Pakistan’s Malala Problem: Teen Activist’s Global Celebrity Not Matched at Home

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Niu Xiaolei / Xinhua Press / Corbis

Malala Yousafzai and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrive at the U.N. headquarters in New York City on July 12, 2013

Last Friday, Malala Yousafzai took to the podium at the U.N. It was her 16th birthday and her first major public appearance since the Taliban’s attempt to assassinate the Pakistani schoolgirl last October for her efforts to promote girls’ education. Traces of the near-fatal attack were still visible, as the disfiguring on the left side of her face showed. But as she demonstrated in a powerful and moving speech, her resolve had not dimmed.

Malala issued a simple plea: she wanted the world’s leaders to offer children free and compulsory education. She said that she wanted to wage a war against illiteracy and terrorism, but had no use for the tools of violence. “Let us pick up our books and our pens,” Malala urged. “They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.” The audience, both inside the U.N. hall where she spoke and among the many who saw the speech live on television around the world, responded with tearful applause. Former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown hailed Malala as “the most courageous girl in the world.”

(MORE: Saving Malala)

Back home in Pakistan, however, the reaction was depressingly mixed. Malala’s supporters were thrilled to see her defy the Taliban militants who tried to silence her. They were impressed by her message of forgiveness, saying that she did not “even hate the Talib who shot me.” Some of the country’s main television channels showed her speech live; most did not. There were a few politicians like former cricket legend Imran Khan who tweeted tributes to her bravery. But even as the world was marking Malala Day, as the U.N. had named it, the Pakistani government didn’t bother to register the occasion.

The most troubling were the many voices that denounced Malala and her speech as “a drama” — a colloquial expression commonly used to describe a stunt or a hoax. When Malala was shot nine months ago, there was widespread sympathy. On television, messages of solidarity were broadcast. Children in mosques, churches and temples were shown holding candlelight vigils. But since then, the mood has turned dark, and Malala has become the object of widespread and lurid conspiracy theories.

(MORE: Malala Yousafzai: The Latest Victim in the War on Children in Pakistan)

Even as she spoke at the U.N., disparaging comments began to trickle into social-media websites that, throughout the day, turned into a venomous torrent. On Twitter, many denounced Malala as a “CIA agent,” then, in the contradictory traditions of conspiracy theories, said she had been “attacked by the CIA.” There were links to obscure blogs where elaborate tales were woven, while images floated around purporting to show that her wounds had been “faked.” There were those who said she hadn’t been hurt at all, while others were suspicious of her global fame. The messages were in the thousands.

(VIDEO: Malala Yousafzai Gives First Public Address Just Months After Being Shot in the Head by the Taliban)

It doesn’t matter that the conspiracy theories make no sense. The fact that Malala had been shot by the Taliban was confirmed by the militant group itself, which boasted of its crime. Doctors in Pakistan, the U.K. and the UAE saw and treated her wounds. She didn’t, as another yarn claimed, flee for a British passport. There are far easier ways to do that than get shot. She remains a Pakistani citizen, and her father is an employee of the Pakistani consulate in Birmingham, England. It is also never explained what use the CIA — or any intelligence agency — would have for her. Her only contribution has been to promote the right to go to school, something that can only benefit a country where fewer than half of the children complete primary school and a pitiful proportion of state revenues are spent on education.

Conspiracy theories have long enjoyed a rare potency in Pakistan. It is perhaps a consequence of languishing under dictatorship for half of its history, with citizens having little say in the decisions that affect their lives. Until recently, the press was tightly muzzled. Even now, it is careful about what it can and cannot say. The system of governance remains opaque, with little light being allowed in, and thus, talks of shadowy plots often fill the darkness. People don’t understand how the world works around them or how cataclysmic events suddenly come to dominate their lives, and so readily latch on to whatever easy explanations are on offer.

(MORE: The Road to Recovery: Malala Yousafzai Discharged From Hospital)

The phenomenon was much in evidence earlier this month, when a government commission’s report in to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden was leaked. Throughout the report, the authors noted how government officials leaned heavily on conspiracy theories. Admirably, the report resisted those temptations itself, often pushing back against them. But after the report’s emergence, a series of retired government officials appeared on television to still denounce the episode as “a drama,” denying that bin Laden was ever in Abbottabad, despite the evidence on offer. Hamid Gul, a retired general and former head of the premier spy agency, even went as far as to say that the al-Qaeda leader’s presence in Pakistan shouldn’t be considered “a failure” but “an achievement.”

Advances in technology have led to a proliferation of conspiracy theories against the backdrop of Pakistan’s fight against Islamist militancy. Tales no longer travel slowly by word of mouth. They are instantly communicated to thousands, and further shared, in a constantly reverberating online echo chamber. For many Pakistanis, there is genuine confusion over the roots of the Pakistani Taliban’s terrorism campaign that has led to the deaths of tens of thousands in recent years. When mosques are bombed, they wonder how Muslims can bomb other Muslims, despite the long and bloody history of such violence.

(MORE: How Malala Yousafzai May Affect Pakistan’s Violent Culture Wars)

It becomes more comforting to cast blame on “outside actors.” Incidents like the appearance of Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor who shot two men in Lahore in 2011, do end up lending some substance to these claims. It is perhaps inevitable that Pakistanis wonder how many other foreign intelligence agents lurk in the streets and bazaars. Enduring drone attacks, which have killed many innocent civilians, have led to a sharp rise in anti-American feeling. It is part of the reason why some spurned Malala as a local hero. Her acceptance by the West led to her being rejected at home.

But a deepening sense of denial makes it difficult for Pakistan to confront its enemies at home. The new government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had said that it would like to negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban to end domestic terrorism. But the militants don’t appear willing to talk. In the few weeks Sharif has been in office, a reported 32 terrorist attacks have claimed some 250 lives. For that trend to stop, more Pakistanis will have to see past the conspiracy theories. It is impossible to take on a threat you refuse to see.

MORE: TIME’s Person of the Year 2012 Candidate: Malala Yousafzai

272 comments
embee45
embee45

@TIME @marvi_memon bcoz we know that you ppl r not sincere, why not kashmiri girls. Just tarnishing image Malala the girl shot by Pakistanis

brettochampion
brettochampion

While it is a shame that numerous Pakistanis resort to conspiracy theories to explain acts of evil committed by their own countrymen right in their own neighborhoods, I highly doubt that the resort to such tactics is all that unique to any single country or people. Conspiracy theories run rampant in the West as well, despite the much freer press in our societies. The difference is in what the conspiracy theories are about.

YousufGhauri
YousufGhauri

Lets learn how to be pride with the brave daughters of our nation like MALALA. feel the pleasure & pride please, we have brave & bold daughters too 

DrAsfandyar
DrAsfandyar

@TIME basically malala story is photocopy of story of bombay attack

fanofPTI
fanofPTI

Jews & Christine don't want to unite muslim, because they are afraid from them and they are creating conspiracy in the Muslims. @TIME

barbarikon
barbarikon

@Yasmeen973 This is a deranged qaum. It wants a beta. BetiyaN bojh hotee haeN, don't you know?

AminTehmina
AminTehmina

@razaahmad The world is with Malala,its high time the whole of Pakistan should accept her & be proud of her!

AsifMah19548959
AsifMah19548959

malala day was a drama.. a CIA transpired drama.. she may have been injured but the so called taliban deliberately did not kill her.. how on earth  taliban would have missed their target from point blank range when they have been successful in very attempt they have made in target killing. CIA should stop interfering in pakistan and let us live our libes as a free nation.. when CIA and RAW will be out of pakistan... there will be no more killings and bomb attack but peace everywhere...

SAGEROIT44
SAGEROIT44

The state of Pakistan is regressing socially. The shooting of the teenage girl Malala is not an isolated incident. The problem is with the backward mindset of the people; they live in a time warp; they are always nostalgic about the glory days of the Mughal Empire and the Caliphate.

In the US, I come across Pakistanis frequently. Pakistanis are rude, they have this know-it-all attitude; they think they are morally superior. All this in spite of Pakistan is being a failed state and one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Pakistan has nuclear weapons, but it fails to provide basic services such as electric power and water to its people because the Pakistan military, government entities, and private sector do not pay utility bills. Army and government officials pocket the money allocated for utility bills investing the money in US and Canada through relatives and surrogates. They invest in gas stations, convenience stores, and laundries; many of these businesses also serve as front for drug dealers.

arfaiqbal_iqbal
arfaiqbal_iqbal

@TIME because malala was working for USA she is agent for them so all the word behind here and also our govt also sport to USA policy

Phil Smith
Phil Smith

Governments don't always represent the feeling of a nation. It is sad that this young girl is being paraded round in a media frenzy and all politicians are climbing over each other to get a photograph with her, but on the other hand, can you blame her? The taliban never tried to shoot me in the head when I was walking to school in the UK.

JackJack
JackJack

In all wars the first casualty is the truth. She is a nice and sweet girl who is being abused for nefarious purposes (also called politics). If she were on the receiving end of a drone strike you would never have heard her name. Now that our 'enemies of our own creation' have attacked her, she is hailed as a hero. We are such sheep... Peace.

curryman
curryman

@filter_c Says a lot about Pakistan society that they would condemn a young girl for wanting to educate girls.

Baaghipk
Baaghipk

Why dont UN celebrates "Innocent Children Killed by US Drones Day" Who in Pakistan can meet Sen. John Kerry? Malala has pictures with him and his father mother are sitting in a meeting with heads of CIA, I wonder how many other children can actually go meet CIA officials in Pakistan.

Malala is a Drama & thats it, her father is paid well by CIA & MI6 for conspiracy & treason against Pakistan.

yasmeen_9
yasmeen_9

@sheharyarizwan @TIME I do not see it as a problem, 'Liberals' should stop trying forcing her down the nation's cumulative throats.

Siddz7
Siddz7

@TIME @OmarWaraich Malala a brave child but we have worse issues that should be standing on UN podium.

Siddz7
Siddz7

@TIME @OmarWaraich Here in Pak everything looks a stunt & why shdnt it be? Dint u here abt the Indian officer exposing Mumbai attacks drama?

Siddz7
Siddz7

@TIME @OmarWaraich This is the only conspiracy. Drones!!! I would opt for life first and only then for a book. I should b alive to read..no?

Siddz7
Siddz7

@TIME @OmarWaraich It's just that children don't live to get education. They are droned. UN silent. No day against innocent droned children?

SabaDabbaDoo
SabaDabbaDoo

@OmarWaraich its the same conspiracy theories Pakistan seems to have for every criticism against it. Blame US or India w/ no hard evidence

moss4u
moss4u

@ninoqazi UN nd its member nation shud help Pakistan in spreading education. Only portraying malala nd practically doing nothing .

razaahmad
razaahmad

@AminTehmina our collective ego is more important apparently.. how dare the west glorify one of our own (when we did nothing to protect her)

MarcusKhaleeq
MarcusKhaleeq

@AsifMah19548959 It is a conspiracy theory again. Why don't you throw them out. Is there anything you can do on your without foreign aid??

MarcusKhaleeq
MarcusKhaleeq

@arfaiqbal_iqbal @TIME Atleast Pakistan has one clever Girl so young working for CIA has become the most Popular Pakistani in the world. Great and thank you.

Siddz7
Siddz7

@TIME @OmarWaraich Had Malala been killed today, Even that Brave girl cdnt have done anything to change her situation.

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@Siddz7 @TIME @OmarWaraich 

you claimed that of 800 civilian deaths, 96 were children. so 96 children didn't live to receive an education. that's nothing compared to the millions of young girls who aren't allowed to go to school, to learn to read, to leave the house, etc. 

ninoqazi
ninoqazi

@moss4u UN should, the World should? Stop asking others...let's just do it ourselves..mental shift please.

AminTehmina
AminTehmina

@razaahmad Sometimes people stop using their brains & start blabbering without making sense!

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@Siddz7  

i'd argue that oppressing millions of women is a bigger deal than 800 deaths.  the deaths are very unfortunate, don't get me wrong, but 800 compared to roughly 90 million? don't think so

moss4u
moss4u

@ninoqazi tell that to ur media as well. I know they r just showcasing some irrelevant thing. On grounds in 90 out of 100 don't care Malala