Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, spurring all sorts of congratulatory remarks from around the world, but the Pakistani education and women’s rights activist is still controversial in her home country.
Conspiracy theories relating to her connection to Western countries began to circulate around Yousafzai soon after she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman on her way home from school in October of 2012.
The Taliban have vowed to kill Yousafzai should she return to Pakistan, but militants are not the only ones who are hostile to her — or suspicious of her latest international accolade.
“I condemn this decision in the strongest possible words,” Tariq Khattak, an former reporter for the Pakistan Observer, told the BBC Newshour. “It’s a political decision, a motivated one…And the father of Malala and Malala have done nothing at all. Her father is a good salesman, that’s it. And the daughter has also become a salesgirl. And they are dancing on the tunes of West.
I wrote for the Katmandu-based Himal Southasia soon after the attack: “As she clung to life in those first few days after the attack, widely-circulated text messages suggested that had Malala been killed in the conflict raging through the volatile city of Karachi, she would never have been called the ‘daughter of a nation.’ Many began to suggest that the Taliban-led assassination attempt was in fact a carefully-plotted scheme meant to justify a renewed excursion by the Pakstani army into the country’s northwest frontier.”
This meme, which made the rounds on social media in Pakistan, encapsulates the notion that the attempt on Yousafzai’s life was part of a scheme to increase American influence in the country.
In the days after their attack on the then 14-year-old, an unnamed spokesperson for the Pakistani Taliban announced that Yousafzai was targeted because of her politics, not her activism.
“We did not attack her for raising voice for education,” he said. “We targeted her because she would speak against the Taliban while sitting with shameless strangers and idealized the biggest enemy of Islam, Barack Obama.”
Even now that Yousafzai has, along with Indian children’s rights activist Kailash Satyarthi, won one of the most prestigious humanitarian awards in the world, she continues to draw derision.
This Twitter exchange exemplifies much of it:
These sentiments and theories, to be sure, don’t apply to everyone in Pakistan. Many took to Twitter to offer their best wishes to Malala. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was jubilant about her award, calling her “the pride of Pakistan.”
“Her achievement is unparalleled and unequaled,” he said. “Girls and boys of the world should take lead from her struggle and commitment.”
But Pakistanis do have something of a track record for defaming those of their compatriots who seem to be otherwise universally lauded.
Abdul Salam, who was a joint winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work in modeling particles and mapping the forces that govern the universe, has been subject to similar scorn. The Muslim minority group to which Salam belonged are frequent targets of militant attacks.
Ahmedis who call themselves Muslims could be subject to the Pakistan’s stringent blasphemy laws, which carry a punishment of death. They may not even be safe after death. Salam’s gravestone was inscribed with the words “First Muslim Nobel Laureate,” but the words were rubbed out according to orders from a local magistrate.
Although Salam’s work has now been recognized as an essential component in the discovery of the “God particle.”
Imagine a world where a merchant of death is rewarded, while a scientific visionary is disowned and forgotten.
CNN’s Christiane Amanpour noted on her show in July of 2012:
Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s only Nobel laureate, the first Muslim to win the physics prize, helped lay the groundwork that led to the Higgs boson breakthrough. And yet in Pakistani schools, his name has been erased from the textbooks.
That’s because Abdus Salam, who died in 1996, was a member of the Ahmadiyya sect, considered heretics by the Sunni majority and barred by an act of parliament from even calling themselves Muslims.
In sharp contrast, another Pakistani physicist, the infamous A. Q. Khan, a Sunni, is lionized as the father of his country’s atomic bomb, even though he’s confessed to spreading the technology to some of the world’s most dangerous regimes, including Iran, North Korea and Libya.
Abdus Salam is officially forgotten in his own country. But his life’s work lives on, a quantum leap towards understanding our universe.
While international prizes note their individual accomplishments, their criticisms in Pakistan seem to have more to do with who they’re connected to than what they have struggled so tirelessly to achieve.
In remarks after her school day ended in Birmingham where she now lives, Yousafzai said, “I have received this award, but this is not the end of this campaign which I have started. I think this is really the beginning. I want to see every child go to school.”