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Malala tells Muslims and Americans: Put Education First

By: R.K. Ramazani (First published by The Daily Progress on October 21, 2012)

Malala Yousafzai
online photo

For decades fundamentalist Muslims have been telling the world, “Islam is the solution” for all the problems of Muslim society. But Malala is saying, on the contrary, “Education is the solution,” because the holy book of the Muslims, the Quran, and the prophetic tradition (sunna) instruct Muslim women and men to seek knowledge as a matter of religious obligation.

The 14-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl was gunned down by the Pakistani Taliban attackers on Oct. 9. She had advocated boldly the right to education ever since she was 11 years old. She told the world in a blog, “I am afraid of going to school because the Taliban have issued an edict banning all girls from attending school.”

Many of the responses to this horrible attack are to be welcomed, including global revulsion, strong condemnation by the religious, political and military leaders of Pakistan, protests by tens of thousands of Pakistanis, a religious decree by 50 Muslim clerics who issued a fatwa against the attackers as “ignorant” of true Islamic teaching, and the United States’ denunciation of the “barbaric and cowardly” Taliban attack. But some broader implications of Malala’s vision still need to be drawn out.

Before she was attacked, Malala insisted, “I have the right to education, I have the right to speak up,” but more fundamentally she declared, “My purpose is to serve humanity and fight for their rights.” In her basic belief and mission, I find two hidden, but significant, messages for Muslims around the globe and for us Americans.

To Muslims, Malala says she recognizes that Islam claims today, as it has since it was born in the seventh century, that it has come to save humanity by showing “the straight path” (sarat el-mostaqim). She also knows that Muslims established an empire and created a great civilization whose contributions benefitted not only Muslims but also Christians. But in encountering the challenges of modernity brought by the projection of Western power into the Muslim world, particularly into the cradle of Islam in the Middle East, she believes that Muslim society has been torn in modern times between those believers who seek reconciliation between Islamic and modern values and those who reject Western values and instead seek to go back to a way of life based exclusively on a strict interpretation of Islamic teaching, without regard for the realities of modern world circumstances.

Malala advocates reconciliation between Islamic and Western civilizations, one that is centered on the bedrock of the right to education for women as well as men - that is, a kind of learning that is rooted in modern standards of life rather than the kind that millions of children across the Muslim world are getting in traditional Islamic madrassas by reciting the holy book, the Quran, and memorizing narratives (ahadith) of the Prophet Mohammad’s sunna. The Taliban is committed to this fossilized kind of education. The group’s supporters clearly admit that they targeted Malala and will attack her again if she survives, because she advocated secularism and moderation in Muslim society.

Militant Islamists like the Taliban do not hesitate to commit acts of violence against the people who think the Malala way. Their mission is to create an Islamic state that imposes an ultraconservative interpretation of Islamic law (sharia), whether such a state is to be created in Pakistan or again in Afghanistan where they used to rule before the American invasion in 2001, or for that matter anywhere else in the world.

An ominous and dangerous feature of such a revived traditional state is the banning of schools for girls. Malala feared the return of Taliban rule to the Swat Valley in Pakistan where she was living. The Taliban fellow-travelers, al-Qaida and their affiliates in the Middle East and North Africa, also seek to establish ultimately an Islamic world order or the historical caliphate.

To the United States, Malala says: Enough is enough. Your invasions and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq and your penchant for military intervention in the Muslim world are creating pervasive anti-Americanism. The United States is not believed when it preaches democracy while repeatedly putting its military boots on the ground.

After President Obama told the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa on May 19, 2011, that the U.S. support for “universal rights” is “a top priority, not a secondary interest,” it is reasonable to think that was when Malala considered him an ideal leader. But now, considering the raining down of drones on Pakistan, one wonders if she still thinks so.

Malala’s right to education is a “universal right” and her campaign demands that the U.S. make it “a top priority” in deed and not just in words. This idea of the right to education as a top priority in American foreign policy resonates more powerfully at the home of Thomas Jefferson and of the university he founded than anywhere else in the world. Malala wants the right to modern education and no one else has defined it better than Jefferson. To him, modern education meant “liberal” learning that would aim “to develop the reasoning faculty of our youth, enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order.”

As I have suggested elsewhere, the Obama administration should work with Congress to create a comprehensive educational Marshall Plan for the broader Middle East (“Jefferson’s Dialogue with the Contemporary World: Education and Diplomacy,” Middle East Policy, Fall 2011, pages 161-164).

The Taliban’s savage attack on Malala is a critical reminder that U.S. foreign policy needs urgently to accord a high, if not the highest, priority to education, especially in the Muslim world.

R.K. Ramazani is Edward R. Stettinus professor emeritus of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia, his intellectual home for 60 years.

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