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.”
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.