Between Prime Minister of Pakistan, which 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai wants to become some day, and a Nobel winner for peace, which she might have become last week, the former is by far the better destiny. The Nobel generally comes to worthies when they have long passed their sell-by date; and the last peace winner whose name I can recall, President Barack Obama, has not fallen far short of a superpower’s quota for international violence. A gong and a cheque would certainly help Malala, not to mention a media anxious for saleable headlines. A political career would help Pakistan.
Yousafzai is a brave girl, as much for dreaming of a better future as for getting a bullet on a bus on her way to school from those who are wrecking her country. Gender oppression, of the very worst kind, is central to the DNA of Pakistani extremists seeking to drive a nation back to the days of jahiliya, or prejudice and ignorance, which is how the pre-Islamic tribal deserts of Arabia are often described. Islam won the hearts of Arab women by banning prevalent malpractices such as female infanticide. Pakistan’s Taliban, and its numerous terrorist associates, are a throwback to the 6th century, and a disgrace to the religion they profess.
This has not, alas, diminished their growing influence at the grassroots, or weakened the clamour among Pakistan’s political elite for a “negotiated settlement” with the Taliban. The question that is rarely asked, and never answered, is a simple one: What is there to negotiate? What should be on the agenda in a dialogue with sectarians who have made random murder their principal tactic, and perhaps the central principle of their ideology as well?
The Taliban and its surrogates, barely disguised by thin labels, want power. Is that on offer from Pakistan’s politicians? Does anyone want to appease them with a share of authority in regions north-west of the Indus? Their influence has already crept into legislation to a dangerous degree. No one can stop their rhetoric, blasted into public space through some mosques and public rallies. Can they be bought off with money? Unlikely, as they have enough funds from domestic as well as external sources. And here is a delicate question: Will they ever agree to cooperate by turning their guns only in areas which suit Pakistan’s covert interest, like Afghanistan or India, and leave cities like Peshawar and Quetta alone?
You cannot deal with inconvenient facts by pretending that they do not exist.
If Malala is in a British school today, it is because of them. If she hopes to challenge their vicious grip through elected office, it is because she knows how dangerous they are to the very sanity of Pakistan.
Malala is a teenager. She has every right to dream, particularly since she has been given a second life. Her dreams certainly make more sense than the rambling, shambling fantasies of a 70-year-old has-been like General Pervez Musharraf, who is obviously tired but will never be retired. Musharraf can, and probably should, escape to Dubai or America or wherever he can find a few dollars more, instead of looking desperately for power, and posturing as a “saviour”. Pakistan has moved far beyond him in some ways, even as it has regressed in other ways. But it is no longer a country for old dictators.
If Pakistan is going to be “saved” then it needs to become a nation with younger women and men in office, a new band of officials blessed by the fact that they do not carry the burden of recent history. It must become a land where Malala can return home. Malala has everything she could conventionally want at this age in Britain: an education, a future, and the laudatory attention of a British media that has been building her up in the expectation that she would win the Nobel. I am sure she wanted the Nobel even more than her well-wishers did. But she wants to bring peace to Pakistan, not to Britain. She wants to be a young woman in Lahore and Peshawar, not Bradford or Birmingham, to challenge the forces of misogyny and fanaticism which still command the streets.
What are the odds that this might happen? Not too good, if one were to be honest. Nawaz Sharif has become Prime Minister at the head of a stable government because voters believed that he could restore calm to a nation whose nerves are on edge, and whose peace of mind has been shattered. So far, Sharif seems to be travelling at a leisurely pace to nowhere. To be fair to him, he still has time. But if Sharif fails, Malala and her generation will have to confront another question: Is there nothing anyone can do?
A teenager who nearly lost her life, but never abandoned hope, does not need the counsel of despair. Dreams do not necessarily come true, but then how many get a second life?