to a Nobel Prize winner who happened to be a Jew or a Muslim or a Seventh-Day Adventist.”Ž

This inability to match up to the challenges of the modern world has much to do with a reluctance to obtain knowledge from non-Muslim sources. The UN Arab Human Development Report for 2003 makes this clear:

given that ‘English represents around 85 percent of the total world knowledge balance,’ one might guess that ‘knowledge-hungry countries,’ the Arab states included, would take heed of the sway of English, or at the very least, would seek out the English language as a major source of translation. Yet, from all source-languages combined, the Arab world’s 330 million people translated a meager 330 books per year; that is, ‘one fifth of the number [of books] translated in Greece [home to 12 million Greeks].’ Indeed, from the times of the Caliph al-Ma’mun (ca. 800 CE) to the beginnings of the twenty-first century, the ‘Arab world’ had translated a paltry 10,000 books: the equivalent of what Spain translates in a single year.

Now, surely you’ve been wondering when I would get back to Israel. That was the real reason for my writing this piece. There is, of course, an enormous disparity between the scientific, medical, and technological work done in Israel, the Start-up Nation, and the near total absence of such work in Pakistan, with its 8 patents in 43 years. In part,it’s a failure of education for the population; but Hoodbhoy says that isn’t the real cause of the backwardness. More than anything, it’s a total failure of all Muslim societies to understand that proper knowledge is obtained through hard questions, painful criticism, and a lack of control over what may be asked or answered. When trivial religious reasons are cited for the banning of a book, when certain types of research are considered inappropriate or blasphemous, when academics or journalists can lose their jobs for daring to point out deficiencies in society or religion — obscurantism triumphs and whole populations are forced to live in the Dark Ages.”Ž

Critics of Malala say she has become a tool of the West, a Trojan Horse whose books attempts to bring dangerous Western views into the public arena. As usual, conspiracy theories abound, protecting Muslims from even the mildest of criticism, the very whiff of dialogue. It is this same obscurantism that has created in a majority of Muslims — Deobandis and Barelwis alike — the false idea that the state of Israel is inimical to Islam, that it wages war on innocent Muslims, that it is a modern embodiment of the Jewish conspiracies of the time of Muhammad, that Jews are bitter enemies of Muslims, and that it has been planted by the West in the Arab world to serve as a modern colony.

Sensible debate would have shown many years ago that Jews are not enemies and that Israel prefers to help Muslims, not hurt them — something it has demonstrated again and again yet never received much gratitude for. The Taliban use violence or the threat to use it, while other ‘ulama use other forms of threats to ensure their control over all intellectual issues, pretending they know God’s will and offering a wide range of social sanctions. In a country like Pakistan, where the very thought of shame can prompt a man to murder his wife or daughters, the mere suggestion of divine displeasure is more than enough to make all but the most foolhardy to pull back from controversy or the very breath of it. Apostates are killed.

It’s like this across the Muslim world, but the religious fanaticism is getting worse in country after country. Everywhere it is a way to sign your own death warrant just to say you like some Jews or that you visited Israel and found it a good place for a Muslim to be, or that you think Riff Cohen is cool (and she is!) or you are turned on by the laid-back voice of Ethiopian-Israeli singer Ester Rada or that hating Jews is a no-no or that it’s time for the Palestinians to build their state and to leave Israel alone. Or whatever. Palestinians have been executed for selling land to Jews. Your life isn’t yours when the self-appointed dictators of Islamic righteousness take over.

The backwardness of the Islamic mentality manifests itself in innumerable ways, but nowhere more than in hatred of the state of Israel. Like the postmodernist thinking that has infected so much of the Western left, this hatred rocks the known world from its moorings. Next time there’s an earthquake or a tsunami in the Muslim world, the governments concerned will help their people by refusing entry to the highly trained and experienced Israeli aid workers who have already helped the distressed in 140 countries. In 2004, following a major earthquake in Iran, Israelis offered aid: they were told where to go. Some years later, after a disaster in Pakistan, both Indian and Israeli volunteers were turned back at the border.

Left-wing activists call Israel a Nazi state and an apartheid state, when the opposite is true. The Malala Youssefzai case is a pale reflection of this, turning things round in accordance with the whims of bigoted and uneducated shaykhs. There are educated Muslim clerics, but few have more than a smattering of secular or Western knowledge. They don’t know how to read a book like The Satanic Verses or I Am Malala, and they can’t read a progressive, balanced country like Israel. Only rare men like Pervez Hoodbhoy speak out about the challenges faced by Pakistan, because they have had a secular education. Christians went through the Enlightenment and came out better for it. Jews went through the Haskalah and, to a large extent, became the kind of Jews who created modern Israel. But the Muslim world has known no Enlightenment and no Haskalah, hasn’t even had its own Reformation. It’s time politicians recognized that this is the source of the impasse between Israel and its neighbours. Politics are not, on the whole, the problem. The problem is unenlightened men who treat a progressive schoolgirl like a pariah.

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  • Typo: that can’t even provide even primary education

  • Ian Derek

    I applaud the authenticity and temper of this article. I am Jewish and (with some qualifications, irrelevant here) proud of Israel. In the 1980s I spent some time on an archaeological dig in Pakistan and returned there in following years to travel widely, including visiting Ahmadi sites. I retain a great affection for the place and had many good encounters and adventures in its magnificent landscape.
    Although I do not speak Urdu I appreciate its culture in music, poetry and architecture, and I remain fascinated by every stage of Indus history from Gandhara to Raj to Partition. I am still intrigued by Pakistan’s modern challenges and regret having to put travels plans aside after the horror of Daniel Pearl’s murder.
    My attitude now veers between a desire to build cultural bridges and total despair. This article gives me some faith.

    • Shahid Khan

      Ian says it well. Pakistan is an amazing genetic mix. From the European blood, to Asian, to Mongol, to African, to ancient Indian, it sits on the cross section of a corridor that has been travelled by many warrior nations over the last 3000 years. Pakistan is not against Judiasim or Jews. It will surprise some to find out that their religion requires them to bless the descendants of Abraham everyday. Majority of people hate what is happening there now. It all started, of course, with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Pakistan became the home of resistance and then after they left, the resistance turned ugly. It will also surprise some to know that more than 50000 totally innocent civilians have been killed by these terrorists. There is still no end in sight.

      • Shahid, You are wrong in one respect: Islam does not require its followers ‘to bless the descendants of Abraham everyday’. On the contrary, the Qur’an contains numerous verses in which the Jews are cursed. There are similar passages in the sira and ahadith. And Islamic history, though not as extreme as Christian history, is still anti-semitic. Saying (on the basis of the Qur’an) that Jews are ‘the sons of apes and pigs’ is hardly blessing them. Until Muslims find out ways of removing hate speech from the Qur’an (and injunctions to fight jihad), nothing will change. But you are right in everything else, and just the sort of person who can help Pakistan move forward.

        • Shahid Khan

          Dr. MacEoin:

          Here is why I said that. It is actually not once a day but many times day. When muslims pray, they recite the following: “blessings on Abraham, AND the descendants of Abraham.” I will send you the Arabic version if you wish. It does not say descendants except the children of Issac!!!

          Islam is a continuation of Judaism. All of the laws, stories, culture, dietary restrictions are borrowed from the laws of Moses. It is the only religion where the sacrifice of Abraham is celebrated to this day.

  • Shahid Khan

    I am a Muslim, born in Pakistan, and loved this article. Do not think that Hoodboy is alone. There is a huge silent majority in Pakistan that does not speak for fear of losing their head. I can because I was raised in the United States. As the author implies, education is the only route out of the ditch muslim world is in…go Malala.

  • Babs Barron

    Denis, this is an excellent, measured and highly informative analysis. Thank you for it.

    The penultimate paragraph is very apposite

  • It is interesting that European-style haskala was forced onto the Jews of the Muslim world by French Jews when they founded the Alliance Israelite Universelle schools after 1860. Such a western education saved the Jews by preparing them for the modern world, but on the other hand, it created a growing cultural gulf between local Jews and the Muslim majority.

  • Ger

    The author writes that there have been few inventions by the Muslims in several centuries. He is incorrect:- the explosive vest is clearly a Muslim invention of the 20th century.

  • Steven Korbin

    What kind of a religion must resort to a marketing campaign to extol its bona fides as one of “peace and tolerance?” My guess? The kind of religion that when compared to others least preaches and demonstrates these noble virtues. The kind of religion where every atrocity commited by one of its adherents is explained away as “antithtical” to its “true” teachings, and the perpetrator dismissed as not being a “true” follower. At what point does the evidence outweigh the rhetoric? While rhetorical in nature, the answer to that question is “a long time ago.” But for reasons beyond my grasp, the NON-believing parts of the world continue to placate a religion that by all measures is violent, or is at least in the grips of a violent ideology that goes unchallenged among its own adherents. What other religion on earth seems find itself in a constant state of conflict with its non-following neighbors wherever they come into contact? What other faith on earth provides religious justification for commiting the most atrocious acts of violence imaginable, celebrates the perpetrators of those acts as well as their deaths, encourages more to follow their “faithful” example, celebrates the deaths of the victims of that violence, and as a community pray for the absolute destruction of EVERYbody who disagrees with them? What kind of religion sanctions the attempted murder of a little girl for the crime of learning how to read? What kind of religion sanctions the murder of a woman in the name of “family honor?” What kind of religion is so competely rigid in its customs and beliefs that merely QUESTIONING it is a crime punishable by death? I’m a novice at this stuff. Even within its own ranks, the various sects of Islam “resolve” their theogical differences with violence. Even across the aisle those who’s beliefs and practices depart from their own, the answer is to silence the dissenting voice, almost invariably with violence. What kind of religion would forbid the asking of a series of harmless questions, like the ones posed here, and condemn an inquisitor for death merely for asking them. The answer is, a violent religion. A religion that is SO intolerant of dissenting views that dialogue itself, even the invitation to dialogue, can be viewed as blasphemous and place a death sentence upon anybody courageous enough to take such action.

    As forcefully explored in the article above, the contributions to humankind put forth by the followers of this religion over the past seven centuries are virtually non-existent. Ask yourself…when you hear the word “Islamic,” what is the first word that pops into your head? Is it “literature?” Is it “scientific achievement?” Is it “environmentalism” or “medical breakthrough” or “stand-up comic?” Most likely it’s “jihad” or “extremist” or “violence.”

    On college campuses across America, Arab and Palestinian students define themselves by their hatred for Israel, and their distinctive contributions to those campuses would appear to be the promotion of their hateful ideology towards Israel to others. Sadly, it’s working. As one Muslim nation after the next chips away at a meager foundation of civil liberties to begin with, the only nation targeted for condemnation and ostracism by these Arab and Muslim-American communities is the Jewish one. Unlike previous waves of immigrants, these seem to come here not to fulfill a dream of enjoying a better life and practicing the religion of their choosing, but to import with them a belief system of epic intolerance. Having no experience with actual “free speech” in their countries of origin, Muslims come to this country like children handed a loaded gun. Instead of the added security provided by a well trained peace officer, the armed child brings fear and insecurity. It seeks not to protect its own undeveloped sense of true free speech, but to use the new tool as a weapon to silence the voices of any who dare oppose it. By and large Muslims are not afforded the privilege of “shouting” and protesting in their countries of origin. This nation was FOUNDED on the premise that those very rights are essential to its very survival. Sadly, upon their arrival Muslims have abused the most precious of America’s civil liberties. By and large they seem inclined not to celebrate it by freely practicing their faith, but by observing it behind closed doors and encountering conflict everywhere they go. Can it logically be the case that Westerners are “disrespecting” Islam across the entire Western world? Has any other religous faith shared their experience on such a widespread scale and continuing basis? Whether it’s the Philiphines, or Thailand, or China, or Russia, Iraq, or Afganistan, or Myanmar…what is the obvious common thread that everybody is unwilling to talk about? Wherever in this worls there is violence rooted in religious conflict, what are the odds that followers of the Islamic faith are involved on one or both sides of that conflict? And in the midst of ALL this data…the international community chooses to turn its back on the tiny (and only coincidentally Jewish) State of Israel. Perhaps the cuckoo tried flying over the nest, but it misjudged the distance and smacked right into the wall. We’re living in a world that is tearing itself apart. Until people of “the” faith are allowed to ask questions currently punishable by death, how can they and “non-believers” be expected to reach common ground? It’s not happening. Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Lebanon, Somalia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Uzbekistan…etc. etc. Where on this planet are the supposed hallmarks of this “religion of peace and tolerance” on display? And what is the ONE thing in common that every one of those nations and throughout virtually every Muslim community on earth share? A seething hatred for Jews, Israel and a passionate desire to see its destruction. And then what? Then they can turn on the Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and every other faith incompatible with Islam. And then? Then they can focus on the inTRA-faith disputes that even now are resolved with violence and intolerance. If your store is going out of business, one of the first things you do is perform a thorough inventory. If you’re unwilling to do that and accept the facts for what they are, how can you possible expect to arrest the decline and start moving in a more positive direction. Right now the world is going out of business, and NObody appears willing to perform such an inventory. How them can anybody claim surprise when the shelves are completely barren and the cash register empty. We have some hard work to do. But NOTHING can start until we perform a thorough inventory and accept the results for what they are. Who’s REALLY doing what to whom out there…
    and why.

    And oh by the way, whether it’s Iran, Syria, Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood, Fatah, Hamas or the Palestianian Authority…what is the likelihood that in each and every instance the obstacle to “peace” is Israel. I suppose if you participate in one of the world’s most ancient and poisonous refrains…”it’s the Jews”…then the likelihood is in fact a certainty, and it is Israel that is to blame. What a shame, and what a tremendous waste of time, energy and resources. Anti-Semitism and its newest offspring “engineering” the destruction of the State of Israel is…well…it’s just plain stupid policy. You don’t start the construction of your own house by destroying your neighbor’s. You start the construction of your own house by poking your head through a hole in the fence and asking to borrow a hammer. Behind many an irrational action is a rigid belief system that breeds laziness, failure, anger and ultimately violence. “I can’t seem to get my design off the ground…so I’m gonna burn my neighbor’s to the ground.” Which then begs the ultimate question to all of this…how’s that workin out for ya?

    • Ron Southart

      Well said, Mr. Korbin.

  • Al Sheeber

    Is there an editor ?

  • Debra Michels

    Dear Dr. MacEoin,
    Thank you so much for taking the time to write this loving, intellilgent, fair and well-researched article. I’m going to share it with all my friends.

    It feels so comforting and reassuring to hear a voice that doesn’t hate, shame and blame Israel, and that “tells it like it is” about the obscurantism and power-tripping of pseudo-religious mullahs.

    Again, thank you so much for writing and publishing this. I hope to see your articles in many places in future. May God bless you in every way.

  • Beautiful. Thoughtful, full of information, and articulately stated. I would like to see the politically-coerced censorship crowd read this essay.

  • Miriam

    again and again it MUST be stated and restated it seems….Taliban are NOT Islam…they are extremist fundamentalists….every religious group has their extremists, fundamentalists . It is NOT only Hoodbhoy who speaks out…there are vast numbers who speak against extremists. Thanks though for the link to Aziz Mian’s performance. But he was one of many who sang such poetry to glory his faith. There is plenty of bigotry and ignorance to be found in societies…a trip to upstate NY or Montreal’s closed hasidic communities reveal another corner of human group is immune from stupidity, bigotry or extremism.

    • Babs Barron

      It’d be good if these people were known to us so that those who wanted could contact them and support them

      If you have read the koran you will know that it is redolent of Jew-hatred, a hatred which is translated and directed to the Jewish state. This is taught to Muslim children from a very early age.

      Although I agree that bigotry can be found anywhere you care to look for it, for you to compare hasidic communities with extremist Islam shows a very facile approach to this. Hasidim in NY do not perpetrate violence against women, they don’t honour kill women who have “shamed” them or explode themselves among the wider community because of real or imagined offence, and nor do they insist that everyone follow their example or religion.

  • Ronit Fraid

    Exactly right!


  • I sincerely pray God that Christ reveal Himself to both, young Malala and His people Israel.There is no power on Earth able to overcome the Holy Spirit.

  • Lynn K. Circle

    Great article!